The Islamization of Religion in Norway?

December 05, 2016

The majority of Norwegians believe that religion contributes to conflict. Islam is at the epicentre of public debate about religion. Does this lead to an “Islamization” of religion?

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In Norway, 3.8 million of the 5.2 million living in the country still belong to the Lutheran Church of Norway (according to statistics from the 1st of January,  2016). That is, 73 percent of the population is registered with the former state church. At the same time, there were 148 200 members of registered Muslim faith societies. In addition, it is quite likely that many un-affiliated Muslims reside in the country. In any case, Muslims make up a small portion of the Norwegian population, probably no more than 5-6 %. Still, Muslims are visible on the streets in urban areas, in their daily and weekly religious practices – and in the news.

Religion of conflict?

“Looking at the world around us, religions lead to more conflict than peace”: eight of ten Norwegians agreed to this statement in surveys about religion conducted in 1998 and 2008. The same statement was put to a representative panel of Norwegians in 2015. Three of four agreed that religions contribute to conflict rather than peace, thus confirming the same level of critical attitude to religion in a global perspective. The 2015 survey was conducted as part of the CoMRel research project, which studies media and religion in cultural conflicts.

When people are asked to look at “the world around us” many respondents may think of the way religion plays into conflicts in the world at large. But “the world” is coming closer, through immigration, through news coverage – and through fear of terror threats even to Norway. In media coverage, such threats are usually linked to militant Islamists. However, no terror attack by militant Islamists has ever been performed in Norway. Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing terrorist who killed 77 people at Government headquarters and at Utøya, justified his misdeeds with reference to Christian culture and ideologies, a fact that is at times overlooked in public debates about religion and violence. (However, later he has claimed no longer to be a Christian).

Islam as a perceived threat

According to the CoMRel survey from April 2015, from April 2015, nearly half of the young and adult population (47%) perceive Islam as a threat to “Norwegian culture”. More men than women and more older people than younger view Islam as a threat. However, more than a third of the population (36%) fully or partly disagree with the idea that Islam poses a threat. Some also see Christianity (8%) and Judaism (12%) as a threat to national culture. Despite these alternative views, the survey result paint a broad picture of Islam being the religion which is perceived as “the Other” by the majority of Norwegians and considered as a challenge to what respondents consider “Norwegian culture”.

Conflictual media coverage of Islam

The news media contributes to the conflictual focus on Islam and Muslims. Figures differ between studies, but Islam was barely mentioned in major Norwegian newspapers as late as in 1988. Islam has come more and more into focus since. The coverage of Islam in the newspapers has grown more than any other religious tradition. The news media cover Islam in disproportion to the number of Muslims in the country. Despite the significant increase in coverage, and despite some attempts to offer a broader picture of Muslim life in Norway, Islam is regularly connected to conflict, extremism and terror in the media. This is due to conflict as a dominant news criterion.

Until recently, most newspaper articles on religion were about the Christian majority tradition. We have figures from the NOREL project on “The role of religion in the public sphere” comparing the coverage in four major newspapers in 1988, 1998 and in 2008 (Arbeiderbladet/Dagsavisen, Aftenposten, VG and Stavanger Aftenblad). “Coverage” combines the number of articles with their visibility in the papers. While the coverage of the tradition related to the Church of Norway dropped from 66% to 48% during those 20 years, the share for Islam increased from 2% to 12%. Despite the significant increase, the coverage of Islam constituted a small part of the total output at that time.

Taken together with articles on other Christian traditions, more than two thirds (69%) of the coverage was on Christianity in the four newspapers as late as 2008. There are signs that this may be changing. In 2015 Islam was mentioned or commented upon 56.550 times across Norwegian media, compared to Christianity 5.860, Buddhism 2.184 and Judaism 1.076 times, according to the media monitoring company Retriever.

Religion or not religion?

When Norwegians think of religions more in terms of conflict than in terms of peace this may apply to religion in general, but it may also be coloured by impressions of particular religions. While, Christianity has certainly become more contested in the media and among Norwegians in recent years, Islam appears to be perceived as particularly controversial by many Norwegians.

Among Norwegians and in Norwegian media there is much taken-for-granted-ness of the Christian tradition. Personal beliefs of members of the majority church varies considerably, and some do not believe in God at all. Most Norwegians may not think in specific religious terms about their belonging to the Church of Norway: They may admit that they are (culturally) Christians, but not “religious” in a more ritualistic sense. (They usually do not count the transition rites they take part in as such).

Against this background, I believe we may be approaching an “Islamization” of religion in Norway. Islam as a newcomer in the Norwegian society may be considered a proper “religion” by many in the media as well as by a majority of Norwegians due to what many perceive as the more visible religious practices of Muslims. What is then overlooked is the tendency towards “cultural Islam” which is also a part of Muslim life in Norway. 

News on religious extremism

The thesis on the “Islamization” of religion in Norway is also supported by answers in the CoMRel survey on how often people discuss news on religion in general with others, and on how often they discuss news on religious extremism. People do talk about religion in the news, and about religious extremism in particular. More than one of four (28%) say they discuss news on religious extremism with others daily or weekly. Six of ten (61%) do so at least monthly. There is not a full overlap, but from the CoMRel data, it seems that when Norwegians talk among themselves about religion in the news, it is to a large extent about religious extremism. This may, of course, be about fundamentalism in Christianity or other religions but in light of the public debate with over-representation of Islam in the media coverage – connecting Islam to religious extremism – it is reasonable to assume that people link religious extremism primarily to Islam.

A disservice to dialogue and integration

When statistics show that a large majority of Norwegians express that religion contributes to conflict more than peace, it seems that people to a large extent associate “religion” with Islam, which in media coverage and in public debate is often connected to conflict. Thus, we may speak of an Islamization of religion that neither helps religious dialogue nor the integration of Muslims in  Norwegian society.