On Swedish initiative, two major international conferences
have recently been held on Euro-Islam
focusing on the relations between Europe and the Muslim world. At the same time,
Islam is today a part of Europe, and as we have been talking of Eastern
Christianity it may be Western Islam. During the last ten years, much research
has been done on the Muslim presence in Europe.
France today stands with a tradition of extending full
citizenship to the immigrants but an argument is going on about the lack of
legitimacy for the assimilation project. Instead the respect for cultural
differences seems to have merged as a value and the same time citizenship seems
to have lost its meaning due to social disintegration and exclusion from the
labour market. The various so-called veil campaigns are a sign of a new Muslim
In Germany, the notion of ‘guest-worker’ expected the
immigrants to return to their country and it has been difficult to acquire
German citizenship. There is today a fear of what is named cultural ghettos
being established, and at the same time a growing awareness that Muslim groups
should be part of the German society.
In Britain with a liberal and pluralist approach from the
authorities, the political mobilisation of Muslim immigrants starting with
Bradford 1989 has become a vehicle for the expression of frustration and anger.
Islamic communalism has created a feeling of a different and separate identity
that challenges the British State.
In this article, I will present the Swedish experience in
this regard -- a country as far away from traditional Muslim settlements as
possible in Europe, and a country without direct colonial aspirations during the
last centuries but today changing to a multi-cultural society through
Encounters in the Past
We know about several historical encounters between the
Nordic and the Muslim countries through the centuries. As an example, the
emissary of the Baghdad Caliphate, Ibn Fadlān, in his writings from 922 is one
of the best-preserved accounts about pre-Christian Swedish customs and habits.
Excavations on the Swedish islands of Gotland and Oland have revealed nearly
800,000 coins with Arabic inscriptions. The presence of the coins is due to
trading and a result of the sometimes rather intense expeditions of the Vikings.
Muslims in present day Sweden
The number of Muslims living in Sweden is not easy to find
out. However, the overwhelming majority consists of immigrants and their
offspring. Immigrants are registered, based on the country of origin but not
referring to religion. In the 1960s labour immigrants arrived from Turkey and
Yugoslavia, in the 70s as refugees from North Africa, Palestine, Lebanon and
Pakistan, in the 80s from Iran, Iraq and Somalia, and in the 90s from the former
Statistics of immigration from almost all of these
countries also include Christians, which implies you cannot say that everyone
coming from a specific country is Muslim. The Muslim immigrants represent very
well a cross section of the community of believers, the Muslim Ummah, and the
question in Sweden as well as in all the West is how to face the Muslim
population and the way their faith and practice will turn out in their new
settings. To be registered as a Muslim in Sweden, you need to voluntarily join a
Muslim organization. The membership-account is held by the organization. Anyhow,
when calculations are done they will estimate the number of Muslims to be
between 70,000 and 250,000 trying to catch both active Muslims and people with a
There are also voices against the government effort to map
the immigrants. One argument claims one should count only the people joining
Muslim associations since in Sweden it is a freedom to be a Muslim as well as
not. Another argument is put forward by a theatre manager in Stockholm, a former
adviser to the ministry of immigration. He has lived in Sweden since the 70s. As
a Muslim with Sufi interest, he says in a recent interview that the creation of
statistics of immigrants is producing polarization that condemns the foreigner
to stand outside the society. For him, it is more a question for everyone to
formulate his or her cultural situation,
than it is a question of mutual recognition of Swedes of different religious
belongings. The Muslim associations on the other hand claim that everyone coming
from a Muslim background is a Muslim. They are eager to see Islam as the major
key of identification and that a large number gives more impact on the society.
Here I will deal in short with Western Christian attitudes
towards Islam. We need to confess the existence of negative images about Islam
and Muslims. This is due among other things to historical reasons and antipathy.
Small nationalist and extreme right-wing groups
as well as Swedes with xenophobia and people in the outskirts of the society
through unemployment and financially problems also target the Muslims as well as
immigrants in very broad terms. The church as well as the society has recognized
the danger set out in mutual negative images from one side or mutual.
The main newspapers in Sweden today as and example present
articles focusing Muslim life in Sweden. The ideology of the Swedish immigrants
policy has put multiculturalism with equality, the freedom of choice and
partnership as an official goal. This is combined with an
‘All-Over-Sweden-Strategy’. The aim
is to distribute the immigrants to all cities and towns that every Swede should
share the costs and the burden as well as the positive experience it may create
as a counterpart of the negative images of immigrants. As a result, many of the
traditional Swedes have to experience Muslims as well as all immigrants in
Sweden as the new neighbours in the Swedish society. Even if this is an official
policy, after a while the new Swedes tend to move on to the big cities and some
of the suburbs in these cities today as up to 50 languages.
A query about the interest in religion among immigrants and
refugees was done in 1996. 76.4% of the Muslims in Sweden say that they pray at
least once a week at the mosque and 96.3% states that their interest in religion
is unchanged or has increased during the stay in Sweden.
Other statistics claim that 17% of the Muslims visit a mosque weekly, 7% at
least monthly, 22% at least on holidays and special occasions, and 45% never or
almost never visit the mosques.
Nevertheless, in the long run religion seems to be less important.
A New Law
The Muslims in Sweden are organized according to the same
pattern as the non-Lutheran so called Free-Churches (in relation to the state).
This is a way of adopting the religious life accepted to the state and being
part of the public space. Being associations accepted into a government
committee for support to denominations, it gets the same benefits from the state
and is as such accepted as a religious association in Sweden.
In the year 2000, there will be a new law for the church of
Sweden and another new law for the churches and religions. The church of Sweden
is in a special situation. All other churches have joined hand with the Muslims
as well as the Jews producing a response to the government propositions about
the relation between the state and the religions.
The religious communities are urging for one law concerning
everyone. One change in the new laws will be that Muslim associations as well as
Christian non-Lutheran churches will be looked upon as a religious community,
formally and juridical, instead of being an association or organization; another
change will be that the state will collect tax money for every denomination
according to the wishes of each individual. A Muslim as well as a Catholic can
decide to which denomination, if any at all, his or her money should go.
Today there are at least three national Muslim associations
in Sweden. One is “The Swedish Muslim Council” which includes “The Swedish
Muslim Association”, “The United Islamic Organization in Sweden” and “The
Swedish Muslim Youth Association”.
Together they organize local congregations and there are 34 imams. The other
national organization is “The Islamic Council in Sweden” organizing local
congregations belonging to “The Islamic Cultural Union in Sweden” with 36 imams.
All of these are dominated by the Sunnī sect but an association for the Shī‘ah
sect is on its way as well as for some of the smaller sects. The existence of
different Muslim national organizations also indicates a struggle to be the
guards of the Muslim population and of receiving representative status.
The churches in Sweden as well as the Muslims have tried to
handle this new situation and I want to give some examples. A project named “The
Development of Knowledge Encountering Islam” is run by the Church of Sweden
aiming to improve the knowledge of Islam and Christian – Muslim relations. Very
important is the recent publishing of a book in Swedish “Muslim Neighbours – the
Church of Sweden Encountering Islam”.
This project seems to reach out quite well in informing and making local
congregations and priests active for dialogue and understanding.
What about the Muslim agenda? Dr Ake Sander has summarized
interviews made with Muslims that they are now turning away from practical
issues focusing their presence, role and future in Sweden. “(1) What kind of
(multicultural) Sweden do we, as Muslims, want to have in the future? (2) What
kind of multicultural state do we think is necessary to safeguard the long-term
survival of the Muslims as a cultural, ethnic and religious minority group in
Sweden? And (3) what can (ought) we as Muslim do to bring that about?’
There are signs of ethnic-religious mobilization, and
Sander suggests it should be understood as a local defense strategy. They
mobilize for recognition, identity and survival. Of special interest are the
young Muslims. They sometimes look upon themselves as a new force distancing
themselves from traditional and international bounds, wanting to be a Swedish
face of Islam. They are born in the West by Muslim parents. Some of them are
born in mixed marriages and they know both a Christian and a Muslim way of
living. Some of them are well educated; they speak the language and are born as
citizens of Sweden. And the common language for the variety of Muslims is
One of the reports from the Euro-Islam project says “The
goal for young Muslims … should be to accept, understand and respect
differences, but also to understand common values and goals and try to implement
them. Young Muslims should form a bridge between European and Muslim countries”.
They want to build up a solid religious identity to achieve the acceptance of
Sweden as the new homeland and accelerate the integration in a society where
Muslims must play an active role.
On the national level, a group aimed at dialogue has been
set up consisting of Christian, Jewish and Muslim representatives. From the
Christian side it consists of representatives from the Lutheran, Catholic,
Orthodox and Free-Church traditions. From the Muslim side there are
representatives from the national bodies. The Jewish Congregations in Sweden
represent the Jews. The group is discussing issues of a common life in Sweden
and ethical matters of importance for the religions. This involves mutual
understanding of each other, the ways each religion is presented in the
textbooks in the Swedish schools, the question of Halāl-slaughter and the right
to be buried according to each religious tradition.
I consider this work from both the Christian and the Muslim
sides to be important to mutual respect and for the necessity for the Muslim
community to receive legal recognition by the Swedish society and the Swedish
State and Religion in Sweden
The Swedish law since the beginning of the 1950s is
covering four aspects of freedom of religion. The first paragraph declares the
right for everyone to freely conduct his or her religion if there is no harm
against the society. Secondly, everyone has the right to associate with others
taking part in religious meetings. Thirdly, there should be no hindrance against
official service following the rule for meetings open for everyone. The fourth
aspect is freedom from religion. The individual has no duty to belong to any
religious community at all.
Muslims in Sweden as well as in the entire West are of
course not considered Dhimmīs, but citizens in a secular state. The Swedish
authorities and practice have favoured an interpretation where religion has been
conceived as a right and a property of the individual. Religion is then
basically business for the individual. The right to conversion is then by law
the right of the individual and a private business. Of course, conversion is a
sensitive question but nevertheless in existence. One figure claims that about
5,000 people have converted to Islam.
This number includes both conversions through marriage and children in mixed
When the church of Sweden presented the outcome of an
inquiry, they claimed that conversion by Muslims to Christianity is more
frequent then vice versa. In 48% of the parishes with many Muslim immigrants
they know about conversions. For some it may be a hope of getting asylum in
Sweden but it is not the reason for the majority.
And reports from different Free-Churches are telling the same.
And still neither the Muslims nor the main churches in
Sweden are involved in any active missionary attempts. It is just an individuals
personal choice, and no one really knows the number due to the law of the
privacy of religion. The freedom of religion and freedom of choice for the
individual are important values.
Making space for the everyday ritual and practice is
important. I will give some examples. It is not forbidden to build mosques but
the experience is that until the last year, it had been quite difficult to get a
piece of land for building. Still, most mosques are situated in basements and
cellars of ordinary houses but there also exists a handful of new mosques. If
you want to organize an official procession, you as a Muslim or as as a
Christian must get permission.
I will conclude this article with some remarks about
perhaps the hottest issue in Sweden, the Muslim as well as the Jewish kosher
slaughter. The dietary laws are not easy to follow for a Muslim in Sweden. The
schools are today offering alternative dishes without pig and blood for Muslim
students. Both the government and the Muslim associations publish lists of
products allowed to Muslim tradition. And still one cannot be sure about all
ingredients of, for example butter and bread. But the main obstacle is that
Halāl slaughter is forbidden since the 1930s with the exemption of birds and
Halāl slaughter is not considered being an issue of freedom
of religion but a question of the animal welfare. The animal must according to
the law be stunned before the slaughter. That is required even when the farmers
slaughter for their own household. This leaves the Muslim population with some
different solutions. You can import the Halāl meat from other countries which
becomes quite expensive as a result. This is a possibility for Muslims living in
areas with many Muslims and special shops for Halāl meat. Some Muslims accept
stunning as a Muslim slaughter, before the death of the animal.
Anyhow there is a continuing fight from the Muslim and the
Jewish sides to change the law. A special commission has as late as 1992
investigated the issue but without any representation from the religions
concerned. Considering this investigation, the parliament decided not to
change the law. Of course, both Jewish and Muslim associations protested. The
churches asked for a new investigation. Almost every subsequent year, individual
parliamentarians from different parties have asked for a change of the
situation. The Muslims and the Jews continually raise the question in different
ways. Now we are waiting for an initiative from the Swedish council of churches
and it seems that the minister of agricultural is reconsidering a new
Owing to the short experience of Sweden as a multi-cultural
and multi-religious country and the lack of experience for both the state and
the church, I am still prepared to say that Sweden is on its way. Since the law
of religious freedom in the early 50s, Sweden has developed from a homogeneous
society to a multi-cultural and multi-religious society with about 15% of the
population with foreign background. This is, at least before the tragic
development in former Yugoslavia, as Jorgen Nielen has pointed out, a greater
transformation than in any other European country.
There is still a long way to go before Muslims can feel
that they are on the equal level in the society. And the discussion will
continue concerning what will be the freedom of religion and about necessary
limits in a secular setting. The relation between on one hand economical and
social human rights with unemployment and housing problems, and on the other
hand political and individual human rights being fundamental in the Western
society will be questioned.
(Courtesy: “Al-Mushir”, Rawalpindi,)