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date: 20 April 2024

Islam and Islamic Studies in Scandinaviafree

Islam and Islamic Studies in Scandinaviafree

  • Susanne OlssonSusanne OlssonDepartment of Ethnology, History of Religions and Gender Studies, Stockholm University
  •  and Simon SorgenfreiSimon SorgenfreiDepartment of History and Contemporary Studies, Södertörn University


Islam in the Scandinavian countries—Denmark, Norway, and Sweden—has a long history. There are evidences of contacts between Scandinavia and the Muslim world at least since the Middle Ages. The presence of Muslims in Scandinavia is however of a later date and more established from the 1950s, when immigrants arrived, mainly due to the needs in the labor markets; they successively established congregations and mosques, as they realized that they were to stay in their new countries. Following this period, Muslim migrants have arrived due to geopolitical factors, such as war, which have increased the number of Muslims and their presence and visibility in public space and public debate, which in turn has affected the media image of Islam and Muslims and influenced research. The research on Islam and Muslims has a long history in Scandinavia as well. With the increase of Muslim inhabitants in Scandinavian countries, scholarly interests have also related more to the present and to the study of their own Muslim populations, as well as case studies related to Islamophobia, media images, Muslims in the school systems and labor market, and specific incidents, such as the cartoon crisis and its aftermath.


  • Groups and Identities
  • Political Values, Beliefs, and Ideologies


Scandinavians have had cultural exchanges with Muslim majority countries since the 800s, when the Rus—Scandinavian Vikings—acted as pirates and tradesmen in contact with both Muslim travelers and in Muslim cultures. There are also reports of Scandinavian Rus converting to Islam and chronicles of Muslim travelers visiting Scandinavia in the so-called Viking Age (late 700s to 1100s) (Duczko, 2004; Hraundal Jonsson, 2015; Sorgenfrei, 2018). Muslims living in the region occurred at a much later date, with the first settling in the 1800s, and in larger numbers following the Second World War.

This article focuses on the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, where Islam is the second largest religion. These countries show several important similarities regarding patterns of immigration and political strategies of integration of immigrants into the respective societies and regarding the academic research of Islam and Muslims. (For a thorough historical and up-to-date overview of the Nordic Welfare State system, from the reformation until the present, in relation to questions regarding immigration and integration, see Mårtensson, 2014). Such similarities aside, there are also differences, resulting from demographics and the politics of integration between them, which shows in distinctions in research projects and foci.

This article will briefly introduce the history of Muslims in the three countries, mainly from the 1950s. An account of research related to Islam and Muslims in the Scandinavian countries is presented, as well as some suggestions of research still lacking.


Sweden is the largest of the Scandinavian countries in size. With 10 million citizens, it also has the largest Muslim population. The first Muslims to organize themselves in Sweden were a small group of immigrants, primarily of Tatar origin, coming from Russia, Estonia, and Finland. The first in the group to establish himself in Sweden was Ebrahim Umerkajeff (1877–1954), from Penza in Russia, who came to Stockholm in 1897 or 1898, later to be followed by the Turk Akif Arhan (1905–1981) in 1928. From 1944 and the years to follow, more Muslims of Tatar and Turkish origin established themselves in Sweden, and in 1949, they formed the first Muslim association in Sweden, the Turk-Islam Association for Religion and Culture, which comprised 50 to 60 persons (Sorgenfrei, 2018). In the 1950s, Sweden also received the first missionary of the Ahmadiyya congregation, Kemal Yousuf, who also formed small Ahmadiyya communities in Denmark and Norway in the 1950s and 1960s (Arly Jacobsen, Larsson, & Sorgenfrei, 2015; Sorgenfrei, 2018). The Tatars as well as the Ahmadiyya community both applied to build mosques in Sweden in the 1950s, applications that were declined by state officials. (The first purpose-built mosque in Sweden was inaugurated in 1976 and was realized by the Ahmadiyya community in Gothenburg).

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Swedish economy and industry were booming, and great political efforts were made to bring a foreign workforce into the country, resulting in an increase of immigrants from a number of south European countries, as well as from Turkey and the Balkans. The result was that the first large Muslim communities in the country were dominated by people of Turkish and Yugoslavian origin. From the 1980s onward, immigration to Sweden has primarily been family reunions and refugee immigrants, fleeing wars and civil unrest. Refugees mainly have arrived from Iran and Iraq, Somalia, West Africa, Afghanistan, and Syria. Jonas Otterbeck and Jørgen Nielsen show that Sweden has historically undergone a greater transformation as a result of immigration than any other European country since the Second World War, affecting demographics and integration politics to a large extent (Nielsen & Otterbeck, 2015, p. 89). Contemporary Sweden also has one of the most heterogeneous Muslim populations in western Europe, representing more than 40 different countries of origin. Sweden Statistics continuously publishes statistical data on this. Most Swedish Muslims live in and around the three largest cities—Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö—and the great majority lives in suburbs such as Rinkeby, Tensta, Husby, and Skärholmen in Stockholm; Biskopsgården, Hammarkullen, and Hjällbo in Gothenburg; and Rosengård in Malmö.

As a result of Sweden’s rather liberal immigration policy, the composition of Muslim communities in Sweden can often be traced to international crises and conflicts. Wars in the former Yugoslavia and Somalia, as well as the wars in Syria and Iraq, have had a strong impact on Sweden’s Muslim communities and their composition. Sweden accepted some of the largest numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers from Iraq and Syria among European Union countries during the war in the Levant in the 2010s, but like rest of Europe, imposed more stringent regulations on refugees and asylum-seekers in 2015 (e.g., systematic border controls) (Larsson & Sorgenfrei, 2017).

Sweden’s first national Muslim federation, United Islamic Associations in Sweden (FIFS) was founded in 1973. Due to a split in FIFS, a second national federation was formed in 1982, under the name of Sweden’s United Muslim Congregations (SMF), and two years later a new group broke out of FIFS and formed the Islamic Center Union (ICUS). All three currently work together under the name of the Islamic Cooperation Council (IS). In 1986, FIFS and SMF created the Islamic Information Bureau Foundation, to be renamed two years later as the Islamic Information Association (IIF), aiming to inform Swedish Muslims and non-Muslims alike, through informational publications, lectures, and such. FIFS and SMF also cooperate in the Swedish Muslim Council (SMR), created in 1990, to centralize power and act as spokespersons for Sweden’s Muslims in contacts between authorities and the public at large. That same year, the still very active youth organization Swedish Young Muslims (SUM) was founded. These organizations are all heavily dominated by Sunni Muslims, but since the 1990s, Sweden has seen an increasing amount of denominational and ethnic organizations, such as the Islamic Shi’a Associations in Sweden (ISS), founded in 1992, or Bosnia-Hercegovina Islamic National Council, created in 1995 (Larsson & Sander, 2009, pp. 169–186; Sorgenfrei, 2018).

Apart from these formal, state funded associations, there are several other national and local organizations not funded by the state, such as Somali or Afghan Muslim organizations. There are also more unofficial groups with large followings that influence the Muslim scene in Sweden. Among the most notable tendencies today are Salafi communities that establish themselves in all major cities and perform active missionary work (da‘wa) through lectures and preaching, to increase their influence, and most of the larger transnational Sufi tariqas (Olsson, 2012; Sorgenfrei, 2016).

Several more liberal and pragmatic groups are also active, attempting to conform their interpretations and practices of Islam to a Swedish context. Examples are Swedish Muslims for Peace and Justice and the Ibn Rushd association, aiming to promote human rights and democracy and to strengthen the Swedish-Muslim identity, as well as online communities such as Progressive Muslimer av Sverige/Queer Muslims Living in Sweden.


Norway, with its 5 million inhabitants, is the eastern neighbor of Sweden and is predominantly Protestant Christian. As in the other Scandinavian countries, Muslims arrived in Norway in greater numbers in the 1960s, mainly as labor immigrants. Among the first to organize themselves as Muslims was the Ahmadiyya community, who came to Norway through the missionary Yousuf Kamal, who introduced Ahmadiyya in Scandinavia in the mid-1950s (Arly Jacobsen et al., 2015). As in Sweden, workers from Turkish Anatolia were among the first to establish themselves in Norway, but laborers from Northern Morocco and the province of Punjab in Pakistan also came as immigrant workers (Vogt, 2000). Muslims of Pakistani background have constituted the most visible Muslim group in Norway. The most notable deployments within the Pakistani-Muslims in Norway are the strongly Sufi-oriented Barelwis and the more traditionally inclined Deobandis. There is also a highly active Tablighi group in Norway (Vogt, 2000).

After a ban on labor migration in 1975, the Norwegian Muslim population has been added to by family reunification and by an increasing number of refugees, primarily from Somalia, Iran, and Iraq (Jacobsen, 2009, p. 18; Vogt, 2000, p. 9). The great majority of Norway’s Muslim population live in the capital, Oslo. Just like the rest of the immigrated population, Oslo’s Muslims mainly live in the eastern part of the city. Bergen, the second-largest town of Norway, has a Muslim population of some quantity, but compared to the Muslim population of Oslo, the Muslims in Bergen have been quite anonymous until recently, when a conflict over prayer facilities and a new mosque attracted some media attention (Jacobsen, 2009, p. 18f).

Until the 1990s, the most common way of institutionalizing Islam in Norway was through the establishment of mosques and organizations along national, linguistic, and doctrinal lines. In the 1990s, several new organizations that recruited across these boundaries were established—some of which had nationwide ambitions (Jacobsen, 2009, pp. 20–21; Vogt, 2000, Ch. 6). The first Muslim umbrella organization—The Muslim Defence Committee—was established as a response to the so-called Rushdie affair, in 1989. That same year also witnessed the establishment of the Islamic Information Association (DIIF), and in 1991, the Islamic Women’s Group of Norway and the Urtehagen Foundation—focusing on education and schooling—were established. Following an initiative from the Church of Norway, the Islamic Council of Norway (IRN) was established in 1993. In 2006, the umbrella organization Islamic Council congregated about 25 Muslim organizations throughout the country. In addition to these, two largely independent student and youth organizations were established in the 1990s. The Muslim Student Organization (MSS) and the Muslim Youth of Norway (NMU) were established in 1995 and 1996 and marked the “coming of age of a new generation of Muslims born and raised in Norway” (Jacobsen, 2009, pp. 21, 23f; Vogt, 2000, p. 74ff and especially Ch. 6). The Islamic Council currently organizes 42 member associations that have 82,999 individual members. The main aim of the Council is to assist Muslims to live in accordance with Islamic teaching in Norway and to contribute to building a Norwegian-Muslim identity.

Several Norwegian Muslims also engage in associations without state funding. In Norway, discussions among some liberal Muslims have been going on for years to support gay Muslims and strengthen the position of Muslim women (“Norwegian Muslim Plans Liberal Mosque in Oslo," 2017). A mosque in Oslo is planned that will allow women to act as imams, will encourage gender-mixed congregations, and will be gay-friendly. On the more conservative side, Salafis gain influence not least through the organization, but also via less visible groups operating in the major cities, notably Oslo, and the group Profetens Ummah, which is more radicalized than (See Michalsen, 2015, for an analysis of the Prophet’s Ummah.)


Denmark, with its 5 million inhabitants, is the southernmost Scandinavian country, also predominantly Protestant Christian, and where Islam is the second largest religion. We know of Muslim travelers visiting what today is Denmark already during the so-called Viking age and there are traces of connections between the Muslim world and Denmark since the Middle Ages (Sorgenfrei, 2018). But as in Sweden and Norway, Muslims living in Denmark are of a later date, and for example there were eight Danes registered as Muslims in a census from 1880. However, as was the case in Sweden and Norway, early Muslim representation in Denmark was related to the Ahmadiyya mission in the 1950s, while more substantial groups arrived in the country as labor migrants mainly from Yugoslavia, North Africa, Pakistan, and Turkey in the 1960s and 1970s. Since the late 1970s onwards, Muslim immigrants have arrived in Denmark primarily through family reunification and by refugees fleeing Lebanon (1975–1990), the Iran-Iraq war (1980–1988), the wars in former Yugoslavia (1991–1999), the wars in Afghanistan (2001–), and wars in Iraq (1991, 2003–) and Syria (2011–) (Schmidt, 2009, pp. 165–166).

The largest Muslim ethnic group is Turks, followed by Iraqis, Lebanese, Pakistanis, Somalis, and Afghanis (Nielsen & Otterbeck, 2015, p. 85; Schmidt, 2009, p. 166). As a response to growing refugee immigration related to war and civil unrest in the 1980s and 1990s, Denmark adopted one of the harshest immigration and refugee politics of all countries in western Europe (Nielsen & Otterbeck, 2015, pp. 84–85). Moreover, after the refugee situation following the conflicts in the Levant in the 2010s, Denmark passed even more stringent rules, making it difficult for asylum seekers, and the recognition rate has dropped dramatically, from 85% in 2015 to 36% in 2017.

Freedom of religion has been incorporated in the Danish constitution since 1849, when Denmark first became a democratic monarchy. Since then, religious communities have constitutional rights to exist and practice religious traditions other than Christianity. The monarch and the state religion were, however, declared to be Evangelical Lutheran, and the Lutheran church remains a department of the state to this day (Nielsen & Otterbeck, 2015, pp. 86). Unlike Sweden (2000) and Norway (2012), Denmark still has an official state church, which is Evangelical Lutheran (Den Danske Folkekirke), to which the monarchy must adhere.

State as well as public responses to the growing Muslim population have varied. In all countries, appropriate space for Muslim burial grounds has been made available, for example. In other cases, public protests and governmental attitudes have made the establishment of different forms of Islamic institutions—such as mosques or schools—more difficult (Karlsson Minganti & Svanberg, 1995; Nielsen & Otterbeck, 2015, p. 87).

Religious associations based on ethnicity dominate in terms of members in Denmark, and they are often related to a specific mosque, where they gather for religious and social events. However, there are also communities transcending ethnicity (Schmidt, 2009, p. 168). Over the last decades, various Muslim umbrella organizations have formed, through which different Muslims want to voice issues that they feel concern all Muslims in Denmark. Among the first to organize themselves where Shi’ites from Pakistan, founding an Ismaili foundation in 1969; in 1981, an Ithna Ashariya (twelver) community founded the Islamic Centre Jafariya. Following the civil war in Lebanon and the Iran-Iraq war, large numbers of Shi’ite Muslims came to Denmark. Today several Shi’ite mosques or prayer houses are established in Denmark, and in 2015, the Imam Ali mosque was inaugurated in Copenhagen. To this day, it is the largest Shi’ite mosque in Europe, with room for 1,500 persons during prayer.

The Danish Turkish Islamic Federation, connected to Diyanet, was established in 1985. The year after, several other Turkish congregations went together to form the Union of Muslim Immigrant Associations (DMGT). A primarily Pakistani congregation was also formed, under the name of Idara Minhaj-ul-Qur’an, in 1987, and in 1996, a primarily Palestinian organization was formed, the Islamic Religious Community in Denmark. There are several Sufi orders, as well as Muslim youth organizations active in Denmark. In 2006, the United Council of Muslims was founded as an umbrella organization, representing 35 000 Muslims. The Danish Muslim Union, collecting (2009) nine associations, was founded in 2008 (Arly Jacobsen, 2016; Schmidt, 2009, pp. 168–171). Other international associations were established as well, such as The Islamic Association (Det Islamiske Forbund i Danmark), which is a part of the Muslim World League (Rabita) based in Mecca, as well as a number of youth organizations. Other non-affiliated groups exist, such as Critical Muslims, a Sufi reform movement aiming to work for a democratic and pluralistic understanding of Islam.

Most Muslims live in Copenhagen, but congregations are also found in other larger cities. As in the other Scandinavian countries, Islam is mainly an urban phenomenon. The Miriam Mosque in Copenhagen opened in 2016 and has a female imam, and their purpose is to work for women’s equality in Islam. That it is controversial is shown in that the mosque’s location is not public, and it has received criticism from other Muslim congregations. Salafis have increased their influence in Danish cities and, as in the other Scandinavian countries, most Salafis are against violence and advocate a pietistic Islam with strong segregation. They have a vivid activity on the web and they engage in lecturing to spread their message. Furthermore, Denmark is the only Scandinavian country where Hizb al-Tahrir is active, and it has attracted attention from the public, journalists, and researchers alike (Nielsen, 2011; Simonsen, 2014, p. 205).

Immigration to Scandinavia: A Comparative Perspective

As illustrated, the Scandinavian countries have many similarities that exist in the forms of political development and the declining position of Protestant state churches, which today exist only in Denmark. All countries secure freedom of (and from) religion by law and support acknowledged religious congregations with state funding, which most likely explains why Muslims in the Scandinavian countries have a longer history of organizing associations.

Despite these similarities among the three countries, there are important disparities to consider when it comes to issues relating to immigration and integration politics. Denmark has had the most restrictive immigration policy of the three countries, especially visible since the Levant crisis in 2016, when stricter rules were implemented for asylum seekers and family reunions. Sweden has the least restrictive, and Norway ends up somewhere in between (Bevelander et al., 2013). Comparing the countries, Sweden has by far the largest immigrant population, particularly refugees, both in absolute and relational terms (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Immigration to Norway, Sweden, and Demark, 1968–2011. Absolute numbers.

Source: Population statistics: Statistics Norway, Statistics Sweden, Statistics Denmark.

Even though there are great similarities in the history of immigration to the three countries during the second half of the 20th century, there are important differences to take into consideration. Such differences have resulted in different ethnic compositions of immigrant populations among the three countries and differences within the same ethnic groups, in comparison between the three countries (see Table 1).

Table 1. Asylum Applications Filled in Scandinavian Countries by Top Countries of Origin, 2015.

Overwhelmed by Refugee Flows, Scandinavia Tempers Its Warm Welcome, by A. Tanner, 2016, Migration Policy Institute, Washington, DC.

The greatest difference regarding patterns of immigration, in between the three countries focused on, concerns numbers. Sweden has about three times as many immigrants as Norway and Denmark. This difference is evident when it comes to (estimations) of the number of Muslims, or rather people of a Muslim cultural background, living in the three countries. As stated by Schmidt and Otterbeck, specific statistical demographic data on the number of Muslims, their social standard, housing, and labor market performance, do not exist in Scandinavian countries, and the main reason for this lack of data is that religious affiliation has not been registered in these countries since the early or mid-20th century (Schmidt & Otterbeck, 2015, p. 392).

According to estimations done by the American think tank Pew Research Center in 2011, based on cohort-component method, the Muslim population of the three countries are as shown in Table 2.

In relation to the ongoing wars in Syria and Iraq, large numbers of refugees have arrived in Scandinavia—and as in previous decades most these immigrants come from Muslim majority countries. Many, however, identify with non-Muslim groups in these countries, such as Christians, Yezidis, Mandeans, or Alevites, fleeing from discrimination and persecution conducted by representatives of the Muslim majorities (Larsson & Sorgenfrei, 2017).

Structural Discrimination

As we lack statistics on the number of Muslims in the three countries, and as religious self-identification is not registered, easily comparable research on specifically Muslims experiences of, for example the Scandinavian labor or housing markets, are largely absent.

Even though there has been consensus more or less within Swedish politics that employment promotes integration, studies show that access to the labor market has decreased in general for immigrants (not only Muslims) since the 1970s (see , e.g., Bevelander, 1995, 2000; Bevelander, Rojas, and Carlson, 1997; Larsson & Sander, 2009, Ch. 3. 1,7). According to Bevelander et al., the failure to give immigrants access to the labor market is so considerable in Sweden that it (alongside Norway and Denmark) resides at the bottom of the statistics in comparison to the rest of the industrialized world (1997, Ch. 2). Muslim immigrants who, despite these challenges, have been granted access to the labor market are most often referred to employment in positions far below their level of education, training, and skills, most often found in unqualified jobs in the industry, hotel, and restaurant sectors, together with the private service sector (Larsson & Sander, 2009, pp. 263–264; Nielsen & Otterbeck, 2015, p. 90). In general, men with Middle Eastern names need to apply for twice as many jobs as men with Swedish-sounding names before they get employment. Further, the studies show that men with Middle Eastern backgrounds, who have been able to get employment typically earn 20% less than ethnic Swedes (Bursell, 2014).

Similar results are found in the neighboring countries. Even though Norwegian studies suggest that the overall labor market outcomes of immigrants are favorable in international comparisons (Liebig, 2009), other studies conclude that the overall finding is one of a considerable gap between immigrants and natives in both employment and earnings. The immigrant–native gap is particularly large for recent immigrants and declines sharply during the first years in Norway. After about eight years, however, further increases in residency have no effect. Keeping the time of residency effect constant, there is a quite clear tendency for earnings (but not employment) differences between male immigrants and natives to increase with time since graduation. For women, the most striking effect is a steady decline in immigrants’ probability of full-time employment (Brekke & Mastekaasa, 2008; Hansen, 2000; Longva & Raaum, 2003).

As stated by Ulrika Mårtensson, Nordic immigration policies are conditioned by labor market considerations. As the Nordic populations age, immigration is viewed by many as providing a vital and much needed work force, and hence is seen as economically beneficial. However, public debates (as well as populist parties) tend to picture immigration as an economic burden (Mårtensson, 2014).

Mårtsensson also points to important national differences regarding attitudes toward immigration and integration. Sweden and Norway follow the EU’s two-way approach to integration, emphasizing that immigrants and cultural minorities should be integrated through a process of mutual accommodation between minorities and majority institutions, and through intercultural dialogue (Mårtensson, 2014). Denmark, however, has opted for a more assimilationist polity, where minority cultural groups are expected to adapt to the majority culture. Despite these different approaches, Mårtensson states that the Scandinavian countries “are committed to securing immigrants’ equal opportunities on the labour and housing markets and in the education system” (Mårtsensson, 2014, p. 16).

The discrimination of people with immigrant backgrounds can also be related to the school system. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports show that the rate of drop-out from upper secondary school in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden is significantly higher among immigrant children than among their peers. OECD concludes that this relates to issues regarding socioeconomic inequality, segregation, culture barriers, xenophobia, and discrimination (OECD, 2005, 2009a, 2010).

Governments have responded to inequalities in labor markets and education by launching national action plans. Sweden and Norway (as well as Finland) have appointed national ombudsmen for ethnic discrimination (Hedetoft, 2006, pp. 4–5; Leibig, 2009), and in 2009, Denmark introduced a Board of Equal Treatment (Danish Ministry of Refugee, Immigration, and Integration Affairs, 2009, p. 5). One example of a government action plan is the Norwegian Ministry of Labour and Social Inclusion, which has identified four target areas: work; upbringing, education and language; equality of opportunities; and participation. Concrete actions within these four areas involve the following:

Ensure the participation of immigrants’ children in nursery schools from the age of four, to stimulate learning the Norwegian language;

Provide free nursery school places for poor immigrant families;

Campaign and educate to prevent the early and sometimes forced marriages of young boys and girls;

Campaign against female genital mutilation;

Provide more substantial “introductory learning packages” about Norwegian language and society for new immigrants;

Actively recruit immigrants to initiatives in the public sector to specifically targeted networking activities;

Offer apprenticeships;

Subsidize initial salaries and extended trial periods. (Leibig, 2009, p. 26)

Norway does not have any free schools with an Islamic orientation, but it has been discussed. In Sweden, a free school reform has opened for schools with a religious orientation. Religion is taught in addition to all other obligatory subjects. The situation in Denmark is similar to Sweden. Since 1978, private schools with a Muslim profile exist in Denmark. Several private schools have language profiles in addition to Islamic teaching. A total of 20 schools in Denmark have an Islamic profile today (for more on Islamic free schools in Scandinavia, see Otterbeck & Schmidt, 2015, pp. 87–88).

Representations of Islam and Muslims

In his 2012 doctoral dissertation, Johan Cato illustrated how governmental debates concerning Islam and Muslims in Sweden have changed from the 1970s and 1980s, when they primarily focused on practical issues, to the 1990s and onward, where the main debates have concerned security issues and problems related to integration and migration. In this process, immigrants from Muslim majority countries less and less were referred to as Yugoslavs, Turks, Iraqis, and so on, according to their ethnic or national backgrounds, but rather were homogenized to simply “Muslims.” In a similar way, research shows that there was a change in the Norwegian public debate from the “immigrant other” to the “Muslim other” in the 1990s (Jacobsen, 2009) Danish research also shows how Muslims are homogenized and primarily connected to security issues in Danish media (Jul Jacobsen, Jensen, Vitus, & Weibel, 2012).

In an essay on Muslims in Norwegian media, Kjersti Rogde Naess finds that Muslims have generally been depicted as “the Others” in Norway, as not being a natural part of the majority population. The otherness of Muslim immigrants is generally portrayed as something negative in the press, where Muslims are associated with criminality and other anti-social or “non-Norwegian” behavior, which is explained through their religious denomination, where Islam is being reified into a coherent system (Naess, 2003). Research also suggests that the popular discourse on Islam and Muslims in Sweden, as well as the media image, promotes an essentialist notion about Islam, allowing generalizing about Muslims as a homogeneous group (Axner, 2015).

In relation to such studies of media representations of Muslims in Scandinavia, some general observations can be emphasized. First, we can see changes in the attitudes toward immigrants of Muslim cultural background, especially in relation to growing numbers of refugees fleeing the Iran-Iraq war, and other wars in Muslim majority countries, such as Somalia or other West African and Middle Eastern countries, in the 1990s. This has led to a homogenization of diverse immigrant groups into “Muslims.” Such “Muslims” have also been connected to security issues, and often, lack of integration. According to Garbi Schmidt and Jonas Otterbeck, debates over the integration of immigrants into Scandinavian societies show a blurring of:


What the term integration actually implies.


What parameters immigrants should follow when integrating, focusing on either involvement in the labour market or the educational system, or adopting certain social and cultural norms of “Danishness,” “Swedishness,” or “Norwegianness.”


Understandings of the easily or problematically integrated immigrant. (Schmidt & Otterbeck, 2015, p. 399)

In relation to the third category, several studies show that Muslimness is often portrayed as contrary to Scandinavian national cultures and that Muslims (within parts of the political spectrum) often are understood as more difficult, or even impossible to integrate (Cato, 2012; Cato & Otterbeck, 2011; Schmidt, 2007; Schmidt & Otterbeck, 2015, p. 399).

Based on research from the three countries in focus, Schmidt and Otterbeck conclude that the political debate over the integration of Muslim immigrants in Scandinavia is based on a hegemonic understanding of what a Muslim is, and that two major and opposing trends are discernible:


A homogenization of Muslims, claiming Muslimness to be the core identity of any individual with a Muslim religious background.


A diversification of Muslims/Islam, implying completely contradicting things for different individuals.

While the first trend essentializes Muslim identity—usually in a way dissatisfying to individuals who self-identify as Muslims—the second trend runs the risk of oversimplifying or ignoring complex issues relating to religious and cultural background or migration experiences (Schmidt & Otterbeck, 2015, p. 399). The last trend, then, relates to primarily postmodern theory, stating that there is no “Islam,” only Muslims, who all interpret their religion in individual and different ways. While the first trend runs the risk of missing important cultural differences between different immigrant groups, the latter trend might underestimate similar cultural needs and experiences.

In relation to primarily the first of these categories, and as mentioned earlier, Muslims are often, as a homogenized group, in all three countries, associated with issues relating to national security. The Danish study Islam og muslimer i Danmark: Religion, identitet og sikkerhed efter 11. september 2001 (Rytter & Holm Pedersen, 2014) shows that Islam and Muslims in Denmark after 9/11 are often related to security issues and to what they call a “securitization process.” This process has resulted in fewer refugees accepted. Denmark also began to select which refugees would be accepted into the country according to what is called “integrational potential,” which, in practice, has meant that more Christian refugees have been granted residency than refugees of Muslim background (Rytter & Holm Pedersen, 2014, p. 2307).

Denmark, according to the study, has adopted a security/integrational response to the events of 9/11 and following immigration and societal change. In such a response, previous challenges of integration merged with urgent questions related to national and international security. Erik Bleich characterizes this in the following terms:

Security dimensions have been layered onto pre-existing concerns about integration, melding with parallel worries about immigration, crime and the public’s association between Muslims and violence . . . a rolling series of events—particularly domestic ones—weighing more heavily on certain policies and public responses than others.

(Bleich, 2009, p. 355)

The Danish state’s security/integrational response to the situation led to the revising of policies regarding integration in a number of ways. In 2002, the government abolished mother tongue teaching, arguing that, for integrational reasons, children should speak Danish at home. Another example was that subsidies paid to immigrant associations in general (not only religious ones) were significantly reduced. While such associations had been considered a means of enhanced engagement with civil society—in the wake of 9/11, they were monitored and regarded as more or less suspect. Also, a citizenship examination was introduced, testing applicants’ knowledge of Danish history, culture, and society, in addition to them signing a declaration to swear loyalty to Danish society and respect of Danish laws (Rytter & Holm Pedersen, 2014, p. 2308).

In Denmark, discussions in parliament during 2017 involved the need to prevent that immigrants from creating parallel societies, and that Danes could become minorities in certain areas.

During the first decade of the 2000s, Islam and Muslims became objects of great public and political debates in Denmark, with regard to two specific issues: immigration and security (Nielsen & Otterbeck, 2015, p. 85). Studies (Rytter & Holm Pedersen, 2014) show that Islam and Muslims in Denmark, after 9/11, are often related to security issues and to what is often called a securitization process. The so-called cartoon controversy (2005) occurred after the Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The idea behind the publication was said to be participation in the debate on self-censorship related to being critical to Islam. It resulted in upheavals and demonstrations around the world, and in Denmark (and elsewhere), a vivid debate concerning religious freedom and freedom of speech followed. The controversy targeted Danish Muslims who felt forced to take a stand. This resulted in the formation of the Organization of Democratic Muslims for example. Among Danish Muslims, there is also a drive toward female integration in mosques.

The Academic Study of Islam and Muslims

The study of Islam, or Muslim cultural productions, at Scandinavian universities began primarily among linguists, in the 19th century. In the early 20th century, a more comparative and descriptive historical discipline of other than Christian religions developed into complement theological seminars, which successively developed into separate units in their own rights. Within these, early Islam and the history of dynasties were included, focusing on elite interpretations of Islam, in line with older Orientalist traditions and perspectives. In the Scandinavian countries, the focus was, until at least the 1970s or 1980s, mainly on early Islamic history. Research focus changed after the revolution in Iran. Islam was increasingly studied as a political factor, and the insight that lived Islam was dynamic and heterogenic brought an interest from scholars of a social anthropological approach, and philological and historical studies no longer dominated. It thus took some time before contemporary Islam became a subject for academic research, due to historical changes and the situation after World War II. Studies of Islam and Muslim culture in Scandinavia are, however, of an even later date, from the 1990s, and they are steadily increasing due to the increasing presence of Muslims in Scandinavia.

Research on Islam and Muslims in Scandinavia has to a large extent been conducted by scholars using ethnographic methods or with a sociological framing. As discussed, several studies have focused on issues relating to immigration and integration, education and schooling, and gender relations. An overview of research in the three countries will be presented.


In Sweden, a chair in Islamic studies was established in Lund in 1984. The first holder of the chair was Professor Jan Hjärpe, who is now retired. He has been one of the most important scholars within the field of Islamic studies in Sweden, not the least because of his role in introducing new methods and theories into the study of Islam, and for stressing the importance of also studying the contemporary situation and not only historical Islam. In an overview of Swedish research on Islam in 2016, Hjärpe mapped existing and ongoing research related to Islam, and he pointed to a number of fields where important research has been done, as religious change and transmission of tradition in relation to globalization and migration, issues relating to religious identity studied with psychological and sociological theories and research questions. Hjärpe also identified studies on gender roles and the overall gender perspectives on source material. He also noted how several researchers are interested in what is happening in the media and on the Internet (Hjärpe, 2016). The overview presented in this article shows that the field of research is similar in Norway and Denmark.

There are a number of general overviews of Islam and Muslims in Sweden. One of the first widely spread collections Blågul islam? (Blue and Yellow Islam), was edited by Svanberg and Westerlund (1999) but earlier in the 1980s, the sociologist of religion Åke Sander published several articles on Islam in western Europe and Muslim immigration to Sweden (Sander, 1985, 1988a, 1988b). His work continued and, in the 1990s, studies on the process of integration and complications concerning freedom of religion were published, following the influx of Muslim immigrants from other parts of the world due to wars and conflicts. Following this, studies on Islam and Muslims as a contemporary Swedish phenomenon have continued. Some studies of Åke Sander have been co-published with the historian of religion, Göran Larsson, for example Islam and Muslims in Sweden: Integration or Fragmentation: A Contextual Study (2009). Göran Larsson has published extensively on both the historical presence of Islam in Sweden and the Nordic countries and on the contemporary situation (Larsson, 2013; Larsson & Thurfjell, 2013). Many of these publications are on a scientific level, but most often are directed to a wider audience; one aim seems to be to contribute to the understanding of Islam as a multifaceted phenomenon and to probe into issues of integration and related to the ideals of a pluralist society.

The first doctoral dissertation relating to Islam in Sweden was Kjell Härenstam’s Skolboksislam, which was published in 1983 and analyzed representations of Islam in Swedish schoolbooks. Härenstam’s study became the first in a series of studies on Islam, Muslims, and Swedish schooling. While Härenstam analyzed Swedish textbooks, Jenny Berglund among others have made use of ethnographical methods, studying Muslim free schools and Islamic religious education in Sweden (Berglund, 2009; Brattlund, 2009); such studies have been further developed by Karin Kittelmann-Flensner who, based on extensive fieldwork and classroom ethnography, partly analyzed Islamic religious education in relation to what she defined as a hegemonic secularist discourse (Kittelmann-Flensner, 2015).

The Muslim minorities’ legal situation has already been analyzed in Jonas Alvall’s 1998 thesis Religious Liberty and Plights: Religious Liberty Situation of a Minority in Sweden, in which the issue of religious liberty is discussed from the perspectives of human rights and minority rights discourse. From another angle, Johan Cato analyzed how Islam and Muslims have been depicted in Swedish public policy debates between the years 1975–2010. Analyzing major government documents, official government inquiries, parliamentary debates, bills, committee work, and proposals for parliamentary resolutions, this doctoral thesis demonstrates shifts that have occurred in the discourses concerning Islam and Muslims in public policy debates over the time period in focus.

In the early 2000s, two dissertations were published, focusing on conversion to Islam in Sweden, and especially on women converting to Islam (Månsson, 2002; Sultan Sjöqvist, 2006). The topic of conversion has continued to be focused, for example, in Anna Månsson McGinty’s research. Another influential thesis placing itself within the field of gender studies and making use of ethnographical methods, is the ethnologist Pia Karlsson Minganti’s 2007 study Muslima, which focused on young Muslim women activists’ identity formations and negotiations regarding gender in Sweden, while struggling to be recognized as subjects with agency. Another important contribution to gender formations, with a focus on Muslim women’s parenthood, was presented in ethnologist Jenny Ask’s 2014 thesis, Lyssna till ditt hjärta. Muslimska moderskap och modrandets villkor i Sverige, in which she analyzed a Swedish Muslim mother’s formations of gender, religion, and space.

Karlsson Minganti’s study is one of fairly few focusing on Muslim youth or young adults. Another prolific study about young Muslims in Scandinavia—one of very few that analyses secular and non-organized Muslims in Sweden and Denmark—is Jonas Otterbeck’s (2010) Samtidsislam (Contemporary Islam). However, this focus seems to increase among scholars due to the present strong interest among sociologists of religion in the phenomenon of “nones” and on secularized religiosity. (In the fall of 2017, scholars of religion Ann af Burén, David Thurfjell, and Erika Willander began a research project focusing on what is defined as semi-secular Muslims in Sweden.)

Several studies concern Islamophobia or violence directed at Muslims, such as Marta Kolankiewicz’s 2015 thesis, defended in a department of sociology, Anti-Muslim Violence and the Possibility of Justice (2015). The topic of Islamophobia was emphasized during the first part of the 21st century in studies such as Göran Larsson’s report on thoughts on Islamophobia (Larsson, 2006) and Otterbeck & Bevelander’s (2006) study of the concept and analysis on attitudes toward Islam. Historian of religion Mattias Gardell also wrote a book entitled Islamophobia in 2010. Klas Borell made an overview on Islamophobic stereotypes and hate crimes in 2012.

Studies on political and fundamentalist expressions Islam are also rare in Sweden, and important exceptions are Susanne Olsson’s studies of Salafism in Sweden and a thesis by Güney Dogan consisting of ethnographic fieldwork focusing on lived Salafism among Swedish young men (Dogan, 2012; Olsson, 2012, 2014). Studies of radicalized and extremist Islam are scarce, but examples exist—for example Marco Nilsson’s interview report with Swedish Jihadis (Nilsson, 2018; see also Gustafsson & Ranstorp, 2017). Studies on how Muslims in Sweden view each other seem to be growing too, due to increasing interest in fundamentalism among scholars (Olsson, 2017). Recent Swedish studies show that intra-Muslim conflicts are on the rise (Borell, Josefsson, & Nilsson, 2017; Sorgenfrei, 2016). The conflict is primarily between Sunni and Shi’a groups (Björk & Larsson, 2015, p. 9; Larsson & Thurfjell, 2013, p. 51) as well as between different Sunni groups, such as Salafi-Sufi conflicts (Larsson & Sorgenfrei, 2018; Sorgenfrei, 2016, pp. 87–89; Stjernholm, 2013, pp. 196–201). In Sweden, the presence of Salafism can be attributed in part to migration, but more importantly to successful missionary activities, particularly among young Muslims. An important reason for this is its presence on social media (see, e.g., Björk & Larsson, 2015, pp. 9–11; Stjernholm, 2013). A recent report from the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) shows that a large part of violent Salafi propaganda is distributed on social media (Kaati, 2017), something that was also identified in an earlier report from the Swedish Defence College (FHS) (Gustafsson, 2015). Academic research on Salafism in Sweden to date has focused on Salafis belonging to what can be termed as an isolationist-puritan strand of Salafism (Dogan, 2012; Olsson, 2012, 2016). Similar tendencies have been identified also in the other Scandinavian countries (Linge, 2016).

This short overview illustrates how scholars are clearly affected by the present historical context and current public debates and problematic issues. This is also the case in the rest of Scandinavia.


In Norway, research on Islam and Muslims follows approximately the same lines as Sweden. There are a number of studies presenting overviews of the history and establishment of Islam and Muslims in Norway, for example, Sindre Bangstad and Olav Elgvin’s contribution to The Yearbook of Muslims in Europe (2016) and Kari Vogt’s (2000) influential study Islam på norsk (Islam in Norwegian), as well as further studies. There is also an edited volume by Hege Irene Markussen and Richard Johan Natvig, Islamer i Norge (Islams in Norway), which resembles the idea behind the afore-mentioned Swedish anthology Blågul islam? to present several case studies on Islam and Muslims in Norway to a more general public (Markussen & Natvig, 2005). For a thorough overview, comparing the three Scandinavian countries in focus in the present article, Ulrika Mårtensson (2014) has provided an in-depth study in “Introduction: ‘Public Islam’ and the Nordic Welfare State: Changing Realities?”

Several studies on fundamentalism and Salafism in Norway have been published and the interest in authority and fundamentalism is strong also in Norway (Lønning, 1997). To name but one example, Olav Elgvin’s article “Ideas Do Matter: Politics and the Islamic Tradition Among Muslim Religious Leaders in Norway” studies Islam in Norway with a focus on religious leadership (Elgvin, 2013). Journalistic studies on the topic of radicalization and extremism have also been published recently, due to the present situation in the Levant and the actions of the Islamic State, to which a number of young Scandinavian Muslims have traveled. One example is Lars Akerhaug’s book on “Muslim extremists” in Norway (Akerhaug, 2013). A similar study is written by the Swedish journalist Magnus Sandelin (2013). The Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad (2016) wrote the book To søstre that narrates a true story of two young Somali-Norwegian women who travelled to Syria to join the IS. To søstre became the most sold book in Norway in 2016.

On a very different note, a number of studies on aesthetical expressions of Islam in Norwegian society and public spaces have been published, primarily by culture historian Naguib Saphinaz-Amal (Saphinaz-Amal, 2001, 2002a, 2002b, 2002c, 2003). These and several other studies probe into the place of Islam in Norway and the “Norwegian-ness” of the Muslims, suggesting an interest in how Muslims understand and construct their identities as being Norwegian Muslims and how Islam is (constructed as) a Norwegian religion. Such research is prevalent in all three countries. In relation to the other Scandinavian countries, a large Pakistani group is established in Norway, which explains why many studies have been devoted to the Norwegian Pakistanis, many of whom are concerned with the issue of being Pakistani Norwegian Muslim, thus focusing on identity issues (see, e.g., Aase, 1992; Ahlberg, 1990; Brekketo, 2013; Døving, 2005; Grimsrud Christensen, 2010; Irgan, 1999; Linge, 2009; Solli, 2011, 2013).

Muslim youth culture in Norway has been the target of a series of studies conducted by Christine M. Jacobsen (2005a, 2005b, 2006) since her dissertation, Staying on the Straight Path: Religious Identities and Practices Among Young Muslims in Norway. Jacobsen analyzed Muslim youth culture and young Muslims, negotiations in Norwegian society. This is but one of a number of studies focusing on Muslim youth in Norway, which seems to be an increasingly popular study focus, shown, for example, in the report by Aksel M. Bjerke (2016), “Unge norske muslimer. Refleksjoner om identitet, religion og ytringsfrihet” (LIM Rapport, 1), and by a long list of articles and theses in both English and Norwegian that have been published, indicating that this is also a part of the public debate and news flow in Norway (see, e.g., publications by Aarset, 2007; Jacobssen 2009; Larsen, 1995).

Gender and Islam is also a topic of research in Norway (Aarset & Five, 2006; Bøe, 2017; Jacobsen, 2004, 2006; Kayed, 1999; Predelli, 2004a; Thun, 2012; Van Es, 2016). Studies on Islamic feminism and equality address topics similar to the previously mentioned, such as identity issues and negotiations on being a Muslim woman in secularized Norway, which stresses individualism and equality between men and women. One example is found in Margaretha A. van Es (2016), a study exploring how women active in Islamic organizations in Norway have represented the position of “women in Islam,” particularly focusing on distinctions many women make between the patriarchal practices of Muslim cultures and what they consider to be a “real” Islam that empowers women.

Legal issues have not been much focused on in Norway, but pluralism related to gender studies, where Islamic law is one topic, has been addressed in Farhat Taj’s (2013) thesis Legal Pluralism, Human Rights and Islam in Norway: Making Norwegian Law Available, Acceptable and Accessible to Women in a Multicultural Setting—a sociolegal study of law, culture, and religion that explores the “internal discourse” and “cross-cultural dialogue” undertaken by two women’s nongovernmental organizations in Norway. The thesis underscores the need for more micro-level research studies to provide empirical and theoretical insights into the broader social and political debates about Muslim women’s human rights in the Western democracies (Taj, 2013). Another example is found in Line Nyhagen Predelli (2004b), which studies immigrant Muslim women in Norway, exploring variations in how immigrant Muslim women in Norway interpret and practice gender relations within the framework of Islam, primarily analyzing wife-husband relations and participation in the labor market.

As in Sweden, there are studies on hate crime and Islamophobia in Norway (Bangstad, 2013a; Leirvik, 2011) as well as Islam and education (Leirvik, 2009). Another topic that has been given a lot of attention is Islam in Norwegian media and on the Internet. Sindre Bangstad has analyzed this from the perspective of inclusion and exclusion, but also regarding “morality police” as presented in Norwegian media (Bangstad, 2011, 2013b). Oddbjörn Leirvik also studied the effects of the Danish cartoon controversy in Norwegian media. Henrik Reintoft Christensen’s doctoral thesis concerned how various religions, including Islam, have been represented in Scandinavian media and parliaments (Christensen, 2010).

Thus, the Norwegian research agenda follows lines similar to those of Sweden. Topics currently discussed in media and public debates are mirrored in research publications. The Norwegian research scene includes a stronger focus on the Pakistani Muslim minority, due to the Muslim population in Norway, but other than that similar topics are covered (Leirvik, 2011).


In Denmark, a vital injection into academic research on Islam and Muslims in contemporary society was a project called Islam i nutiden (Islam Today) financed by Statens Humanistiske Forskningsråd. Within the frames of this project, a number of researchers focused on the cultural and religious activities of Muslim immigrants in Denmark. One noticeable outcome of the project was a series of books published, between 1984 and 1991, indicating an earlier interest in contemporary Islam and Muslims compared to Sweden and Norway. These publications covered a number of topics; for example, Lars Pedersen and Bodil Selmer focused on Muslim youth in Denmark in relation to identity formations and migration processes;, Sven Dindler and Asta Olesen published a study on the media coverage of Islam and Muslims in Denmark; Jorgen Baek Simonsen covered the institutionalization of Islam in Denmark; and Beth Elversam analyzed Muslim women’s experiences of the Danish healthcare system, as well as studies related to youth (Dindler & Olesen, 1988; Elverdam, 1991; Pedersen & Selmer, 1991; Simonsen, 1990). These and similar topics have continued to be in focus in Danish research on Islam and Muslims, hence we can see how research on Islam and Muslims in Denmark to a great extent relates to societal interests and questions in a way similar to the other Scandinavian countries (Paulsen, Galal, & Liengaard, 2016). Later research also covers issues relating to Muslims and the labor market as well as religious radicalization (Kühle & Lindekilde, 2010). Such studies focusing on Islam and Muslims in Denmark have been done by scholars from a variety of fields including anthropology and the social sciences, as well as Islamic studies and the study of religions.

In 2005, the Forum for Islamforskning (FIFO) was established in Denmark as a hub for interdisciplinary studies of Islam and Muslims and is considered an important resource for anyone interested in the field. It publishes an online journal, Tidskrift for Islamforskning that explicitly focuses its research on Islam and Muslims in Denmark and illustrates what is going on in the field (Paulsen Galal & Schmidt, 2016).

In between 2008 and 2013, the University of Copenhagen made a great investment in research on Islam and Muslims, led by Jørgen S. Nielsen and Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen. Of the most important outcomes, individual publications aside, is Nielsen’s annual Yearbook of Muslims in Europe, as well as the Journal of Muslims in Europe.

Among the most prolific scholars focusing on Islam in Denmark today are Jørgen Baek Simonsen (1990) who, ever since the publication of his Islam i Danmark, has analyzed the roles and situations for Muslims in Denmark in a series of publications; and Garbi Schmidt, who has published a number of influential studies within the field of migration studies and has often problematized and contextualized tensions between what might be called the Danish secular majority and Muslim immigrant communities. Schmidt has also published studies on Muslim youth issues in Denmark (Schmidt, 2003). Schmidt also analyzed, early on, the expression of Islam online (Schmidt, 2007, 2012). In a series of later studies, Schmidt has studied immigration in the neighborhood of Nørrebro, in Copenhagen, and religious and cultural changes in the area over time (Schmidt, 2012).

Islam in Denmark has often been connected to issues of national security, and in relation to such issues, several studies have been connected to radical or fundamentalist Islamic groupings in Denmark, such as Kirstine Sinclair’s (2010, 2011a) studies on Hizb ut-Tahrir’s establishment and activities in Denmark.

Several studies have been dedicated to Danish converts to Islam, for example in relation to questions regarding authority, as in the studies of Tina Jensen and Kate Østergaard (Jensen 2006, 2008; Østergaard, 2004). As in Sweden and Norway, Islam, Muslims, and educational issues have been in focus for a number of research projects, and the issue of Muslims in Danish schools has been addressed, mainly from the point of view of integration. Mette Burkhardt, for example, studied how the view on and understanding of the “Muslimness” of Muslim pupils have changed over time, since the 1970s to the present (Buchardt, 2011, 2014). Laura Gilliam (2014) studied similar questions. How Islam and Muslims are presented in the media is also a topic in Denmark, and as in the other Scandinavian countries, studies suggest that Danish media tend to essentialize or generalize Islam and Muslims in a negative way, which results in negative opinions as well as effects on Danish politics or immigration policies (Hussain 2000; Rytter & Pedersen, 2014; Suhr & Sinclair, 2016). As shown, studies suggest that Islam and Muslims in Denmark are often discussed in relation to security issues, which arguably have had an effect on Danish immigration politics (Rytter & Holm Pedersen, 2014).

The cartoon controversy created what might be seen as a national crisis in Denmark, affecting Danish Muslims and attitudes toward Islam and Muslims in Denmark in general. The crisis also resulted in a number of prolific studies by scholars in Denmark, analyzing reactions among the majority population as well as among Danish Muslims (Sinclair, 2011b).

On-Going Debates and Research

Historically, Orientalist studies with a philological and historical perspective have dominated Scandinavian research related to Islam, not much different from the rest of the world. This began to change in the 1970s, following the revolution in Iran and the realization that Islam could be used as a political factor and that Islam was a heterogeneous phenomenon. An increasing interest in Islam as a political ideology was noted among scholars and journalists. Moreover, as Muslims became more visible and organized in the Scandinavian countries, from the 1970s and onward, a shift in research and media coverage was noted, where issues (problems) of immigration and integration increasingly became a focus. This corresponded to a period when labor migration had been stopped and family reunification had increased, as higher numbers of refugees arrived and Muslims were increasingly being apprehended as “the other.”

Studies show that many Muslims in Denmark are frustrated about being associated with violence and terror, just because of their identification as Muslims (Rytter & Pedersen, 2014, p. 2312; Schmidt 2007). Other studies show that as many as 46% of young immigrants in Denmark consider leaving Denmark to build a life elsewhere (Rytter & Pedersen, 2014, p. 2312; Shakoor & Riis, 2007, p. 116). Other studies suggest that the security/integrationist response in Denmark has resulted in Muslims becoming hyper-visible in Danish society, making it difficult to blend in and, in the long run, to integrate, but rather always being looked upon as a potential security threat. A discussion on integration being affected by the majority status that informs religious identities and affects and cements the minority status is currently also on the agenda, as well as a discussion on how the study of religions is an important discipline that should be part of public discussions; hence, a contemporary focus ought to be an integral part of studies and research on Islam and religion in general (see, e.g., Göndör, 2017; Olsson & Stenberg, 2015). Hyper-visibility enforces the sense of Muslims as a threat and as an “other,” opposed to democratic values and equality. The most obvious cases are Muslim bearded men (potential terrorist threat or at least a sign of fundamentalism) and female dress, especially women with face-cover (niqab or burqa). The French debates have affected Scandinavia too and all countries have problematized face-cover and regulations have been established. Currently, each municipality decides local rules, and schools may establish their own rulings on face-veil. However, the Norwegian government intends to forbid face-cover in all schools, including nurseries (see for example Olsen, 2017). The debate is going strong in Denmark as well (see for example Danmark bør indføre forbud mod burka og niqab, 2017). Sweden does not have a general ruling against face-cover, but it gives schools certain rights to regulate the use of face-cover, such as for security or hygiene reasons.

At present, among politicians, researchers, and journalists, there is a strong focus on topics related to Islam and security issues, including terrorism, but also fundamentalism in general. Issues related to being a Scandinavian Muslim are also focused on. How Muslims negotiate between their national and religious belonging (can a Muslim really be loyal to the nation-state?), including questions on the participation of (practicing) Muslims in politics and their presence in the public sphere, which conflicts with majority views on democracy and the place of religion are being asked. Research is thus mainly focused on Muslims (Islam) as a security threat and at odds with majority culture, even though an increasing interest in “lived Islam” also can be noted.

Ongoing discussions in both media and research in all three countries relate to religion as part of public life and freedom of religion versus freedom of speech, as well as Islam as a foundation for terrorism. This has been the case in particular since the cartoon controversy in Denmark, which affected all three countries. The cartoon controversy gave rise to a high number of scholarly and journalistic articles (Lægaard, 2007). In Sweden, another cartoon controversy arose, following a sketchy drawing of Muhammed as a so-called roundabout dog by Lars Vilks (Orrenius, 2016).

Concluding Comments and Potential Future Research

In an overview of Islam and Muslims in Scandinavia, Otterbeck and Schmidt identified a number of fields where more research needs to be done regarding Islam and Muslims in Scandinavia. They call for studies on variations in religious discourse and interpretation: what books are distributed and read in Scandinavian mosques and congregations? What is preached in khutbas (Friday sermons)? Further, they call for studies on the transnational ties of Scandinavian Muslims and Muslim organizations. As a third subject, they point to a lack of studies on nonorganized Muslims. Here, one could mention Otterbeck’s own study of young, nonorganized Muslims in the Copenhagen-Malmoe region (Otterbeck, 2010), and an ongoing post-doctoral project by Ann af Burén on semi-secular Muslims in Stockholm. Otterbeck and Schmidt call for further studies on sexuality and gender issues, and not the least masculinity studies, and, finally, for studies on the political participation and activism of Scandinavian Muslims. Bäckelie & Larsson (2011) studied young Muslims and political values, and a forthcoming dissertation by Bäckelie focuses on Swedish Muslims’ political values.

Thorough empirical studies on the historical presence of Muslims in Scandinavia constitute a neglected field. This corresponds to the need for mapping Islam and Muslims in historical times until today, a possible field of research. One could also add to this a general lack of studies on Muslim groups that constitute smaller minorities within the larger population. There are few studies even on Shi’ite Islam in Scandinavia (Bøe 2012; Larsson & Thurfjell, 2013), Ahmadiyya (Arly Jacobsen, et al. 2015), Sufism (Sorgenfrei, 2016), and Salafism (Olsson, 2012, 2017), even though research on fundamentalist interpretations has increased.

This overview has shown that processes of change among Muslims are identified by scholars, who very much respond to the contemporary situation in their own countries. This may indicate that issues that soon will become topical could be related to healthcare issues and to aging. The increase of Muslims makes such research valuable to larger society. Moreover, the role of Islamic jurisprudence among Muslims and in relation to the national legislation is a neglected topic in all countries.


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