Now that Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, is ending, most Muslims – in Oslo, as elsewhere in the world – celebrate the festival of Eid. It is a time for celebration. For many Muslims, it is also a time to help those less well-off than themselves, either through the annual “religious tax” zakat or through other forms of charity. Muslims in Oslo are engaged in a range of charitable, humanitarian and development efforts. We have learned about these through our research over the past four years, exploring development involvement in Pakistan and beyond, among the Pakistani diaspora. However, charitable work and commitment to social causes are not what dominates current media debates about Muslims. Rather current debates are unfortunately often characterized by stereotypes about what it means to be Muslim, at times coupled with lacking knowledge.
Our objective is not to define who “most Muslims” are. Nevertheless, drawing on our research, we are able to say something about the diversity among Norway’s Muslim population: Eid is celebrated by those who are officially registered members of mosques, those who believe, those who have their religious doubts, and those who view Eid in the same way as many more or less secular, nominally Christians, view Christmas, as a festival of cultural, rather than religious significance.
Religion can be many things
We have interviewed some 50 Norwegian Muslims about their religious practice, as it relates to questions about helping others. Our research shows that the role played by religion varies greatly, both organizationally and in terms of motivation and involvement. We also see that religion can be many different things – and religion may have both an implicit and an explicit function in efforts that share the overarching goal of helping other people. Sometimes religion itself – Islam – provides the framework for these efforts. In other cases, religion is what motivates an individual’s personal involvement. Research about concrete activities, and motivations underlying these, can make important contributions to our knowledge about Muslims’ lives in Norway, and accordingly contribute to a more knowledge-based public debate.
It should be no surprise that many of the Norwegian Muslims we have interviewed were born and raised in Oslo. Migrants from Muslim majority societies, such as Pakistan or Turkey, have a relatively long migration history in Norway, dating back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of those we interviewed, migrants on descendants of migrants, have good jobs and live in detached houses on the outskirts of the city. Some live in high-rise blocks in Groruddalen, a suburb in the east of Oslo with some of the highest minority population proportions in Norway. Some of the women we interviewed who arrived in Norway as adults do not work, and some do not speak fluent Norwegian, but they largely make themselves understood. Several parents we spoke to were involved in their children’s leisure activities, such as football teams, and other extra-curricular activities requiring parent engagement.
We interviewed people who define themselves as Muslims in one way or another. Yet, they did not see being Muslim as their sole identity: one woman we spoke to, a mother of young children, considered her roles as a mother, wife and lawyer to be important. Yes, she is a Muslim, and she says religion is important to her: it provides with an existential framework for her life – in everyday life, as well as in crises, and when making important life choices. Being a Muslim is a part of a package – it is who she is: it provides her with an existential perspective, it offers moral guidance, and, not least, it gives her a sense of community with other Muslims. This is not very different to what may be found within other religious communities, including both existential aspects and a sense of community.
Presumed group affiliations
Why is it so important for us, from a research perspective, to emphasize that neither a highly-educated mother of young children, nor a taxi driver from Groruddalen, should be stereotyped simply as “Muslim”? It is important for three reasons. Firstly, because everyone in Norway – both people who were born here and people who moved here later – should be able to expect that they will be considered on their individual merits, without assumptions about them based on presumed group affiliations. Such group based assumptions can lead to discrimination, as many Jews and Muslims in Norway today can testify to.
Not a uniform category
Secondly, “Muslim” is not necessarily a uniform category, just as neither “Christian” nor “Jew” indicates membership of a uniform group, where the boundaries are agreed upon – from the inside, or the outside. Such terms function as labels that help us understand our surroundings, and perhaps to describe ourselves. But like many other labels, they do not indicate uniformity, nor are they necessarily in contradiction to, or more important than other labels. Today, some aspects of public discourse in Norway reflect a lack of knowledge about Muslims – including Norwegian Muslims. Narrow, often formalistic, definitions polarize the debate, while at the same time distancing it from ordinary people’s everyday life experiences and interactions.
Concerns among Norwegian Muslims
The third reason why it is essential to challenge stereotypical views of Muslims is the growing concern among both young and older Norwegian Muslims over how this specific categorization as “Muslim” will affect the adults of tomorrow. In our opinion, this concern must be taken seriously. Through our involvement in research in recent years, which has run in parallel with the conflict in Syria, the rise of IS and the increasing focus on “foreign fighters” and radicalization, we have also seen how these topics are raised in the course of our interviews – not only in relation to relief efforts in Syria, and the Syrian refugee crisis, but in connection to the debate about Muslims in Norway. Teenagers today are growing up surrounded by a public debate – especially in open online discussions – that threatens their belief in the possibility of being “Norwegian Muslims”. This is a situation that is new and frightening to those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, who see it as a radically different context to the one they themselves grew up within.
Religious discrimination on the rise?
This simple observation suggests that we should maybe no longer approach this as “difficulties with integration”, but possibly as a rising trend where discrimination based on religious affiliation may be emerging. Yes, this trend is related to immigration and integration, to the extent that it is connected to the arrival of visible minorities. And yes, many refugees with Muslim backgrounds have received asylum in Norway since the 1990s, thus increasing the proportion of Muslims in Norway with a relatively shorter period of residence, than the long-standing Pakistani communities. Yet, in our opinion there are good reasons to focus on the risks involved in allowing, even tendencies, to discriminate on the basis of religious affiliation, to develop in our society.
This is an English version of an op-ed published in Norwegian daily Dagbladet on 15 July.