— Baron Bodissey
An open letter to all Swedish political parties that are participating in this year’s election.
If we are to succeed in engaging Swedish Muslims so that they will participate in the election in September 2006, we should take note of the following demands and wishes from the Muslim minority in Sweden.
I have not seen clear signals from all parties as to whether they’ll accept such wishes. We want to see the most important demands as a part of the political programs. Otherwise there is the risk that the majority of the Muslims will remain on their couches on election day.
Muslims are fed up with broken election promises, and therefore they wish concrete suggestions to show that we care. It won’t hurt if our elected representatives or new candidates would set aside an hour to read our open letter that is sent to all established parties.
The Forgotten Minority
Islam in Sweden, a short history.
Sweden didn’t really get its first contact with Muslims before immigration began during the 1940s, when the first Muslims came from the east, that is from Finland and Estonia, they were Tatars and it was they who established the first house prayer assembly in Stockholm 60 years ago. The Muslims who immigrated during in the 1960-1970 period were part of the big labour immigration. Between 1970 and 1990 the immigration changed character; a flood of refugees began to make up a much larger share of the number of Muslims in Sweden. The Islamic community calculates the number of Muslims in Sweden to be roughly 470,000 people [out of a total population of 9,100,000, or about 5.2%]. Everyone that through birth belongs within a tradition [culture] traditionally dominated by Islam, who accepts the Islamic declaration of faith, belongs to a Muslim people, is descendant of Muslims, have a first name that belongs in an Islamic tradition, and who themselves identify with or consider themselves part of this religion or tradition are Muslims. There are some immigrant Muslims that don’t want contact with the Islamic community and that considers themselves secularized, and on occasion we have heard that they are objecting to being considered Muslims. It is hard to calculate the exact numbers but from our analysis and mapping, we can assume that there are approximately 15% of the Swedish Muslims that want nothing to do with Islam and that want to be considered as Swedes with an ethnic background.
Swedish Muslim rights and duties, special laws for religious freedom.
Regarding the problems that concern the legal status of Muslims — concerning everything from laws regarding residency- and work-permits, denominational issues and the legal status of their religious functions to possibilities to, with the support of religious freedom, to practise and live according to the message of Islam — the situation varies enormously.
We have struggled, often with little progress, to make Islam accepted on the same terms, and with the same (legal) rights, as any other religion in the country. Despite the fact that you talk about the same general rights for all religions, there are still in practise big differences between the ability of different religions to work in the community.
We require special laws protecting religious freedom since all the conventions regarding human rights that Sweden have committed itself to, we are thinking especially of the UN’s declaration of human rights and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights (ECPHR), imply the right to create special laws protecting religious freedom. Creating such specific laws is really about religious freedom since here in Sweden there has been full religious freedom since 1951.
Swedish Muslims have become more and more politically aware of their rights in the community and now they wish for these rights to be respected. To be able to affect Swedish politics and to maintain an effective dialogue and conversation between Swedish Muslims and the different organs of the community [state in this context] we present these practical and necessary solutions that must be carried out if you wish a successful integration policy and a diversified Sweden.
Svenska muslimer är en svensk minoritet
Religious freedom should apply to everyone, and the UN’s different declarations in this regard are applicable even in Sweden. So in reality all laws should be altered or adjusted after the needs of all minority groups in Sweden. We Muslims are a large minority group in Sweden, but lack status and the laws created to protect religious freedom must be applied in their widest meaning so that they don’t just apply to certain minorities and the majority, but rather they should applied even to the Muslim minority in the country. The problems that exist in regards to the Swedish religious freedom is that it is a Pietistic coloured understanding of individualised religion, that lie behind the Swedish laws regarding religious freedom, whereas for the Muslim minority it is the collective expressions of the religion that are central. One considers the religion more like a way of life than a belief system. It is also a part of ordinary life, with its social rules and judgments, through which religious allegiance is displayed, and the religion practised, not primarily through prayer and sermons and the common religious language that is Arabic. This is why certain Islamic religious practises come outside what is covered by religious freedom.
The Muslim minority criticises this narrow definition of religion that is the basis of the Swedish laws regarding religious freedom. Specific laws are required when it comes to the legal protection of the Muslim minority. With such protection we can request corrections of the Swedish family law to adapt it to Islam. It is this law that is the most important to Swedish Muslims: marriage, divorce, child protection, and raising underage children.
It is also a matter of having the right to take a vacation on some of the two major religious holidays, and to be allowed a few hours time off in the middle of the day on Friday to participate in the Friday prayers. In such matters special legislation is seen as essential to protect the Muslim identity of the Swedish Muslims. The ability to live entirely according to Islamic family law if you wish to do so is very limited in Sweden [it is very difficult to do so], unless we get status as a separate minority.
Islamic religious community in Sweden
In Sweden there are more than 185 local Islamic assemblies, but only a very few mosques. Several mosque projects are underway. The community views this as a threat and many individuals and groups are loudly protesting. Counties and provinces ought to elevate all the so called basement- and apartment mosques around the country to equal status with Churches, if the local politicians want to bring about a practical integration in the country. The resistance to mosque building comes from certain persons and from organised groups. The arguments that are most often used against mosque building are those linked to the environment [surroundings] in that a mosque would lead to increase traffic, and among other things increased air pollution, and noise. The mosque has been seen as an encroachment on parkland. The negative views on mosque building also contains comments and questions about Islam and Muslims. People talk about the immigration numbers and if they’ll increase, about friction between Swedes and Muslims as well as internally between Muslim groups that frequent the area. Many people are openly saying that the limit has been reached, and that the Muslims should accept the customs of the place they’ve come to. The threat [damage] to Swedish values and culture is often held up as an argument. That one thinks ill of or is afraid of Islam as a religion or movement is also often given as a reason among those that argue against mosque building. This strong ill-will can hardly be changed by counterargument and is nourished by ignorance or mythology [bigotry, fantasy] about what it [Islam] stands for. Construction of mosques and financing this construction is a big problem for Muslims in Sweden, the basement facilities that exist are no longer sufficient as they are getting much too cramped.
Muslims are called the basement people by young Muslims that are loath to participate in activities in such underground facilities, often hinting at the problems caused by the local environment such as poor air quality in basements that often lack proper ventilation. Many get sick from underground facilities or bicycle sheds.
Swedish Muslims wishes and hopes.
A mosque in every city or county would have significant value to the Muslims of the country. It would be seen as a recognition of the existence of Muslims and Islam’s right to exist in Sweden. The right to be a Muslim in Sweden is strengthened if there is legislated religious freedom that gives Muslim groups the right to build their own mosques without any obstacles and it would be a sign from the Swedish majority community that religious freedom can work in practise as well. A mosque has several roles other than simply being a place of worship. The mosque is the house of a great people that functions as a social and cultural institution, a place to meet, where the contact with the Swedish community and its fellow citizens happens daily. The demand to be allowed to build Mosques is a step in a process of Muslim integration that is occurring in Sweden. It is a matter of fundamental needs to keep and practise your religion, but also to be able to improve the status of Muslims and gain respect and understanding. In such a situation it would greatly increase the sense of loyalty towards Sweden as your new homeland, despite being a Muslim.
The creation of interest free loans.
The construction of mosques ought to be financed by interest free loans as an alternative to voluntary contributions from abroad. The counties should take the responsibility to either provide security for these interest free loans or to lend money without interest for the construction of mosques for its Muslim inhabitants. The Swedish state should introduce the term interest free loans and borrowers should have the right to deduct payments on interest free loans from the tax returns on the same grounds as loan interest.
Islam and the school
To integrate Islam into Swedish schools reduces the demand for separate private Islamic schools.
This includes elevating native language and religion [Islam] to the level of normal subject in the curriculum, where Muslim children have the possibility of being educated in homogeneous groups using their own native language and their own religion in the County schools. Imams and native language teachers should have status as ordinary teachers in Second Native Language and religion. In this way the demand for separate private schools would lessen and many of the problems Muslim students meet daily in school would easily be eliminated.
Education in school would not be held in a different language from the Swedish, aside from the traditional Native Language education and the increase religious education in their own religion.
To support the establishment of Islamic elementary schools in densely populated areas with many Muslims, where Muslim students would have the opportunity to study in homogeneous groups, could reinforce the students cultural and religious identity and in this way many of the problems that Muslim students meet every day would very simply be eliminated, among other things Native Language, religious education, the issue of Muslim food, the gymnastics [physical education] question, and there could be a concrete way of helping girls and boys from Muslim countries to participate in segregated swimming classes and thereby graduate with a school diploma.
Many Muslim students finish their High School education without being able to swim at all.
Health and Physical Education
Every county ought to have one night a week that should be a woman’s evening, and respectively a man’s evening, in the gym and the swimming hall. The entire hall [facility] should be open only for women or men, whereas other evenings would be for both genders. This is among other things about giving young girls from Muslim countries the opportunity to participate in swimming education and thereby getting a passing grade [equiv to anything above an F] in gymnastics [physical education]. The prerequisite for this is that there are no young boys or adults in the swimming hall. The very presence of the opposite sex prevents certain girls with an immigrant background from taking advantage of the swimming education. Among other things ethnic and religious causes means that Muslim girls may not bathe together with young boys and men.
It is both dangerous and unjust that the girls are often not able to swim at all. Thousands of immigrant women can never use the swimming hall and training facilities. This is a pity. Exercise and activity is required by all and the problem with swimming education and training in the official locales is very great for immigrants men and women.
We demand that county politicians should deliberate this matter immediately. The counties are responsible to make sure that school children get their degrees. All youth regardless of background shall have the opportunity to get a passing grade in gymnastics [physical education]. With good will this could easily be done.
That the riksdag [Parliament] create a law that gives Swedish Muslims the right to take vacation time during the Islamic holidays of Eid al fitr and Eid al Adha is a demand from all Muslims. Currently it is impossible to take time off to celebrate the vacation along with your family.
We demand special legislation in this matter that is the right to two days paid vacation in connection to the celebration of these holidays and that these two days cover the need to celebrate the holidays for Sunni and Shia Muslims and it proves that our religion and culture are accepted by the community.
Wishes and hopes
To solve the integration problem requires a true adjustment of legislation to accommodate the Muslim demand for vacation during the celebration of their holidays. To be able to keep your religious way of life at the same time as the Muslims are integrated into the Swedish community, creates a real diversity in the community. Muslims demand that the government shall investigate the possibility of whether a special law is possible and how in this case it shall be motivated given existing legislation in the religious freedom law [Ed note: Just as incomprehensible in the original.] Muslims are in other words demand special treatment in terms of legislation as they are a minority and this would increase their status and protect them from the majority community.
UN and EU conventions
In Sweden one is often pointed to the constitutionally protected freedom of religion and, since January 1995, the equally constitutionally protected European convention about human rights and the fundamental liberties. The support for special legislation can be found even there, but Sweden today chooses to interpret the laws and conventions in such a narrow way that religious freedom is in practise reduced to a level that is unacceptable.
Muslims as a religious minority have, like any other religious minority, according to, among other things, the UN’s international convention on civic and political rights, the right to have their own culture, the right to profess and practise their own religion or use their own language.
Friday prayer and time off
Two hours of time off for Friday prayer, between 12 noon and 2 pm winter time, and between 1 and 3 pm summer time. The Friday prayer is an obligatory prayer that must be conducted collectively in the mosque. Employers are loath to even talk about the matter with their Muslim employees. The state, as the biggest employer, ought to be an example for other employers in the private sector. A religious minority’s interests and struggle to preserve its identity coincides with both the legislation regarding religious freedom and the established legal minority rights. It would be good to investigate if there is support for special legislation in the relevant parts of the declarations, conventions, and legislation for our just demands.
Halal butchery (permitted foods for Muslims)
To contribute to giving the Muslims and Jews dispensation or special legislation to perform the Islamic and Jewish butchery. In a series of international speeches and conventions it is established that religious freedom is a human right. That certain food items are prohibited to Muslims, especially any products of pigs, are now commonly accepted in the Swedish communities. Institutional food halls are therefore been adapted to providing special food for Muslims and Jews. Since pig products are often used in food items and other everyday objects it has become more difficult for Muslims to determine what can be considered permissible foods. The Department of Food Items has therefore created a listing of any food items that contain pig products as a guide to Sweden’s Muslims and Jews, but access to permitted Swedish meat (halal) can still be a problem. In Sweden animals may not be ritually slaughtered before anaesthesia, but you are permitted to import food to be used for our permitted meals.
It is imported meat that is used in the institutional dining halls in, among other places, all schools. Halal butchery has become a special problem for Muslims. This is especially true in connection to the sacrificial feast (Kurban or Eid al Adha) where Muslim families slaughter a lamb due to religious traditions. Since 1937 it has been prohibited in Sweden to ritually slaughter large animals without preceding anaesthesia. The demand for anaesthesia was part of a larger reform initiate to protect animals. However the law did not only have animal welfare in mind, an important argument was also a distaste for foreign customs. This prohibition against slaughtering according to Jewish and Muslim traditions remains all the same. It has several times been brought up in the riksdag [Parliament] but the decision makers have been unwilling to change their attitude. As late as 1992 a study made by the ministry of agriculture determined that ritual slaughter cannot be accepted in Sweden. Now however there is a new study being made by the department of agriculture and we hope that the decision makers will come to a positive conclusion.
Despite the fact that Islam has existed for 32 years as an organised religion in Sweden, the construction of burial grounds has been constantly hampered. Other than in the forest church yard in Stockholm there are Muslim burial grounds in 20 something countries, but that is not enough. Today there are Muslims in nearly 100 counties that lack burial grounds. The biggest general problem that Muslims encounter is that their dead are to be buried as quickly as possible, according to Islamic custom, and by a Muslim burial in their home county.
Muslims demand that the Union of Congregations [head organ] in the Swedish Church co-operates with the countries counties to reserve burial plots in all counties that have Muslim inhabitants.
Muslims also demand that the ombudsman in each province will, in matters of funerals, take full responsibility to accommodate the Muslim demands for burial grounds.
Imam education in Sweden
Starting Imam education in Swedish universities and colleges is a demand from the nations Muslims and from Swedish authorities. The education can be created as part theology education, part Native Language (Arabic) education. Students can get permission to function as language and theology [religion] teachers. This education can create a natural integration of Islam in Swedish schools, and reduce the demand for private schools.
That the Swedish legal system is democratic and non-discriminating must in practise mean that the system should protect all people and ethnicities in the country, but this isn’t always enough as the Muslims see it. People who belong to minority groups can require special rights to be able to exist on an equal footing with the majority. The biggest problem that Muslims face is the opinions of the majority. The community is responsible [or guilty] for trying to assimilate the immigrants of the nation. Both in daily speech and learned discussion the community uses such concepts and expressions in regards to Muslims that are untrue, distorted, and laden with negative undertones. Borders are made between “us” and “them”.
As members of the dominant majority culture you’re equipped with your own culture’s blinkers that gives you great trouble when it comes to seeing the whole picture. The stark one-sided focussing on the problems are strengthening the already widespread idea that “the immigrants have forced their way into Sweden and they are a burden on the country’s natural resources” and that “they’re the only ones that are to blame for the high unemployment and economic crisis not to mention the cause of their own problems.” Today you openly speak about the Muslims as if they are not proper, full members of the Swedish community.
The negative image of Muslims is maintained and strengthened by the media and not least by the Swedish educational system. Muslims immediately pick up on the negative connotations [subtext, undertone] that are used to describe their existence. It cannot be denied that this will affect their self-image and the end result is that they are kept outside of the community.
Many Muslims experience discrimination, especially at work or when they are looking for housing. The biggest problem in the integration politics is that second generation children and youths cannot find their place in every day life. This should be seen as an expression of negative Swedish cultural influence that has rubbed off on the youth.
Wishes and Hopes
Sweden’s Muslims express displeasure towards those local politicians that are not doing anything to increase the struggle against Islamophobia in Sweden. The Muslims express displeasure towards employers, both in the private and the public sectors, since they [the Muslims] cannot get work because of their origin, skin colour, foreign name and religion.
Muslims demand that the community should treat them in the same way as you treat native Swedes and the Muslims want to live under the same circumstances as their Swedish neighbours.
Muslims want help to create a creative future on the basis of their cultural background and religious allegiance; if this is done they will feel at home in their new homeland.
If the Security Police will continue to consider Islam a violent religion and Muslims as a security risk, the community will force young religious Muslims to segregate and that is not good either for the community or for the Muslims.
Islamic culture should be a part of the multi-cultural community. It is up to the community as the maintainers of the dominant culture to recognise Muslims as full fellow citizens, and give Muslims the same social, cultural, economic, political, religious, and personal right as the “native Swedes” enjoy themselves.
Sveriges Muslimska Förbund