A new generation at the mosque
By Tommi Nieminen
The depth of the devotion of 23-year-old Hunde Assefa is apparent just looking at him, as he walks with his veiled wife and four-year-old son on the street. Hunde has a thin beard, he is dressed in white, and on his head he has a Muslim cap. This indicates that he is more devout than his average co-religionists in Finland.
Hunde was born in the late 1980s in Finland, and has lived here his whole life. But when he is asked about his identity, he does not emphasise his Finnishness.
“My primary identity is that of a Muslim. In other respects I am international. My roots are in Ethiopia, I was born in Finland, and I have attended international schools”, he says.
Hunde could also be called a second-generation immigrant. The members of his family were originally Ethiopian Christians. Hunde converted to Islam six years, so it is no wonder that he is very religious, as converts often tend to be.
Hunde was 18 years old when he accepted Allah into his life. One reason for this is that as a teenager he spent much time with Somali immigrants.
“It was during comprehensive school that the development of a foreign identity began. When Somalis and other foreigners started coming to Finland, there was no doubt that I belonged to them.”
Hunde is a young man who weighs his words carefully. He adheres to the teachings the fairly conservative Shafi’i school of Islamic law, and he follows Sufism, which focuses on the purification of the soul.
“When a person prays five times a day at certain times, it brings order into life.”
During the day Hunde works sorting mail at the Itella postal centre. At the weekends he teaches the Koran to children in Malmi, and studies for the entrance examinations to the Aalto University. The rest of his time he spends with his family.
Hunde does not follow Western popular culture: “The lyrics of popular music are what they are. I don’t watch much TV either, as it affects the soul.”
If things go well, Hunde will attend an Islamic university some day. For instance, there is an interesting school in Yemen - the moderate Dar Al Mustafa.
“Many students from the West have gone there. When they have returned they have done many good things in their communities.”
There are at least 45,000 Muslims in Finland. Most of them are Sunni. There are only a few thousand Shia in Finland. Most have arrived after the early 1990s. First came Somalis, then Iraqis, Kosovars, and Afghanis. A small Tatar minority settled in Finland already in the late 19th century.
Now many of the children of Muslims who immigrated to Finland in recent decades have grown up. Some of them have become secularised and Westernised, while many live very devout lives dedicated to Islam. But what kind of an Islam do they believe in?
There has been very little Islamic radicalism in Finland, but it is the second generation of Muslim men who are seen as a high-risk group all over western Europe. For instance, in Britain and France, many in the second generation of immigrants have become embittered, radicalised, and have isolated themselves from society.
They have their reasons. Many of them were born in Europe and have lived all of their lives here, and still they are treated as second-class citizens - on the labour market, for instance. This also happens in Finland, while the unemployment rate for the population at large was nine per cent in 2005, it was 58 per cent among Somalis living in Finland.
This makes many young Muslims go beyond the employment office in their quest for answers.
The story of Abdillahi Farah Muhamed, who lives in Pähkinärinne in Vantaa, is a sobering one. The first six years of his life he lived in the family of a camel herders in Somaliland. Now at the age of 21 he already looks like a young person from the Helsinki region, wearing big headphones and a woolen cap.
Abdillahi was sent to Finland in 1996 to flee the war. He had never even heard about Europe. He saw snow and the sea for the first time. People lived in white cubes. The sounds that buses made was strange, because Abdillahi had never heard of natural gas.
“In the schoolyard I was called an ugly black, or I was asked if I was a rubber boat refugee. I will never forget it”, Abdillahi recalls in a restaurant of a hotel in Vantaa.
In his teens, he lived an intense life. Abdillahi adapted to Finnish culture by drinking, taking drugs, and wandering the streets at night. One time in Malmi three Finnish men pointed a gun at him and threatened to shoot.
“It stayed in my mind”.
Racism was sometimes aggressive. He had a girlfriend for a short time, who had a Russian-born father. When the man found Abdillahi in his home, he took out a hunting rifle and threatened to shoot him, and he didn’t even care if he were sent to prison for it.
“You don’t easily forget things like this”, Abdillahi says.
In 2007 Abdillahi fled the problems he was having to Germany for six months, to stay with his half sister. The trip changed his life. Abdillahi cannot say which things led to other things, except that it was the providence of Allah. When he returned to Vantaa he became a fundamentalist with a capital F.
Now he believes in the very conservative interpretations of Sunni Islam. Some of his thoughts are confusing, such as his views on evolution: apes are descended from people who sinned against Allah millions of years ago, and Allah turned them into apes.
Or on the roles of men and women: “The biggest problem in Finland is that Somali women here think that they are free to do what they want. They have deprived men of the honour of being responsible for everything that a woman eats, what she wears, or what the women are taught.
Still, Abdillahi is no hooded warrior of the faith. He has just started to work at a day-care centre in Vantaa. Previously he has had a job as caring for mentally disabled people in Rinnekoti in Espoo. He is a polite young man, but in his faith he is very extreme. “A lone wolf”, as he says himself.
One wonders if the young Abdillahi understands himself what he is talking about as he says without batting an eye that those who draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad should die. “It is in our holy book. I cannot go against it. Each one of us is responsible for his actions.”
He also cannot abide the Shia Muslims, who even today are clashing with the Sunni in Iraq. However he knows that there will be a day when all of the world’s Muslims will stand together.
“We have been told that the last world war will take place in the Palestinian territories. All Islamic countries in the world and all Christian countries will unite”, Abdillahi says.
Who has said that?
“It can be found right in the holy book, the Koran.”
Are you ready for it?
“I hope that I will not be alive on the day that it happens.”
Is this discussed much at mosques in Finland?
“Of course not. They teach how to live a good life and what kind of an attitude to take toward your parents, and how to get closer to God.
There are not many Sunni in Finland whose doctrine would be that severe. One factor preventing the widespread radicalisation of the Muslim population is that there is no single dominant group of Muslims, as there are in Britain (the Muslims of India and Pakistan), Germany (The Turks, although many of them are quite secularised), or in France (the North Africans), says Islam specialist Marko Juntunen of the University of Helsinki.
The more Muslim groups want to optimise synergy, the readier they need to be to compromise. This puts a damper on extremism. However, not all.
Kuel Jok, a Sudanese researcher at the University of Helsinki, claimed in February that the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab was recruiting young Somalis living in Finland to go to war against the Somali government. In the early part of the year the Finnish Security Police (SUPO) asked Parliament for EUR 1.7 million in funding to station officers permanently in Africa and the Middle East to stop possible terrorists who might want to travel to Finland.
Tom Kankkonen, a journalist for the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE), wrote in his book Islam Euroopassa (“Islam in Europe”), that the spread of the hard-line Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia, which is akin to Salafism, which is practiced in Finland, is seen as something of a threat. There are already a few hundred of these neo-fundamentalist Sunni in Finland, and they operate in communities such as the Helsinki Muslimikoti (“Muslim Home”), the Iqra association, and the Salafi Forum on the Internet.
“These kinds of groups all over Europe feel that it is most important to create an island of Islam isolated form the rest of society”, Juntunen says. However, he notes that the religious interpretations of the groups do not necessarily have anything to do with security threats, even though Salafism might serve as a motivator for radicalism.
The staunchly conservative and very literal Salafism is - for now at least - more of a cause for concern for Finland’s moderate Muslim population than for the Lutheran mainstream.
Youth worker Mohamed Xadar Mukhtar Abdi has a clear mission: to keep Somali young people on the straight and narrow. To keep them away from khat, alcohol, and other bad habits. Mohamed works at the Kanava association, which offers help to immigrants.
“Many are on the verge of dropping out of school. Then there are young people who have already fallen”, says 25-year-old Mohamed.
“Some have broken their family ties. They do nothing. They just sleep during the day and see their friends at night. Khat is the worst people stay awake all night, and the next day goes completely crazy.”
It is paradoxical that many Muslim young people who have become radicalised in the Western world have actually rejected the traditional lifestyles of their own parents. They might live very Western lives and have just a scant knowledge of the teachings of Islam. For some more worldly Muslims, Islam is just a way to brand consumer goods.
“Increasing numbers of global goods are brand names of Islam, from Barbie dolls, to Internet sites, to soft drinks, and entertainment”, Juntunen says.
So it goes: Finland’s young Muslims yearn to live as individuals, just like others. The individuality simply varies considerably: from rigid Salafism to a more consumer-oriented Islam light. The Internet has a key role in what ideas are attractive, and with the experiences of everyday life.
“From late last year, one of the biggest concerns here in Kanava has been that many Somali young people are losing their jobs”, Mohamed says.
“After getting splashed with too much mud, it becomes easier for a young person to be recruited to some [hard-line Muslim] organisation.”
Some of the Somalis who were interviewed for this story, such as the young Abdillahi, believe that there are “quite a few” supporters of al-Shabab in Finland. However, they emphasise that the support does not mean that they support terrorism, but rather that some of Finland’s Somalis represent the same clans that are in the majority in al-Shabab.
Mohamed says that the possible impact of the radical movement is feared in Finland’s moderate Muslim circles. He himself is proof that even a devout Muslim can adapt to a Finnish lifestyle. He is a quiet as Finnish men generally are, and he has at least one basic vice that is not acceptable in Somali culture. “I sometimes don’t visit my mother for many months.”
Nevertheless: when Mohamed looks in the mirror, he understands that he will always be considered a Somali, until he dies. It is a label.
“If the Sello shooter had been a Somali, all hell would have broken loose”, he says.
Relations between Finland’s Sunnis and Shi’ites have cooled over the past decade. Researcher Marko Juntunen sees this as a reflection of the sharper division in the entire Muslim world. After the WTC attacks in September 2001 there has been radicalisation in the whole Muslim world. What happens in Iraq or Iran between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites has repercussions all the way to Finland.
“The [Salafist] Muslimikoti association in Pitäjänmäki is circulating some quite extreme Arabic language anti-Shi’ite material on the Internet”, Juntunen says.
The schism is a sensitive issue in the Finnish Muslim community. The dispute is made worse by the fact that the hard-line Sunni Saudi Arabia is actively engaged in missionary work, which has been taking place even in Finland since the 1980s.
“The Saudis began to direct money toward Europe in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian [Shi’ite] revolution. The Saudi administration feared that the Islamic activism on the street would topple governments all over the Middle East”, Juntunen says.
At least three Finnish mosques and one community have received money from Saudi sources. For instance, Helsinki’s Islam Centre in East Pasila. There is disagreement among Muslims on the degree to which the money is conditional on the assimilation of religious doctrine prevalent in Saudi-Arabia.
The 26-year-old vice president of the Finnish Islamic Party, Wubulihaire Rousidan says that the conservative Muslimikoti association has received Saudi money. Rousidan, who also has the Muslim name Nasrullah, is a Uighur - a Muslim from the west of China. He is opposed to the Saudi doctrines.
“When Muslimikoti bought its place in Pitäjänmäki, one of the donors was a Uighur living in Saudi Arabia. The place is not suitable for the life that we Uighur live. For instance, men and women cannot be together in the Muslimikoti. The men are on one side and the women are on the other.”
The head of anti-terror activities at the Finnish Security Police (SUPO), Lasse Anttila, sees no need to worry about Muslim money coming in as such. Nor is he concerned that a few dozen Muslims have travelled from Finland to study in conservative universities in Saudi Arabia in the past decade. It might even reduce radical tendencies.
“People with radical thoughts have become more moderate during their studies, and rejected their previous extremist ideas”, Anttila says.
“The problems are related more to recruiters operating near the official institutions of learning, who try to recruit students into violent, radical activities. We have spoken to some who have gone to study so that they might recognise this possibility.
One can hardly envy young Muslim men who have come to Finland from Africa or the Middle East. How are they supposed to prove their willingness to assimilate?
One way is to become an artillery man at the Vekarajärvi garrison, as 25-year-old Mohamed Abdirashid Awad did.
“I was the only dark-skinned person at that time, even though it was Finland’s largest garrison. All the others were from Heinola or somewhere, and there were some who probably had never seen a dark-skinned guy. But I got some friends there”, Mohamed says, sitting in his regular café in Helsinki.
Now he is studying to be a surgical nurse, and he has a job selling hamburgers. He watches hockey on television, and goes to the mosque to pray. He often has a friend, 26-year-old Aden Ahmed Hassan with him.
Aden has also moved ahead in Finland, although he has sometimes failed to get a job when he spoke his name on the telephone. Now he is studying at the Hanken School of Economics (as a child he was placed in a Swedish-language elementary school), he is a member of the Swedish People’s Party, and he has a job as an airport security inspector.
“We know everything about this culture.”
One might imagine that such Euro-Muslims would be easy for Finland to swallow, but it’s not quite that easy. Mohamed says that a couple of months ago security guards at Helsinki Railway Station grabbed him and sprayed him with pepper spray. A police officer on the spot claimed that Mohamed had kicked another guard. “While I was bleeding, because a guard had hit me in the face.”
The matter will go to court soon, but Mohamed does not believe that Somalis are on an footing with the population at large before a Finnish court. Not even at the same level as light-skinned immigrants.
“It is easier for Russians and Estonians to get ahead”, Aden says. “I would like to know why that is.”
There is no single reason for this. The Somalis were Finland’s first large refugee group, and it was difficult to adapt. Political Islam, meanwhile, has acquired a dark reputation, even in Finland, even though the overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose terrorism.
“Now many young Muslims have to suffer for something that they have no part in”, says youth worker Mohamed.
That certainly provokes anger. Marginalisation from work, drugs, and a lack of money, combined with xenophobia all combine to rob a person of a feeling of self-worth. Some might find an answer to this dead end from hard-line faith. On the global market of Islam there are plenty of teachings to choose from.
“If a young person is not psychologically prepared, and if a young person feels that Finland does not accept him, these kinds of roads make it easier”, Mohamed says. “Sometimes I feel myself that I would have expected more of Finland.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 11.4.2010
Previously in HS International Edition:
The imam is always available (17.4.2008)
Finnish Islamic Council does not back establishment of Islamic party (14.2.2008)
A Muslim MySpace based in Espoo (22.10.2006)
Somali League takes up fight against intoxicants (9.3.3010)
EU report: Many Somalis in Finland suffer frequent violence and threats (14.12.2009)
Helsinki welcomes minarets (3.12.2009)
TOMMI NIEMINEN / Helsingin Sanomat