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Islam in the West and the Role of the Christian Church
Goran Gunner


On Swedish initiative, two major international conferences have recently been held on Euro-Islam1 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 community identity.2

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.3

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.4

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 immigration.

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 Yugoslavia.

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 Muslim background.

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,5 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 groups6 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’.7 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.8 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.9 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”.10 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.11 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.

Christian-Muslim Relations

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”.12 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?’13

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 Swedish.

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”.14 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.15

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.

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.16 This number includes both conversions through marriage and children in mixed marriages.

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.17 And reports from different Free-Churches are telling the same.18

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 rabbits.

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.19 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 investigation.

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.20

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,)


1. As example the conferences on Euro-Islam held in Stockholm, Sweden, 15-17.6.1995 and in Mafraq, H.K. Jordon, 10-13.6.1996.

2. Gilles Kepel, “Allah in the West, Islamic Movements in America and Europe”, Polity Press 1997 and Umberto Melotti, ‘International Migration in Europe: Social Projects and Political Cultures’ in Tariq Modood and Pnina Werbner (eds.), “The Politics of Multiculturalism in the New Europe. Racism, Identity and Community”. Zed Books 1997.

3. Werner Schiffauer, ‘Islam as a Civil Religion: Political Culture and the Organization of Diversity in Germany’ in Tariq Modood and Pnina Werbner (eds.), “The Politics of Multiculturalism in the New Europe. Racism, Identity and Community”. Zed Books 1997.

4. Talal Asad, “Genealogies of Religion. Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam”. The John Hopkins University Press 1993 and Gilles Kepel, “Allah in the West. Islamic Movements in America and Europe”. Polity Press 1997.

5. ‘Profilen’ in DN, 28 December 1997.

6. Se Tore Bjorgo, ‘The Invaders, the Traitors and the Resistance Movement: the Extreme Right’s Conceptualization of Opponents and Self in Sandinavia’ in Tariq Modood & Pnina Werbner (eds.), “The Politics of Multiculturalism in the New Europe, Racism, Identity and Community”. Zed Book 1997.

7. Tomas Hammar, ‘A Crisis in Swedish Refugee Policy’ in Ake Daun, Billy Ehn, Barbro Klein (eds.), “To Make the World Safe for Diversity, Towards an Understanding of Multi-Cultural Societies”. The Swedish Immigration Institute and Museum 1992.

8. Orlando Mella, “Searching for the Sacred. A Comparative Study of Popular Religiosity among Refugees in Sweden”. CEIFO 1996.

9. Ake Sander, ‘To What Extent is the Swedish Muslim Religious?’ in Steven Vertovec and Ceri Peach, “Islam in Europe, The Politics of Religion and Community”. Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations. University of Warwick 1997.

10. Sveriges Muslimska Rad. (SMR), Sveriges Muslimska forbund (SMF) Forenade Islamiska Foreningar i Sverige (FIFS) and Sveriges Muslimska Ungdomsforbund (SMUF).

11. Islamiska Rader i Sverige (IRIS) and Islamiska Kulturcenterunionen i Sverige.

12. Muslimska grannar. Svenska kyrkan moter Islam. Mitt i forsamlingen. Uppsala 1997.

13. Ake Sander, ‘The Status of Muslim Communities in Sweden’ in Gerd Nonneman, Tim Niblock and Bogdan Szajkowski, “Muslim Communities in the New Europe”. Ithaca Press 1996.

14. ‘Young Muslims in Europe’ in “Euro-Islam. Stockholm, 15-17.6.1996 Documentation”. The Swedish Institute 1995.

15. The Swedish Muslim Youth Association (SMUF) on Internet:

16. “Islam nast storst i Sverige” in Metro December, 13, 1997.

17. Payande Ahlback, ‘Islamprojektet inom Svenska kyrkan overraskningar i enkat’ in “Muslimska grannar, Svenska kyrkan moter Islam”. Mitt i forsamlingen. Uppsala 1997.

18. Eva Lindgren, ‘Sverige ar ett missionsland igen’ in DN December, 14 1997.

19. Slakt av obedovade djur. Rapport 1992:37. Jordbruksverket.

20. Jorgen Nielsen, “Muslims in Western Europe”. Edinburgh 1992.


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