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Scandi culture – keeping religion private

July 1, 2022

I don’t often quote posts from Facebook, because so many of them are profoundly uninteresting and, well, unquotable. That probably includes the majority of mine, by the way, unless you happen to share my narrow obsessions. But this little gem from John Whelpton, an acquaintance whose learning far exceeds mine, and whose posts are always stimulating, did get my attention:

Interesting observations on Islam and Scandinavian culture from Mats Andersson, a Swede answering a question on Quora about the reasons so many Scandinavians have a negative impression of Islam:

“Well… there really are two areas where Islam clashes with Scandinavian culture.

Firstly, and most importantly, in Scandinavia—just like in most of Europe—religion is seen as intensely private. Displaying your religion openly is seen as rude and intrusive. It has, with good cause, been likened to waving your genitals in public. It’s indecent, and supremely embarrassing to everyone present—no matter what your religion is. Atheism doesn’t get a free pass, either.

Islam has historically had an explicit imperative to be very, very public about your religion—more so than any other world religion. You are supposed to display it at every turn. About the only thing that could make it worse would be if it was also proselytising; some Christian denominations are more embarrassing that way.

Secondly, do you know how to make friends with a Scandinavian? Traditionally, you get drunk together. Because if you stay the same when you’re drunk, then we know that the inside matches the outside. This isn’t quite as common today, but many Scandinavians are still very suspicious of people who don’t drink alcohol, and again, who are very public about this. On some subconscious level, they are convinced that they are hiding something.

The way to get accepted here, as a Muslim, is actually quite simple. Don’t put on a big show about being a Muslim. Just be yourself, and don’t mention religion unless someone asks.

I just looked this through. Out of 350 FB friends, outside my immediate family, I know the religious affiliation of exactly 8 (of which one is atheist). A further 4 identify as Jewish, but they’ve only ever mentioned it as a cultural or ethnic affiliation, not primarily religious. I had known many of them for years, even decades, until it came up in discussion.”

Interesting observations indeed, on which I offer a few of my own comments.

The idea, as Mats puts it, that in Scandinavia, religion is seen as intensely private. I see no reason to dispute that. But the rest of Europe? Au contraire. In just about every country where, for example, Catholicism is the predominant Christian denomination, religious worship is at the forefront of public life. Processions to celebrate saint’s days are major events in many towns and cities in Spain and Italy. Easter and Christmas are openly commemorated across the Catholic world, from Poland, to Ireland and throughout Southern Europe. Watch a funeral procession in Ireland, and you’ll still see onlookers stop and cross themselves as the cortege goes by.

As for the assertion that Muslims are under obligation to be very public in their worship, I would put it another way: the obligations of Islam – prayer, pilgrimage, fasting, charity and so on often involve communal worship, yes, but Muslims are not required to make public displays of piety. In fact, it’s been my experience that in countries with overwhelming Muslim majorities, worship is often a private activity. Certainly many people go to the mosque to pray, but just as many do so in their own homes or in a private area in the workplace.

I would argue that public worship is no more or less prevalent among Muslims than among Catholics. As for the evangelicals, one only needs to watch a religious channel in the United States (or a Trump rally for that matter) to witness religious fervour that verges on the narcissistic.

It’s not for me to frown upon a culture that disapproves of open displays of religious devotion. But while Mats urges Muslims just to “be yourself” and keep your religion to yourself, that’s hard to do if you feel that your faith defines your identity. And isn’t personal identity everything these days for those who have the luxury of being able proclaim it?

It would be sad if such disapproval results in public resistance over national immigration policies. If rules on refugee admission discriminate on grounds of religion, then Scandinavian nations would be following the lead of Trump’s America, hardly the finest example of an enlightened approach to immigration.

Another point to make is that cultures do not stand still. They evolve over time. When defining a national cultures people often look backwards, not forwards. They focus on “This is how we were”, rather than “this is how we are are”. And often enough, they instil fear over “this is what we are becoming”.

If the Ukraine experience tells us anything about future population trends, it’s that refugee crises – whether they be the result of war or environmental catastrophes – are likely to increase, at least in the short and medium term. If Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark choose to tighten their borders for fear of diluting their cultures, they might allay those fears, but at the same time they run the risk of antagonising countries that are bearing the brunt of new waves of refugees. Since three of those countries are members of the European Union (Norway excepted), such policies wouldn’t bode well for cohesion within the EU bloc.

In the end, the Scandinavian dilemma is one with which, as a Briton, I’m very familiar: are we comfortable with a multicultural society or do we insist that immigrants conform to a monocultural norm? The latter sentiment was one of the drivers of Brexit, of course.

Which path will the Scandi nations chose? A grudging acceptance that multiculturalism is a reality in any society with significant ethnic or religious minorities? Or possibly to adopt the French approach of institutional secularism – laïcité – which I would argue is no more effective than a finger in the cultural dyke?

Or perhaps Mats is simply reflecting a societal grumble that is unlikely to result in any change to the current status quo.

Whichever way, I’m unlikely to get the answer from the horse’s mouth, since I’m not one to get drunk with anyone. So the innermost feelings of those fine people will have to remain unknowable.

And where do I stand? As someone who has lived and worked in various countries, I would opt for a pluralistic society any time. The sparks might fly from time to time, but something tells me that they will be the best prepared to deal with the great population movements to come.

Having said that, I’ve spent time in each of the Scandinavian countries, including Iceland. Each has its own distinct culture (as examined with great gusto by Michael Booth in his book The Almost Nearly Perfect People), so beyond the broad brush it’s potentially misleading to talk about a generalised culture within the region.

What’s true for me is that unlike an increasing number of countries I could name, I’m always delighted to return to any of them.

And are they so different from us Brits of a certain age, many of whom who were taught to avoid three subjects at the dinner table: sex, politics and religion?

  1. Thanks for your kind, Steve, but they are decidedly over-generous. There is no way my leaning exceeeds yours unless, perhaps, discussion is confined to Latin grammar and Nepali politics!
    On public display of religious or other identites, I certainly agree that people should be left free to decide for themselves and that this should not be an issue in immigration policy.. I am, though, slightly uncomfortable with people wearing a `uniform’ that sets them apart from those around them, unless its for professional reasons or on a special occasion.So, i don’t dispute the right of a Muslim woman to wear a hijab or of a Sikh to wear a turban but I would prefer if they did not wear distinctive clothing on an everyday basis.I’d rather someone’s religion not be the first thing I notice about them. I also distinctly remember feeling glad the morning after 9/11 that people around me on the streets of Hong Kong were dressed as I was. This was, of course, an irrational feeling as the hi-jackers themselves had worn Western clothes but it was a genuine gut-reaction.
    As for drinking together, I’m perfectly comfortable downing a beer while a companion sticks to orange juice but I do find it a little offensive if someone refuses even to sit at a table with people drinking alcohol.(or consuming pork).

    • Good points all John. I wrote a fairly lengthy reply, which for some reason WordPress seems to have trashed. I’ll wait a bit to see if it emerges before having another go!

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