Making of a Cohesive Society: Muslims In Iceland

19/05/2016 09:35 | Updated 19 May 2016

The Reykjavik Metropolitan Police reaching out to the mosque after the Friday prayer.

With around 1500 believers and two mosques, Iceland is one of the countries with the lowest number of Muslims in the world. The Icelandic society seems to be an example of inclusivity in terms of minorities', genders' rights and social justice. However, because of events such as Paris attacks, the rise of far right on the continent and the influx of asylum seekers, Iceland finds itself in an unprecedented situation. Also, I wanted to have an idea of how do Muslims feel in Iceland, and what are the government initiatives for sustaining a harmonious society, compared to the UK.

The first Muslims came in the 1970s, but the population boomed since the conflicts in the Middle East. They come from various cultural backgrounds: the Middle-East, North and West Africa, Turkey, Asia, or Europe, not mentioning Icelandic people who have chosen Islam. They are workers, engineers, doctors, students, volunteers... Some have been living for more than 40 years in the country, whereas some others are only staying for a few months. Here are the stories of the few people I met:

Abdulaziz is a Berber from Morocco. He left school at the age of 15 and travelled across Europe before settling in Iceland. Fluent in Icelandic, he points out: "it's in Iceland that I started learning Arabic!" When he used to sell equipment to farmers all over the island, he was struggling with his little car in the middle of the winter. He was amazed by the support of Icelandic people who helped him on his way but recently, he started to worry: "my son watched the news, and saw all the [Pegida] demonstrations in Germany. He came and asked me: 'will they expel all the Muslims from Europe?'" Abdulaziz continues: "looks have changed since the Paris attacks."

The Islamic Cultural Centre, one of the two mosques in Iceland.

Amel, living in Algeria, pursued the possibility of working abroad. "I had dreams, and for me it was clear; it's more like Iceland chose me rather than I chose Iceland." She loves the country and her stay is a life-changing experience. "During my stay, I became closer to Allah than before. I faced some difficulties but I was not really alone because Allah was with me."

Salman Tamimi is currently chair of the Muslim Association of Iceland. Originally from Palestine, he came in the 70s. He recalls his shock when seeing police officers with white sticks for regulating traffic, and not protests. He recalls: "for people who come from the Middle East, the police used to have these to beat up people! We're not accustomed to see such a friendly and helpful Police."

Naima came from London where she used to volunteer at Rumi's Kitchen, a grassroots initiative helping the homeless. Through the European Voluntary Service, she works with the Red Cross in the only homeless women's shelter in the capital, and helps refugees to resettle in Iceland. "You come across lots of inspiring stories!" She loves how Icelandic people are "laid-back, relaxed and curious about foreign cultures rather than judgemental."

Sverrir, the first Icelandic person to embrace Islam.

Sverrir is the first Icelandic person who embraced Islam, in the early seventies. From one travel to another, he ended crossing Asia on horseback from Turkey to Pakistan and was profoundly touched by hearing the adhan, the call to prayer. His search for knowledge brought him to the Norwich mosque where he met scholars like Hamza Yusuf. "I am a feminist," was the first text message he sent us. He has been working for mosques to be more inclusive and for ending the segregation between men and women: "at the time of the Prophet, there was no separation."

A Turkish organisation, the Horizon Foundation, aims at getting people together for discussing key social issues, regardless of culture or spirituality. They recently encouraged students across Iceland to participate in the 2016 Pangea Maths olympics. But then, what does the government do for managing and preventing any tensions within the society?

Eyrún Eyþórsdóttir from the Reykjavik Metropolitan Police is piloting a project for preventing hate crime.

The Reykjavik Metropolitan Police has set up in January 2016 a project to monitor and prevent hate crimes. Taking a different from other police forces on the continent or in the UK, its priority is to build a synergy between Icelandic citizens and the Police. I interviewed Eyrún Eyþórsdóttir, the chief police inspector piloting the project. Very active in politics, she is also a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Iceland. She reaches out to the different communities in person. Her message is simple: "if you have anything to report, just email me." With people guilty of hate crimes, she chooses a pedagogic approach: "when I was interrogating this woman who initiated violent rants on Facebook, I offered her to visit the local mosque, learn more about Islam, and meet the Muslims."

This stay in Iceland lead me to reflect upon the efficiency of some policies seen on the continent and in the UK. The Icelandic approach seems to be the polar opposite of the suspicion-based politics and systematic monitoring of Muslims. I believe that if governments were truly working with its citizens as in Iceland, the issues linked to xenophobia or extremism would be far less prominent.