What does Jussi Halla-aho really want?
By Esa Mäkinen
A conscientious objector to military service who has shooting for a hobby, a former waiter with a PhD in linguistics, a member of the right-wing populist True Finns party living in the upscale Helsinki neighbourhood of Eira.
“Contradiction” is a word that suits Jussi Halla-aho well.
In the municipal elections he got 3,000 votes in Helsinki with his passionate online postings opposed to immigration. After the municipal elections, Professor Emeritus Tuomo Martikainen said of the gains made by the True Finns that the “nightmare of right-wing populism is here now”.
Halla-aho, who is not a member of any party (although he ran as a candidate of the True Finns), became a celebrity personifying the opposition to immigration that the True Finns promote.
The newspaper Ilta-Sanomat covered his election as a massive vote-winner - a good few sitting MPs received less support on election day than did Halla-aho. The women’s organisation of the Green League asked police to investigate an online article, in which Halla-aho said that he hopes that instead of outsiders, foreigners would rape red-green women - the ones whom he blames for increased immigration.
There is much more outlandish writing in his blog.
“The imams are building, on European soil, in their mosques paid for by Europeans, a fanatic robot army without free will, whose only task is to destroy Western society.”
But let’s not go into immigration yet.
On a snowy hill in the embassy quarter of Eira stands a stone building with thick walls, and on its steps is the owner: a thin, man wearing trousers with pockets on its legs, smoking a cigarette.
This is not an area where very many people with doctorates in the humanities with low incomes would live, but the family of Halla-aho’s wife has been lucky. Her grandfather, a dealer in real estate, built a house in a good location.
Halla-aho’s study, which is located in the cellar, is said to be cramped and cluttered. Walking around toys strewn on the floor, he guides his guest into the kitchen of his home. The apartment seems small for a family of three.
Halla-aho speaks in a pleasant, calm voice, weighing his words thoroughly, adding the occasional joke.
Do you plan to run for Parliament in 2011?
“If nothing unexpected happens, it would be difficult to explain to myself or to others, why I would not. But that is still a long way off - plenty of time to start drinking, or to get religion.”
The 37-year-old Halla-Aho, who grew up in Tampere, travelled to the Soviet Union in the 1980s with his father, who was a bus driver. He saw that things were in bad shape. It was the spark for his anti-leftist convictions.
“People here sang songs of praise to such a system. It is an insult to the universe, and to common sense.”
After finishing training to become a waiter, he noticed that the profession required more social skills than he could muster. The young man, who had studied Russian at school applied for the University of Helsinki in 1995.
“Jussi was a good Social Democrat in the traditional sense of the word at that time - an ordinary rosy-cheeked Finnish youth”, a friend recalls.
Other acquaintances also took him for a leftist. Halla-aho says that this was a misconception, borne of the “red-green assumption” prevailing at the university.
Two years ago Halla-aho defended his doctoral dissertation in linguistics, on the “Historical Morphology of the Slavic Languages”. He met his wife, also a PhD, in connection with a university project. They now have three children.
When Halla-aho worked as a teacher at the Russian Department of the University of Helsinki, he put articles on the Internet on immigration and freedom of speech.
Some colleagues were outraged, and a journalist asked the head of the department how something like this can be published. The complaint was the final straw for Halla-aho: after that he began to be truly provocative.
Eventually there was no work for him at the Russian department. Halla-aho says that his writings may have been one reason.
“It was initially somewhat shocking to realise that it is possible to end up with real problems by having the wrong opinion about things.”
Now he is writing a Ukrainian-Finnish dictionary with the help of a grant.
Halla-aho and his blog are a rare phenomenon in Finnish politics. In it, he has attracted a following, with nearly no advertising, or use of the traditional media. The blog has 5,000 daily readers.
With the help of his blog, Halla-aho can be in direct contact with his supporters, who also collect information for him.
Some supporters call him “Master”. Halla-aho finds this somewhat embarrassing, and he says that it is a joke.
“If someone goes into the guest book to rebuke us, we’ll take the name they call us into use. This certainly originates from our opponents, that there are disciples worship a Master.”
Angered by articles about him, Halla-aho wrote in his guest book “Off you go to the comment section of [the website of] Ilta-Sanomat. Spam and destroy!”
“It was a joke”, Halla-aho says, once again.
Kindred spirits have established dozens of blogs, which imitate Halla-aho’s long-winded writing style built on irony. However, to put it delicately, they do not do it in quite as civilised a manner.
Halla-aho, a member of the nationalist Suomen Sisu organisation, has become an Internet apostle for opponents of immigration. Internet racists are writing less frequently about lazy black people who take jobs away form honest Finns. Opponents of immigration have learned to speak about problems related to clashes of cultures, religions, and collisions.
“I do not like the personification of this issue, either in the good or bad sense. This is not a Halla-aho ideology that is spreading, but rather a certain healthy approach”, he says.
So what is it that Halla-aho is promoting?
His basic message is that immigration is a threat to Europe, to the “singing West”. In his view not all of those who come here want to respect the ideals of freedom and equality. He paints pictures of ghettos of marginalised, people, of rising crime, and of unemployed refugees who burden the Western economy.
“Nearly all problems linked with immigration involve Islam - or not Islam, but rather the Muslims”, he says.
“The whitewashing of Islam, by referring to its writings or its history, which Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila likes to do, is not constructive in any way.”
According to Halla-aho, work-based, and humanitarian immigration need to be separated from each other. Immigrants who move to find work are not harmful, while refugees are.
“Humanitarian immigration is clearly negative in its balance.”
Halla-aho sees the present discussion on immigration as focussing on lofty speeches, which ignore real problems. In his view, lurking in the background is an ideology of “multiculturalism” based on national self-loathing.
Halla-aho sees multiculturalism as seeing immigrants as a richness as such. It links together everything that Halla-aho opposes.
“The most intense supporters of multiculturalism are turncoat communists”, Halla-aho says. “I do not feel that I support any ideology. I oppose it.”
A traditional characteristic of political populism is that of opposing things, instead of putting forward constructive proposals. Halla-aho does have concrete proposals, but not very many.
“Money should simply be channelled away from all kinds of feelgood festivals - World Villages, and the Caisa Cultural Centre into Finnish language education for immigrants”, Halla-aho says.
In addition, he proposes that the status of Swedish as the second national language should be abolished. He feels that Swedish in Finland should be seen on a par with Sami, spoken in Finnish Lapland. Halla-aho would also make the financing of development aid voluntary, and he would implement the tough asylum policy that is in use in Denmark.
Many have seen Halla-aho’s writings as racist, and no wonder. At times hate emerges from between the lines, and sometimes from the lines themselves. He is no fanatical Nazi; he is more a 19th century colonialist in the spirit of Rudyard Kipling: the white man’s burden is that of the superiority of his own culture and the obligations that stem from it.
In his texts, Halla-aho confuses foreigners, immigrants, Muslims, and Somalis. For instance, he might first speak about crimes committed by immigrants in General, and then give as examples newspaper articles making reference to black men.
Halla-aho has denied on many occasions that he is anti-foreigner. He says that he is “critical of immigration”.
“Contrary to those who direct the present immigration policy, I do not lie deliberately”, Halla-aho says.
Still, he is not very meticulous in verifying his sources: figures put forward in individual articles are repeated over and over again.
Halla-aho claims, for instance, that Somalis commit 12 per cent of all robberies. In reality, the average over a number of years is four per cent.
“I could have checked this. Nevertheless, four per cent with a 0.2 per cent share of the population is a rather high proportion”, he answers.
Halla-aho claims that immigrants commit half of all rapes in Finland. Researcher Hannu Niemi of the National Research Institute of Legal Policy says that most foreign rapists in Finland are Estonians or Finns who have lived in Sweden. Police say that foreigners account for 19 per cent of rapes, but the researcher says that the figure does not take into account the many rapes committed by Finns, which often go unreported. Halla-aho does not feel that the numbers presented by the researcher are credible.
Halla-aho claims that 61 per cent of Somalis are unemployed. According to fresh figures, it is 44 per cent and falling. He does not comment on this, because he has not seen the report.
In spite of everything, Halla-aho deserves some credit. Debate on immigration has been one-sided, and has taken on liturgical tones. Not all causes of irritation felt by Finns can be blamed on intolerance. And in light of research, immigrants really do commit crimes more frequently than the native population. This is discussed so rarely that many people see the information put forward by Halla-aho as revelations.
A greater problem involves integrating intolerance with tolerance. In Sweden there was an uproar when a Swedish man forcibly shook the hands of three Muslim women on television. Where would Finnish society draw the line?
Nevertheless, Halla-aho’s claims are exaggerated.
In Finland, people have traditionally played with two decks of cards: the political liturgy has been tolerant, but immigration policy has been very restrictive in practice. One example of this is that of the 15 old members states of the EU, Finland has the third least immigrants.
“But that’s not significant.”
Halla-aho claims that it is not significant, because the foreign population is growing rapidly, and for the wrong reasons. Nowadays Finland has 170,000 people who speak a non-domestic language as their mother tongue. There are a total of 28,000 who speak Somali, Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkish.
It doesn’t sound much like a sinking ship.
Halla-aho also seems to lack empathy. A recent doctoral thesis by Ilkka Pirinen says that 57 per cent of adult asylum-seekers living in Finland have had experiences of torture.
What does Halla-aho say to that?
“What is the source of that information? The asylum-seeker himself. Is it in his interest to claim that he has been tortured? Yes.”
So you don’t believe these stories?
“No, because they do not have the power of proof. It could be that they have been tortured, but in any case, it is in their interest to say that they have been tortured.”
Then Helsinki’s most controversial politician goes silent. The silence is broken only by the fan of the computer humming on the table.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 30.11.2008
Previously in HS International Edition:
Great ideological disparity among True Finns in Helsinki region (28.10.2008)
Soini defends True Finns party against accusations of xenophobia (9.10.2008)
Green women’s organisation considers filing criminal report against True Finns councillor Jussi Halla-aho (14.11.2008)
Mayor Jussi Pajunen concerned about growth in immigration (2.12.2008)
ESA MÄKINEN / Helsingin Sanomat