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Despite challenges, Nordic Muslims thriving

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This article is part of a series focusing on Muslim minorities around the world.

The Nordic and Baltic regions in the north of Europe have long been viewed as something of a world of its own; carrying its own unique traditions and religious beliefs. In lands synonymous with Vikings (more the Scandinavian countries), Norse mythology, and near inhospitable weather conditions, one would be deemed crazy to believe that Islam could ever make its way that far north.

Yet there exists a sizable and growing Muslim (and other Abrahamic faiths) population in many Nordic states; Norway, Sweden and Denmark amongst them. Although opinions, similar to other places in Europe, differ on the influx of Muslims in these countries, it’s safe to say that the religion is making headway up north.

One such country with a relatively young and minute Islamic community is Iceland, where Muslims account for less than 0.5% of the population, amongst the smallest in Europe. In a country of about 320 000 people, estimates place the number of registered Muslims at between 700-1200. Many still remain unaffiliated to any Islamic association however, meaning the actual number remains unknown.

Islamic roots in Iceland

The majority of this population resides in and around the countries capital of Reykjavík, although small communities are noted in the Icelandic north.

The earliest roots of Islam in Iceland, not including travelers and pirates that made brief forays into the area, date back to the early 1970s through a mixture of foreign immigrants, as well as native exposure to the religion whilst travelling abroad. A sizable portion of the community is made up of refugees from conflict stricken areas like Kosovo, Albania, as well as nations in the Middle East and Africa.

Fasting in the North

As expected with a minority situated closer than most to the North Pole, observing certain Islamic traditions can be a challenge. In a country where the sun, particularly during the summer months, sets for no more than a few hours each day, prayer times can be construed as ‘odd’.

This situated posses no greater challenge than during the holy month of Ramadan, where fasting can potentially last up to 22 hours a day. Painting a better image of this, in 2014 Muslims were required to break their fast at just after 12am daily, and then wake up barely three hours later at 3am to begin the next day’s fast.

In the Northern most part of the country, the sun barely sets, providing complications for those residing there. Having written to various global Islamic institutions for a resolve, and receiving no responses, residents took matters into their own hands by issuing a fatwa, declaring that they would follow the fasting times of the holy city of Makkah.

Muslim Associations and planned mosque establishment

Islam in Iceland is largely governed by two central bodies, namely the Muslim Association of Island, and The Islamic Cultural Centre of Iceland. The former was founded in 1997 by a Palestinian immigrant, with half of the organizations some 460 sunni-Muslims having been born in the Nordic state. The Cultural Centre on the other hand is a fairly recent establishment, having been founded in 2008 by a Moroccan immigrant. The centre has over 300 members.

Both organizations run Islamic centers in the nation’s capital, which attract several dozen congregants on a daily basis, as well as offering weekly Jumuah prayers. Both are situated in office buildings and provide little of the reclusion and sanctity that such facilities require.

In the year 2000, the Muslim Association submitted an application to the Reykjavík City Council, for land to be made available for the construction of the country’s first purpose-built mosque. However, it wasn’t until 2013 that an 800 square meter plot of land was granted; a major boost for the local Muslim minority.

The move has been met with much hostility however, in a country where locals continue to bear a strong anti-Islamic sentiment. The planned construction has raised something of a controversy, especially since the land was given to the association by the city council free of charge. There has also been concerns that the construction itself may be sponsored by foreign donors, who may attempt to exert ‘radical’ ideologies amongst the Icelandic Muslim community. This has led to several unsavory protests, including the dumping of pig’s heads, and bloody Quran pages at the site in question.

Controversy aside, construction on the countries first mosque is expected begin in 2015, with the centre expected to include a prayer area, library, community hall, and 30-foot high minaret.

Islamophobia rife in Iceland

It would be something of an understatement to say that post 9/11 and the 7/7 London bombings, Muslim communities across Europe have come under siege. Growing anti-Islamic movements have made headway in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the U.K to name but a few.

Iceland itself is has not been exempt from this growing sense of Islamophobia, although not quite on the same scale. Much of this has centered on the aforementioned mosque construction, with a strong majority in opposition to the establishment of any Islamic (and other religious) infrastructure.

This is part of a larger anti-immigration and anti-Islamic sentiment gaining traction, with a growing fear amongst the greater Icelandic population that Muslims and Islamic infrastructure may pose a threat to traditional Icelandic culture. In recent years, Muslims have faced regular abuse at the hands of natives.

The situation has hardly been helped by January’s assault on French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, where around a dozen cartoonists and staff were killed in Paris in response to the magazines caricature of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). The attacks have brought about an increase in prejudice and mistrust of Muslims in Iceland, many of whom have lamented the hostility they now face on an almost daily basis.

The incident also led to calls from an Icelandic MP, Ásmundur Friðriksson, that all Muslims be subject to background checks to ensure none have had interactions with any radical groups. He also questioned whether Icelanders, in light of the increase in Muslims, could be at risk of a potential terrorist threat.

Despite the array of challenges facing Muslims in Iceland, the community has managed to remain steadfast and resolute in their beliefs. Islam in the country is facing notable challenges, but the fact that the religion has managed to thrive so far north is a testament to its growing influence in some of the most unexpected, and remote places on earth. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)

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