Swedish Multicultural History (Re)Written: First Muslim Friday Prayer called from Swedish Minaret

Last Friday, April 26 2013, was the first time that the Friday prayer (Azan), as well as any other Muslim prayer was called out from a Swedish mosque.  As the Azan was called, around a thousand local residents and dozens of journalists had gathered. “A historical day. My tears are running of happiness.” said Erol Gavgaviougly after a 40-year long wait.[1]

The presence of Islamic congregations dates in fact back longer than that. Mohammad Fazlhashemi, professor in Theology and Philosophy at Uppsala University, confirms that the first Islamic congregation was founded in Sweden in 1948 by Tartars fleeing the Soviet Union.[2]

Of Sweden, championing human rights, freedom of speech and diversity as components essential to inclusive forms of democracy, one would certainly expect the permission to have been granted earlier. One would also expect more citizens to raise their voices for the right to exercise religion publicly and collectively, as enshrined in Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The funds to cover the loudspeakers and other equipment needed to make this historical moment come true have been collected by members of the congregation in the suburb Fittja, south of Stockholm, over the course of a year. Moreover, a long democratic procedure precedes the decision to let the prayer be sung every Friday for 3-5 minutes during a one-year probation period. The final permission needed was granted by the police, who saw no compelling state interest justifying denial of Azan to be sung from the loudspeakers of the minaret.

Local politicians received around 100 letters and emails of complaint from individuals and civil society initiatives. A host of arguments were employed as to why the Azan and Islam should not have a place in the Swedish public sphere. The points of concern ranged from social conservative ones, holding Islam as a foreign, unwanted element in Swedish society, to rights based arguments framing the public call of Azan as a violation of religious freedom.

The latter argument was framed according to the following logic: the call to come and pray constitutes religious propaganda and exposes citizens to infringements of their right not be exposed to such messages. This arguably misses the point that church bells also are used as a call to religious assembly and as conveyers of Christianity.

The spokespeople of the Fittja congregation were careful to stress that they are both Swedish and Muslims. This concern notably manifests itself in the interior design of the mosque: birch-wood in one of the arches to symbolize Sweden and “Swedish” culture. With or without the birch-wood ornamentation, one would like this particular mosque, as well as any other mosques on Swedish soil and its attendees, to be recognized for what they are: vital and enriching parts of “Swedish” society, culture and religious heritage.

Unfortunately, as the ensuing debate once again illuminated: Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia, is not spared from the worrying winds of increased religious and multiethnic intolerance, primarily directed against Islam and Muslims. It is high time to intensify inter-religious as well as secular collaboration for tolerance, mutual understanding, respect, solidarity and equality before the law so that everyone, regardless of confession, can enjoy the fundamental human right of religious practice.

Author: Miranda Myrberg

[1] Quoted in Dagens Nyheter, April 26 2013, accessed online May 2 2013 at http://www.dn.se/sthlm/gladjetarar-vid-historiskt-boneutrop .

[2] Swedish Television SVT, April 26 2013, accessed online May 2 2013 at http://www.svtplay.se/klipp/1183776/boneutrop-i-fittja .


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