Diverse Sweden Part 2: Swedish Muslims

diversity

Sweden is a fairly diverse country – ethnically, religiously and culturally. About 25% of the population is born abroad or has both parents born outside of Sweden. Extend that to one parent and the number increases to around a third of the Swedish population.

I am a true believer in cultural diversity. So, I am continuing a series of posts that will shine the light on various religious and ethnic groups that exist amongst people with Swedish citizenship. My hope is that it will dispel some of those stereotypes of Swedes that exist and that it will broaden your mind regarding what it means to be Swedish.

Part 2…..Islam

Happy-Eid-Al-Fitr-Wishes-Picture

This week on Wednesday 5th of June is the great Islamic festival of Eid Al Fitr. This is a three day festivity consisting of celebration, good food, prayer, gifts to the children and charity to the needy. The festival marks the end of Ramadan, the month in which followers are taught the Quran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad.  During Ramadan, practicing muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours from dawn to sunset. You can imagine the challenge of this in Sweden, when we almost have daylight 24 hours of the day. In Stockholm, the fast lasts 20 hours per day which must be really exhausting. In the north of Sweden, where the sun never sets, muslims have solved this by fasting according to the daylight schedule of Mecca, or other chosen location. The idea of the fast is to bring practicing muslims closer to God.

Islam is the second largest religion in the world, about 25% of the world’s popluation. Muslims make up approximately 8% of the Swedish population, according to research from the Pew Center. This makes them the second-largest immigrant group in Sweden after the Finns. About 90% of muslims in the world are Sunni muslims, with the rest following Shia islam.

Islam is a religion which appreciates practice. There are five basic religious acts in Islam, collectively known as ‘The Pillars of Islam’ which are considered obligatory for all believers. The Quran presents them as a framework for worship and a sign of commitment to the faith. They are:

  • Shahada, the creed
  • Salah, daily prayer
  • Zakat, alms giving
  • Rawm, fasting during Ramadan
  • Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca

Other than the fasting of Ramadan, the practice most noticeable to non-Muslims is probably the one of prayer. Performing prayers five times a day is compulsory but flexibility in the timing specifics is allowed depending on circumstances. Many companies in Sweden have prayer rooms to accommodate this.

First-generation muslims in Sweden most often originate from Irak, Iran, Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Two growing groups are from Syria and Somalia. Since the 1960’s, about 3500 people in Sweden have converted to Islam. There are nine purpose-built mosques in Sweden, with the notable ones in the main cities. In Stockholm, the mosque is on the residential island of Södermalm. From this location, the Islamic Association of Sweden is run. This is an umbrella organisation encompassing, amongst other things, the Muslim Council of Sweden, Muslim Youth Organisation and Muslim Relief.

The first muslims actually emigrated to Sweden during the Viking era but it wasn’t until the 1950’s and 1960’s that a large number arrived from Turkey seeking employment. Another wave in the 80’s brought muslim refugees from the war-torn Balkan region. Most of the muslims who arrive in Sweden today are fleeing dictatorship and armed conflict, and are seeking refuge in another country. Today, a great number of people who follow Islam were born in Sweden, conditioned in Swedish values and society and educated though the Swedish school system.

Like many places around the western world, there are conflicts in Sweden between the original Christian-based society and the Islam society. Some of the conflicts originate in religious difference, fuelled by extremist thinking on both sides. However, most of the conflict comes from an ethno-racist perspective or a concern about the impact of immigration on the structure and values of Swedish society. The Swedish governments of the past have not necessarily succeeded in the integration of the two parties and many people today witness ‘two Swedens’ operating in parallel to each other.

There is no doubt that muslims are well and truly a part of Sweden and Swedish culture. How we choose to move forward to one Sweden is for us all to decide.

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Where does the Swedish word for Easter -‘Påsk’- come from?

The English word Easter has a mythical etymology. It originates from the Germanic goddess of fertility – Eostre. Prior to the 300’s, pagan festivities were held in her honour in the month of April. These festivities were slowly replaced by Christian traditions from the 400’s to celebrate the resurrection of Christ – and given the ‘recognisable’ name Easter.

But what about the Swedish word for Easter – Påsk? Where does that originate?

During the same period as Easter, the world’s Jews celebrate a holiday of Passover to mark their liberation by God from slavery in ancient Egypt and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. Passover commemorates the story of the Exodus as described in the ‘Book of Exodus’, in which the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. The name of this celebration is ‘Pesach‘.

Originating in this word ‘pesach’ is the Aramaic word ‘paska‘. And from ‘paska’ comes the Swedish word ‘Påsk‘.

So, interestingly, the more secular country of Sweden actually has the most religious origin of the word Easter.

Who is Sweden’s Patron Saint?

Last night I was at a party (not the picture above). I was clad in green, and wearing a green sign saying Lucky and depicting a pot of gold. Over the speakers, a mix of folk music, U2 and the Cranberries blasted out. Offensive green-coloured beer was served.

Today, 17 March, is St Patrick’s Day. St Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, is being celebrated all over the world. And just like me last night, people are donning green clothes, dancing to fiddely-diddely music and downing beer.

Out of curiosity, I wondered who Sweden’s Patron Saint is. So I researched and I have to say the answer wasn’t totally clear. One Saint in particular kept popping up, but in only one case did I see her referred to as the Patron Saint of Sweden. She is however one of Europe’s 6 Patron Saints.

Do you know who I’m referring to?

I am referring to Saint Brigit, known in Swedish as Saint Birgitta. She is definitely the most celebrated saint of Sweden. Born 1303 into a wealthy noble family, she entered a Catholic convent after the death of her husband. By this time she was 41 and had 8 children. In 1350, she went to Rome to meet the Pope and there she remained until her death at the age of 70. Her feast day is 23 July, the day she died. Brigit established the Swedish religious community which was to become the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, or the Brigittines at the Swedish town of Vadstena.

Brigit is known for her many influential visions. In her first, at the age of 10, she saw Jesus suspended on a cross. Ages. Her visions of the birth of Jesus came to affect nativity art for centuries to comethe infant Jesus lying on the ground and emitting light himself, the Virgin as blond-haired, a single candle attached to the wall, and the presence of God the Father above. Her visions were recorded in Revelationes coelestes (“Celestial revelations”) and made her a revered and controversial celebrity in the Middle

In Sweden people know vaguely who Birgitta is. I wonder if many know that she is the Patron Saint of the country. She is fairly far from the minds of most Swedes and, unlike the Irish St Patrick, or the Welsh St David, not at all integrated into Swedish identity.

Probably because of her ‘invisibility’, I actually haven’t heard of annual celebrations in Sweden to commemorate Brigit. I’m guessing it’s a low-key affair for the converted. I’m guessing it’s about prayer, meditation and reverence. I’m guessing it’s not about dressing in a unified colour and dancing the jig. And I assume very little beer guzzling is involved.

Diverse Sweden Part 1: Swedish Sikhs

diversity

I remember when my parents visited me in Sweden and remarked in surprise that there were a lot of ‘dark-haired people’ here. Somehow, it didn’t match their stereotype of the Swede as being tall, white, blonde, blue-eyed Christians.

It’s interesting to see the response on people’s faces when they realise who is in fact Swedish. Sure, Alexander Skarsgård, PewDiePie and Robyn all fit the mould. But that Seinabo Sey, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Neneh Cherry are Swedish is often met with a surprised gasp. Stereotypes really are hard to shift.

Sweden is a fairly diverse country – ethnically, religiously and culturally. About 25% of the population is born abroad or has both parents born outside of Sweden. Extend that to one parent and the number increases to around a third of the Swedish population.

I am a true believer in cultural diversity. So, to celebrate the plurality of this kingdom in the north, I am starting a series of posts that will shine the light on various religious and ethnic groups that exist amongst people with Swedish citizenship. My hope is that it will dispel some of those stereotypes of Swedes that exist and that it will broaden your mind regarding what it means to be Swedish.

First out…..Sikhism

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Growing up in the multi-religious UK, as I did, I saw a lot of Sikhs. What distinguished them from others was the fact that some of them wore a turban (known as a ‘dastaar’). Sikh bus drivers, police officers, doctors all wore their dastaar together with their uniforms, and today they are exempt from wearing helmets when riding a motor bike. I remember it causing great debate in the media and the discussion revolving around the ‘ridiculousness’ of this head gear. What ethnic British people failed to realise, and many still do today, is that the Sikh dastaar is not just a means to keep the head warm. The dastaar is an integral part of the unique Sikh identity, representing piety, self-respect, honour and purity of mind. Under the dastaar, the Sikh keeps the hair uncut as respect to the Gurus and to God – the idea being that hair is part of God’s creation and therefore should be kept as God intended it.

In Sweden, Sikhism is a small minority of an estimated 4000 people but in the world there are 30 million Sikhs, mostly living in Punjab in India. Sikhism was founded in the 16th century by Guru Nanak and is based on his teachings and those of the 9 gurus who came after him. The Sikh religion is a hands-on religion – believing in doing good deeds rather than merely carrying out rituals. For a Sikh, the concepts of honesty, generosity and equality are strong corner stones. In Sweden, Sikhs have their places of worship – a Gurdwara – in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö – and anybody is welcome to these places of worship, regardless of religious belief. The Sikh religious scripture is called the Guru Granth Sahib. Interestingly, Sikhs consider the book a living Guru and it is therefore treated in the same respectful manner that a person would be.

Sikhs try to avoid 5 vices, in order to live better lives. These vices are something we could probably all think about avoiding: lust, greed, attachment to things of this world, anger and pride.

In a couple of weeks on 14th March, it is ‘Vaisakhi’ – the Sikh New Year. This year it will be year 551 (time begins at the birth of founder Guru Nanak).

Sikhs started to emigrate to Sweden in the 1970’s. Some came as job-seekers, others as refugees. The Sikh population is often referred to as an example of successful integration into Swedish society – as most Sikhs secured good employment and invested in the higher education of their children.

 

 

For more information about population statistics in Sweden, go to https://www.scb.se/en

For more information about Sikhs in Sweden, go to http://www.sikh.se

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Have yourself a Merry Gay Swedish Christmas

With gay men being hunted down and ‘punished’ in Uganda, Tanzania, Russia and many other countries around the world, it is easy to blame religion for the persecution.

And the evidence to back this up is fairly compelling. Countries that have a strong foot in religion are often countries that have strong anti-LGBT policies and attitudes. Not always, but often. Fanatical interpretation of the scripture can be one explanation, as can the crushing concept of sin, and the devouring need to uphold traditional ‘family structures and values’. For example, in a recent comment, the Pope said a lot can be done for LGBT people through psychiatry.

Sweden is a country that separates the church from politics. It is a country where almost 90% of the population identify as atheist or agnostic. It is a place where religious morality does not usually dictate the behaviours and choices of individual citizens. Of course there is organized religion in Sweden, there are churches and there are priests. Of course there are minority religions in Sweden such as Islam, Hinduism and Judaism. Of course there are casual believers, devout followers and extremists. But compared to many other organized religions in the world, the Swedish Church is very liberal.

This was manifested in the recent service at a church in Stockholm, a service called Gay Jul (Gay Christmas). The slogan for the event was ‘come in as you are, come out as you want to be’. As I sat in attendance at this service, I witnessed a welcoming space, filled with members of the LGBT community, the church decorated in rainbow flags, and the words ‘Gay Jul’ emblazoned on the pulpit. I was moved by the openness of the church to welcome the minority group that is so often demonized and persecuted by the Faithful. It was an escape, and embrace, a sanctuary.

However, I was also struck by a sadness as I sat there in that echoing church. I realized the experience was a uniquely Swedish one, occurring in a small city in a small outpost of Europe and an unlikely sight in other churches, mosques, temples and tabernacles around the world.

In that church, amongst the rainbow flags, we were far far away from Uganda, and Tanzania, and Russia.

Sweden’s pink Thursday

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Today, the Thursday before Easter is called ‘Skärtorsdag’ in Swedish. As the word ‘skär’ translates as a shocking pink colour, many people joke that today is ‘pink Thursday’. But the word ‘skär’ in this case relates to something else – something far more biblical.

The word ‘skär’ is an early Nordic word meaning clean and pure. And here, we see a parallel to the English word for ‘Skärtorsdag’. In English, today is called ‘Maundy Thursday’ and it relates to the religious rite known as ‘the maundy’ which involved the ritualistic cleaning of feet. According to Christian belief, today was the day that Jesus performed this act until the recipients had clean and pure feet. It also is the day of the infamous Last Supper.

However, in Sweden today, ‘Skärtorsdag’ is not celebrated in any great religious fashion but in a pagan manner. A old pagan belief in Sweden was that on this day witches would mount their broomsticks to fly away to the legendary mountain known as Blåkulla. At Blåkulla it was believed that the devil held his earthly court. There the witches celebrated their sabbath and danced with the devil.

In modern day Sweden, we see this reflected in the many children who dress up as witches. These kids paint Easter cards and walk around the neighbourhood knocking on doors to wish everybody a happy Easter. In exchange, they hope to receive Easter sweets.

Amazing immigrants in Sweden: Part 7 Mustafa Can 


Negativity. Fear. Concern. These are some of the reactions many Swedes are experiencing about the influx of immigrants to Sweden in the last couple of years. So, I became curious to learn about some of those individuals who came here as refugees or immigrants to make a better life for themselves. People with roots somewhere else who built a home here and who contributed to Swedish society in a positive way.
For the next seven days, I will celebrate these people. My hope is that we can lift our eyes from the challenges of immigration and understand what useful contributions these people can make to society if given the chance. To our society. Our Sweden

 

Part 5: Mustafa Can 

In Sweden, every summer there is a radio series called ‘Radio Talkers’ where various people get a chance to tell their stories and play music. It was in this program some years ago that I first heard of Mustafa Can. His program was very moving and focused around his mother. It was so moving that he won many radio and media prizes as a result.

Mustafa Can works as a prize-winning author, independent journalist and public speaker. His recent work focuses mostly on cultural diversity, identity and xenophobia in Sweden. He provides a controversial voice to the Swedish integration debate.

Mustafa has lived in Sweden for over 40 years. Orginally from Northern Kurdistan in Turkey, he fled with his family when he was 6 years old. He is a great example of someone who arrived in Sweden as a child, became well integrated and uses his position and his voice to try to make Swedish society a better place for everybody.