Oddbjørn Leirvik


Norwegian-Pakistani Islam:

Religious transformation and dialogue in a multicultural society


Paper presented to a conference on “Pakistani Migration to Norway: Social Transformation and Continuity”, held by NIBR/UNESCO, Oslo 6.-7. December 2004.


In the age of globalization, people as well as their religions travel fast between the world’s regions. The World Islamic Mission’s mosque in Oslo, built by Norwegian-Pakistani Muslims, is a beautiful expression of transcultural globalization. Although Oslo has got more than 25 mosques, most of which are located in converted flats, factories or office premises, this is so far the only mosque that is purpose-built. Indicative of Islamic globalization, its interior and exterior are decorated with Iranian tiles and the beautiful prayer hall is lit by a giant Turkish chandelier.




When transferred from one context to another, religions may also be transformed by the new cultural context. As Islam is transferred from Pakistan to Norway, it changes from being part of the majority culture to becoming an identity marker for an increasingly self-conscious minority population. It becomes Norwegian-Pakistani Islam.


Needless to say, Norwegian-Pakistani Islam is not a uniform phenomenon. In an early study of varieties among Pakistani Muslims in Norway, Nora Ahlberg in her study New Challenges – Old Strategies from 1990 made a fundamental distinction between the different strategies typical of “folk Islam”, “normative Islam” and “modernist Islam” respectively when accommodating to a new cultural context. Whereas in folk Islam, there is hardly any distinction between culture and religion, normative Islam seeks to distill the essence of Islam so as to be able to transfer it from one cultural context to another. Whereas Muslims who represent folk Islam tend to isolate themselves when migrating to a new society in which they feel themselves as strangers, normative Muslims are more open towards integration but may also confront their new society on critical minority issues – in the name not of culture but of Islam. Modernist Muslims may display a similar interest in distinguishing between culture and religion but are more open towards assimilation in Western culture than their normative counterparts.




Such and other modalities of Muslim identity and Islamic religion can either be expressed as resistance to dominant values in Norwegian culture or as support of integration – in the latter case providing religious legitimization of values such as liberal democracy and gender equality.


As for liberal democracy, a striking feature of civil society in Norway is the high degree of formalization in religious life. There is an expectation in Norwegian society that religion should take the form of a democratically elected membership association. Since the 1980s, a steadily increasing percentage of those with a Muslim background – rising from 10% in 1980 via 50% in 1990 to 70% in 2003 – have signed up for membership in a Muslim organization. Once registered, such associations are also entitled to financial support from the authorities (as a compensation for state church finances).


With regard to Norwegian-Pakistani Islam, the entire variety of Pakistani Islam is now well established on Norwegian soil – by traditional organizations that function as membership associations in their new context. In Norway, mosques influenced by Barelwi groups, Sufi orders, Deobandis, Jamaat-i Islami, Tabligh-i Jamaat, Minhaj ul-Quran, Shi’ism or the Ahmadiyya movement compete for adherents, financial contributions from their signed-up members, and for state and municipal grants.


Parallel with this process, mosque leaders have become increasingly visible representatives of the Norwegian-Pakistani community. Some of them have also involved themselves in wider Muslim networking, taking actively part in the Islamic Council in Norway that unites most Muslim organizations irrespective of their ethnical background. But imams and mosque leaders cannot expect uncritical support from all Norwegian-Pakistani Muslims. Whenever there is a heated Islam-debate in media, well-known Muslim politicians or media personalities stand up and criticize the imported imams for being out of tune with the new generation of Norwegian-Pakistani Muslims. Examples of “lay Muslim voices” with much political impact are Saera Khan (representing the Labour Party) and Afshar Rafiq (representing the Conservative Party, being the first Muslim member of Parliament in Norway). Saera Khan (whose family is of Bangladeshi origin) has repeatedly called for a European education of imams, so that they may better tune in with the sensitivity of new generations of Muslims, their values and cultural preferences.


But mosques change too. In Norway, both the Jamaat-i islami affiliated Islamic Cultural Centre and Idara Minhaj ul-Quran have sometimes articulated slightly more liberal attitudes than their home organizations. In the case of Idara Minhaj ul-Quran, young and female members have repeatedly criticized conservative attitudes prevailing among the leadership, as well as the practice of transferring huge amounts of money back to the central organization of Tahir ul-Qadri. Whereas some Norwegian-Pakistani mosques seem still to be ruled by family clans, others have established more democratic forms of government and also signaled a readiness of living up to gender equality expectations. When in 1992, the Jamaat-i Islami affiliated Islamic Cultural Centre was asked to nominate a representative to the first official interreligious dialogue in Norway, they selected a woman – Nasim Riaz – who subsequently became a key figure in dialogues between Muslims, Christians, other believers and secular humanists in Norway. In 2002, the World Islamic Mission elected a young female student as their press officer and public spokesperson. In Norwegian media, Amber Khan was presented as a “Feminist with headscarf” who would like to see more women in the boards of the mosques.


Parallel to these tendencies of confluent integration, mosques also display signs of resistance to Norwegian culture. This could, however, be seen as part of a much more general, counter-cultural identity on Islam’s part. Indicative of their normative inclination, some Pakistani imams have been expressly critical not only of the permissiveness of Western culture but also of illegitimate parental pressure in Muslim marriage practices. Taking a firm stand against forced marriages, imams have also picked on what they perceive as a total breakdown of family values in Norwegian culture. When in 2002 the Barelwi imam of the largest Muslim congregation in Oslo confirmed his resistance to forced marriages, he also claimed: “Only Muslims marry. Other people are just sinning … There is no family system among Norwegians.” He went on saying that ”What God wants from human beings, is not possible to achieve in a multicultural society. With so many faith communities around, the difference between animals and human beings disappears. When human beings live a life without faith and respect, they live just like animals.”


The fact that these utterances were recorded by the use of hidden microphone, in a fake counseling setting staged by feminist activists and the liberal newspaper Dagbladet, indicates a suspicion on the part of the general public that Muslim leaders are up to some kind of hidden resistance that is not divulged in public statements.




When studying Norwegian-Pakistani Islam, it is important to take a relational approach – trying to understand how tendencies in the Muslim community interact with attitudes and reactions on the part of the majority community – which is perceived by many Muslims as secular rather that Christian in its orientation, and as hostile against their Islam.


What has been the response of the Norwegian majority society, then, to the presence of a Muslim minority that already amounts to more than 2% of the population? Although Norway is by constitution a Christian state and 85% of its population belongs to the national Church of Norway, church attendance is relatively low and secular approaches to ethics are widespread. There are some indications, however, that the fast growing Muslim presence has spurred – in response – a revitalization of the so-called Christian cultural heritage. Compared with the 1970s, when only the Christian Democrats hoisted the flag of Christian values in politics, during the last decade both the Social Democrats (the Labor Party) and the populist Progress Party have embraced the rhetoric of “Christian and humanistic values” as the basis of Norwegian society.


In the case of the right wing Progress Party, chairman Carl I. Hagen has increasingly singled out “Islam” as the main threat to Norway’s alleged Christian value basis. Last summer, Hagen launched a fierce attack on Islam and Muhammad in a fundamentalist Christian congregation. Whenever there is a debate about gender discrimination, Islam and violence, or shari’a in relation to human rights, he challenges the imams and the Islamic Council in newspapers and on national TV. But so far, the Progress Party has not been able to rally much support from the churches. This may, however, now be changing – along with increasingly confrontational discourses in some conservative Christian groups.


Seen from the Muslim side, many Muslims have in fact expressed a sense of value community between themselves and mainstream Christians in Norway. Even the Christian Democratic Party has attracted some interest from Muslims who appreciate their traditional “family values” and their restrictive policy regarding distribution of alcohol, as well as their legacy of making religious claims in the public sphere. Indicative of a Christian Democrats politics of recognition towards other faiths, Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik has also paid formal visits to mosques; for instance in the aftermath of 9/11.


In 1990, the former missionary Bjørn Bue was the first bishop to visit a Norwegian mosque and it’s imam who was then a prominent Sufi of the Chistiyya order, presiding over the Barelwi mosque of Central Jamaat-e Ahl-e Sunnat. The visit ended by the Bishop and the imam drinking a toast – in Pakistani tea – for a lifestyle without alcohol. In Norway, abstaining from alcohol has been a Christian virtue in many circles and thus a meeting point between old and new counter-cultures in Norway – a nation that harbored plural values long before the advent of Muslims. After the meeting, the bishop commended the imam for his hospitality and openness to dialogue.




In general, I would say that church leaders have been more open and accepting towards the new Muslim presence in Norway, compared with prevailing attitude in the general public. When in the 1990s representatives of the Progress Party repeatedly singled out Muslims as a threat to Christianity and Norwegian society, their attempt at stirring up communal distrust was met with firm resistance from mainstream church leaders. In 1997 Christian leaders of all confessions and theological tendencies joined hands with the Muslim community and warned publicly against the hostile images of Islam produced by populist politicians. A self-critical statement admonishing Christians to build friendly relations with Muslims was handed over to Muslim leaders who had gathered in the mosque of Central Jamaat-e Ahl-e Sunnat. For many of the Christian leaders, this was in fact their first visit to a mosque. After Carl I. Hagen’s attack on Islam and Muhammad last summer, Pentecostal leaders joined Church of Norway leaders in a similar warning against abuse of Muslims and Islamophobia.


One of the Pentecostal leaders who have warned against Islamophobia, the worldwide evangelist Aril Edvardsen, has also staged conferences for Christian-Muslim understanding with Muslim leaders in Pakistan, under the slightly ambitious heading “Universal Peace and Harmony”. In 1999, Aril Edvardsen was awarded a prize for his endeavor for Christian-Muslim understanding by the Pakistani President of Parliament. He was even reported as praying with Muslim leaders. In a similar event in 2002, Aril Edvardsen stood hand in hand on the podium with Tahir ul-Qadri, the leader of Idara Minhaj ul-Quran, and local Pentecostal leaders in Pakistan.


Such events indicate how the presence of Pakistani Muslims in Norway and their national dialogue with Christian leaders may inspire new kinds of cooperation between Muslims and Christians in Pakistan. In this process, the Norwegian government plays also a part. Earlier this year, a delegation of prominent Muslim scholars of Barelwi, Deobandi, Jamaat-i islami and Shi’ite background came from Pakistan on a special invitation by the Government of Norway. At the same time some Bishops from the Church of Pakistan were also visiting Norway at the invitation of the Norwegian Church Aid. The coordinated visits resulted in a joint statement on cooperation for peace that in September 2004, on Pakistani soil, was followed up by an “Islamabad Declaration”. Here we read: ”We [Muslims and Christians] commit ourselves to promoting a spirit of harmony, understanding and cooperation wherever we live together in local communities, working on the principles of caring for and sharing with others and creating a lasting relationship among us.”


The long-term effects of such dialogue initiatives, resulting from global transfers of people and ideas, remain to be seen. They will have to stand the test when facing concrete expressions of local or global conflict. Taken at face value, however, these initiatives signal the will of Muslim and Christian leaders in both Norway and Pakistan to oppose a type of identity politics that consistently emphasizes difference between cultures and religions.


This does not mean that differences should be played down. But when addressing concrete issues of conflict, one will see that moral or political differences of opinion seldom coincide with religious divides. On the global scene, this has become abundantly clear in the aftermath of 9/11, the ensuing war in Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq. Contrary to the perceived clash of “Muslim” and “Christian” civilizations, differences in opinion regarding the US-led war on terrorism run right across the borders of religious affiliation. In the case of Afghanistan, a representative of the largest Barelwi mosque in Oslo and a prominent Church of Norway leader sent a joint letter in November 2001 to Kjell Magne Bondevik, the Christian Democrat Prime Minister of Norway. Jointly, they criticised the government’s unreserved support for US foreign policy, demanded a halt to the bombing for humanitarian reasons, and called for international responses to terrorism that do not inflict suffering on innocent civilians.


It is interesting to note that two days before the mosque in question had expressed its abhorrence of the massacre of Christian worshippers in the Pakistani city of Bahawalpur. The cited example of Muslim-Christian solidarity indicates a willingness to join hands on behalf of the vulnerable individual, in moral alliances that may be both religiously and politically controversial in both camps. In a similar vein, Christian and Muslim students (most of them Norwegian-Pakistanis) went this summer on a joint pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Their pilgrimage was carried through on the background of dialogue in Norway and in shared sympathy with the Palestinian cause.




The cited international initiatives reflect long-term trust building between Christians and Muslims in Norway, in forums such as the National Contact Group between the Church of Norway and the Islamic Council in Norway. One has to realize, however, that what takes place on the leadership level does not necessarily reflect major trends among the general populace. In Norway as elsewhere, formalized dialogues tend to be dominated by religious leaders who profess a culture-transcending, normative identity. Many ordinary Christians and Muslims have a different agenda from that of their leaders – be it the cultural interests of a particular group of Muslims or the identity politics of a nationalist kind of Christianity.


Institutionalized dialogues may also easily get out of touch with more deregulated, individualized forms of religion – which may in fact points towards forms of religion that are less infected by group-oriented identity politics. In post-modern societies, religious identities have become increasingly personalized and plural in nature. Immigrated Muslims participate of course in this reality. Following a group of young Norwegian-Pakistani Muslims, the researcher Sissel Østberg has documented their competence to handle what she terms “an integrated plural identity”. Integrated plural identity means that seemingly contradictory elements of identity – rooted in Pakistan or Norway, in family allegiances or transcultural friendships, in Islam or modern youth culture – need not lead to identity conflict. Such elements can just as well be combined creatively, in forms of integration that are rather personal than socio-political. 


For others, identity crises seem to be avoidable. Whether young Norwegian-Pakistani Muslims feel comfortable or not in their plural identity, depends of course on a wide range of factors of which religion is but one. Religion can be flexible enough to support plural identities. But it can also block personal as well as political integration. Which religious tendency that will get the upper hand in Norway, is a relational question: It depends on whether Muslim-Christian relationships will be marked by reaction or interaction