STOCKHOLM (AP) — One refused to shake hands with a female journalist. Another compared Israel to Nazi Germany. A third was seen doing hand signs associated with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood in the background of a live TV broadcast.
The behavior of some Muslim members of Sweden's Green Party, which is part of a coalition government since 2014, has sparked concerns that the small environmentalist group may have been infiltrated by Islamists.
It also has triggered a wider discussion about whether Sweden has tried so hard to be inclusive and tolerant toward migrants that it's failed to stand up for its own feminist ideals.
"In our eagerness to embrace a diverse and multicultural society, we have turned a blind eye to undemocratic views," said Gulan Avci, a lawmaker for the Liberals, a center-right opposition party.
Green Party leaders said Monday there's no evidence of Islamists influencing party policies, but admitted the party needs a "reset" with greater focus on environmental issues.
The party's problems started when Housing Minister Mehmet Kaplan, a Green Party member and former leader of a Swedish Muslim youth group, resigned last week after media reports that he had contacts with ultra-nationalists and Islamists in his native Turkey. Though he denied any wrongdoing and the party leadership defended him until the end, he stepped down when a video surfaced of Kaplan comparing Israel's treatment of Palestinians to how the Nazis persecuted Jews.
Trying to cool things down, Green Party co-leader Asa Romson only made them worse when she went off on a bizarre tangent in a TV interview, describing the Sept. 11 attacks as "accidents." She later clarified that she condemns the attacks.
But it didn't end there. New images emerged where Kaplan and other Muslim members of the Green Party were seen holding up four fingers, a hand gesture used by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. One of them, a Green Party youth leader, walked into the picture during a live broadcast on Swedish television and flashed the sign behind the presenter.
The gesture isn't illegal in Sweden but many Green Party members questioned whether the brotherhood's conservative views are compatible with the feminist and gay-friendly platform of the Swedish Greens.
The biggest outcry came after Yasri Khan, a 30-year-old running for a seat on the Green Party's executive board, refused to shake the hand of a Swedish TV reporter. He said shaking hands with someone from the opposite sex is too "intimate," and instead put his hand on his heart in a Muslim greeting.
A ferocious debate ensued in Sweden with Khan's critics calling his behavior insulting to women and his supporters dismissing the criticism as Islamophobia. Even Prime Minister Stefan Lofven weighed in, saying that in Sweden "you shake hands with both women and men."
Dismayed, Khan withdrew his candidacy for the Green Party executive board and also quit his seats on a regional board and city council. He told The Associated Press he's keeping his party membership for now, though he questioned whether practicing Muslims still are welcome in the party.
"I think the Green Party needs to work on their inclusive values," he said. "How do you combine diversity and religion with an ethnocentric and prejudiced idea of gender equality?"
Asked whether he would describe himself as an Islamist, he said he doesn't even know what the word means.
"If it means a practicing Muslim who is contributing to politics, then I'm an Islamist — or was, since I'm leaving. But if it means a terrorist or against gender equality then I am as far away from an Islamist as you can get," Khan said.
Like many Muslims, he said he was drawn to the Greens because of their embrace of diversity, human rights and "all kinds of people who stood up for green politics."
Critics question whether the Greens opened their ranks to members who care more about promoting their religion than the environment.
"People who are close to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is an Islamist party, obviously have a big foothold in the Green Party," Lars Nicander, a security expert at the Swedish Defense University, told Sweden's TV4. He compared it to how Soviet agents tried to infiltrate political parties in the West during the Cold War.
The Greens didn't dismiss his theory outright.
"Even though at this point there are no indications that fears of an infiltration are real, the Green Party will go ahead and investigate our potential vulnerability to infiltration," senior party officials Jon Karlfeld and Anders Wallner wrote in an opinion piece.
There are no official statistics on Muslims in Sweden because authorities don't register people by their religion. Estimates range between 100,000 and nearly 500,000. However, it's clear that immigration from Muslim countries has changed the makeup of Swedish society, though many of the refugees who have come to Sweden are Christians or non-practicing Muslims.
Far-right sympathizers have used the Green Party's woes to bash Muslims, but the most outspoken critics also include non-practicing or moderate Muslims who want to keep religion out of politics in Sweden, one of the world's most secular countries.
Avci, the Liberals lawmaker who has Kurdish roots, said Swedes should insist that migrants accept the country's core values, such as gender equality. By not doing so, she said, they are letting down refugees who have fled religious oppression in their homelands, "above all girls and women who have been forced to live unfree in an honor culture."