Norwegian Muslim Identities – Values, Belonging and Individuality

July 04, 2016

Can minorities ever become Norwegian?

People waiting for the train in Oslo, Norway. Photo: Tore Bustad, CC

People waiting for the train in Oslo, Norway. Photo: Tore Bustad, CC

A handful of issues relating to immigration and integration are repeatedly discussed in the Norwegian public sphere. Many of these issues concern immigration in general, but are most often articulated in regards to Norwegian Muslims and Muslim immigrants.  This sometimes circular debate often touches upon whether Muslims are sufficiently adjusting to Norwegian values and norms and if Islam can be a facilitating or subverting force in the creation of strong Norwegian identities.

Norwegian Muslims – a diverse group

It is impossible to easily conclude one way or the other if Muslims as a whole are adjusting to Norwegian society and as such are “becoming Norwegian”. Muslims in Norway make up a highly diverse group of different ethnic, confessional and national backgrounds. Some are born in Norway, others have immigrated as children or as adults. At the same time, exactly what Norwegian values represent remains an unanswered question.

Nonetheless, in a report launched this spring by the organization LIM (Equality, Integration, Diversity) we tried to put some of these questions into context by speaking to a diverse group of young Muslims about questions of identity, values and belonging. We wanted to examine how young Muslims themselves relate to ongoing public debates about Islam, and more importantly if they feel Norwegian and how they reflect on the relationship between Norwegian and Islamic values.

Relating to Norwegian and Islamic values 

We asked the participants in the study to describe the best aspects of both Islamic and Norwegian values. Interestingly, these two categories of values were basically interchangeable, formulated in universal terms such as human rights, democracy, solidarity and equality. So, in many ways Norwegian Muslims firmly uphold Norwegian values. This corresponds with earlier findings in a report published in 2010 by “Religiosity and integration” a pilot project at the University of Oslo. However, what was clear in our study was that while the two categories of values were described in similar terms, there was some resistance among several participants against labeling these values as particularly Norwegian. The tendency was to regard them as universal, or in some cases, Islamic as much as Norwegian. For example, one informant frames the solidarity behind the idea of a welfare system as an original Islamic value, by telling a story of how one of the earliest caliphs implemented a form of child care. In this manner, even though the values may be described as similar, the interpretation of their origin may differ.

The insufficiency of common values

Although it is interesting that the participants in the study articulated both Norwegian and Islamic values in similar ways, it is in some respect not surprising, considering that they have spent many years in Norway, where the hegemonic discourse on values is based on a secular language, in a culture strongly affected by the ideas of social democracy with high regard for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). What was clear, however, is that sharing common values may not be enough to feel a sense of complete belonging to and acceptance from larger Norwegian society. Despite the commonalities, ethnic background and religious affiliation were seen by many as factors that severely hampered the possibility of being accepted as Norwegian. While many of the participants themselves felt Norwegian in relation to culture, language and upbringing, almost everybody had at the same time experienced a lack of inclusion into the greater Norwegian “us” by ethnic Norwegians. This lack of inclusion was not a constant, but something that became an issue in different contexts. One illuminating example is of a young man of Pakistani background who grew up in Norway, always enjoying celebrating the National Day on the 17th of May. When becoming a teenager and later an adult, he discovered that what had been a day of celebration and national unity became a day where he felt that others regarded him as less of a Norwegian because of his dark hair and skin color. Thus, growing up and becoming more aware of looking different than ethnic Norwegians directly influenced his experience of belonging, as he felt he was being regarded as someone outside the norm: As a foreigner and a Muslim.

Different forms of identity formation among young Norwegian Muslims

It is important to underline that the participants in the study we are discussing had many different experiences of living in Norway, good and bad, and most were very well adjusted in their personal lives to Norwegian society. Many felt like Norwegians in a way that combined Norwegian culture with their own ethnic background and faith.  But there was a common theme throughout the interviews that shows the importance of how they interpret what they view as non-Muslims’ lack of acceptance: The feeling of being excluded from the category of Norwegian can affect how young Muslims form their own identity outside of the assumed norm or in a way that complements this lack of inclusion. To have a different sounding name than the norm, to have darker skin, this makes one different. In addition, the importance being given to Islam in debates on immigration and the demographic and cultural development of Norway can combine to form a potent otherness that is continuously being reinforced in daily life and in the public sphere. This otherness must also be seen in relation to the fact that many people with an ethnic minority-background do not feel at home in their parents’ country of origin. This double dose of not belonging anywhere completely may create a need to be a part of a greater collective more fully. In such a case, being Muslim seems to offer a community of belonging without requiring a specific ethnic or cultural background.

An example of creating an identity that is not contingent on either a Norwegian self-identification or one’s parents homeland is Daahir, a young man with a Somali background in his mid-twenties who says he has stopped trying to be Norwegian or being Somali: “I focus on that when you’re a Muslim you’re welcome everywhere. Because Islam has nothing to do with culture”.

A different example is Noor, a young woman with Pakistani roots in her early twenties who refuses to let ethnicity and faith determine her self-understanding. She brings together her Pakistani background, being a Muslim and her growing up in Norway: “I have a different background […] that’s just the way it is. There is nothing to be done about that, but I’m Norwegian in another way. In my own way”.

These different ways of articulating one’s self-understanding are just two of many different strategies of coping with being part of a minority ethnic group and faith, and finding ways to articulate this in relation to being part of Norwegian society.

Muslim identity as an expression of individuality

Even though much of what has been discussed so far focuses on the role religion can play in articulating belonging to a greater whole, the interviews also emphasize that Islam can be a potent tool in shaping identity in a way that expresses individuality more strongly. Shada is originally from Iraq and is in her early thirties. She talks about being Muslim and being Norwegian in a way that combines what she views as the best aspects of the two spheres, but she is most fervent when she describes her relationship with Islam and why she chooses to wear a veil. She underscores that the veil is very important to her because it represents what she wants to be. It is her way of promoting what she believes the Muslim woman should be like: “That is my identity […] those are my principles, those are my values.” Shada of course determines her individuality in relation to society, so she is not simply articulating herself for herself. Even so, compared to the other examples, being a Muslim is for Shada less about belonging and more about self-fulfillment.

Values and inclusion

Muslim identity is formed in different ways in relation to different contexts and themes. Had our study focused on something else than being Norwegian, values and belonging, we would certainly have discovered yet more articulations of Muslim identity. Nonetheless, by highlighting the dynamics between the public debate on Islam and the call for Muslims to integrate into so called Norwegian values we see that there are strong parallels between the values that large parts of the majority population admire and what the participants in this study do. A cohesive society needs some common values, but the question remains is if those values are enough if some parts of the population do not feel included. Perhaps the idea of being Norwegian still feels too embedded in ethnic and historical terms for the acknowledgment of shared values to be enough to achieve acceptance. If so, can minorities ever become Norwegian?