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A cold reception: the rise of anti-Islamic sentiments in Iceland?

A row over the planned construction of Iceland’s first purpose-built mosque has dominated the county’s most recent elections and comes in the wake of a spate of anti-Islamic initiatives that point to mounting tensions over the presence of Islam in the tiny island nation.

The Muslim Cultural Centre of Iceland is located on the second floor of this building in Reykjavik. Wikipedia. Public domain.

Not long after Europe’s largest electorate turned out to vote for European Parliament candidates, one of the continent’s smallest electorates voted in local elections in Iceland. Most of the attention was on the city council elections in the nation’s capital, Reykjavik (with about 40% of Iceland´s pool of 230,000 registered voters), since these are often seen as a key battleground for the main parliamentary parties. The run-up to the elections seemed unremarkable: the social democratic party (Samfylkingin) – currently in opposition in parliament – was expected to do well in Reykjavik, whilst the senior coalition partner in government – the agrarian Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkurinn) was facing decimation in the capital, with polls suggesting it would fail to secure a single seat on the city council.

A relatively typical and harmonious campaign was upturned, however, when the leader of the Progressive candidacy in Reykjavik, Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir, spoke to journalists a week prior to the elections and expressed her determination to withdraw an existing offer of a plot for the building of the country´s first bespoke mosque. The Progressives had prepared for electoral defeat in the capital and initially pegged their candidacy onto a popular single issue movement dedicated to the safeguarding of the capital’s airport from future urban planning efforts to replace runways with new residential areas in the city centre. This initiative, however, appeared to have little impact on the party’s poll ratings, which remained relatively unchanged until they jumped after Ms Sveinbjörnsdóttir commented on the mosque plans.

According to the candidate (and now city councillor), the fact that Iceland had a state-sponsored Lutheran National Church meant that the city council ought to avoid offering available plots for mosques or Orthodox churches. The thrust of her argument concerned Islam and Muslims. “We have lived here [in Iceland] in harmony since the land was first settled […] “I think that whilst we still have a National Church the municipal authorities should not offer any available plots for the construction of buildings such as mosques”, the candidate remarked. The building of a mosque in Iceland would result in the influx of funds from Qatar, she insisted. Ms Sveinbjörnsdóttir asserted that she was basing her interjection on facts and personal experience, rather than prejudice: she had lived in Saudi Arabia for a year and was just back from Abu Dhabi where, she maintained, there are no churches (which is incorrect, as journalists were quick to point out).

The comments provoked widespread indignation and an intense and heated debate about the proposed mosque and the presence of Islam in Iceland and beyond which dominated media coverage in the days prior to the election. Many took to social media channels or commented on news websites.

One supporter of Ms Sveinbjörnsdóttir´s position urged voters to familiarise themselves with the situation in the Nordic countries where Muslims were apparently “committing crimes particularly against women and children”, a comment Ms Sveinbjörnsdóttir herself endorsed with a ‘like’ on Facebook. Others were outraged: one fellow Progressive Party candidate removed himself from the list in protest and the Foreign Secretary (also from the Progressives) critiqued the remarks, emphasising respect for human rights and equality. Candidates of other parties were more vocal in their opposition.

The Prime Minister, however – Progressive Party chairman Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson – refused to comment on the issue for days, until he came out in support of his Reykjavik candidate, condemning what he saw as a smear-campaign against her (one newspaper cartoon depicted her wearing a Ku Klux Klan cape in a line-up with candidates from other parties), whilst complaining about the apparent stagnation of Icelandic political debate.

The Prime Minister also expressed his opposition to the proposed location of the mosque (which was apparently too important as a central location in the capital), whilst acknowledging that Muslims ought to be able to build a mosque somewhere else, as long as it “conformed to its surroundings”. The chairman of the Society of Muslims in Iceland quickly retorted, pointing out that the existing plan had already been accepted by those living in the area, as well as the city council, that the proposed building would be no more than 800 square meters and that the proposed minaret would be lower than surrounding lampposts.

This is the first time that issues to do with religious identity, and Islam in particular, have dominated an election campaign in Iceland and the ploy – if indeed it was a ploy – seemed to work in favour of its proponents. Ms Sveinbjörnsdóttir boasted that the media storm surrounding her remarks meant that the party saved a fortune on advertising costs. And, the party, which was predicted to do very badly, faired much better after the mosque comments were made, securing two city council seats.

The debate surrounding these comments and the impact they had on the election, however, point to a more deep-rooted development in Iceland over the past months and years where opponents to the presence of Islam in the tiny and remarkably homogenous nation have become increasingly vocal.

The plan to build Iceland’s first proper mosque appears to have energised a proportion of the population that was, in some instances, already predisposed to be suspicious of and even hostile towards Islam in particular. Some framed their arguments in light of the apparent need to preserve the demographic fabric of the country whilst others referred to fears over Islamist extremism in Scandinavia in particular.

Facebook group in Icelandic was established in 2010 condemning the mosque plans, which now has over 4,400 ‘likes’. The proprietor states in the ‘about’ page that “plans to build a mosque in Iceland must be rejected on national security grounds because the preparation for terrorist acts often appears to originate inside the mosque”. The forum contains a host of vehemently racist and anti-Islamic statements, videos and photographs and appears to be associated with other Icelandic anti-Islamic campaign sites, particularly the ‘Terrorism blog,’ a compilation of anti-Islamic diatribes and conspiracy theories. The far-right undertones of much of this material are often explicit. The Facebook group was even advertised on the notorious ‘white power’ web forum ‘Stormfront’, where an Iceland-based user calling himself ‘Swastika88’ – ‘88’ referring to ‘Heil Hitler’ – appealed for help in “fighting Islamization in Iceland”. The posting received numerous pledges of support from white racist sympathisers.

Other prominent opponents to proposed mosque plans include a former Reykjavik mayor, Ólafur F. Magnússon, who has written several letters to newspapers publicising his views. In July 2013 he wrote a letter to one of the main national newspapers citing national security concerns as a reason for preventing a mosque from being built. Were these plans to go ahead, Mr. Magnússon warned, “Muslims in Iceland would have direct access to foreign Islamic proselytising groups that would assist with the funding of the mosque”. These groups, in turn, would become embedded in the country and “enhance the influence of Islam” in Iceland and beyond. In another letter published by the same newspaper a month later, Mr. Magnússon claimed that plans to build a mosque were “an insult to Iceland´s national heritage and to the inhabitants of the Westman Islands in particular”, because they had been victims of a Barbary pirate raid in 1627.

The anti-mosque/anti-Islam protest took an ugly and bizarre turn when on a November morning in 2013 a group of people descended on the proposed mosque site and planted severed pigs’ heads and pages of the Quran draped in a red blood-like liquid, whilst speaking to morning commuters about their opposition to the planned building. The police arrived, but only after city council staff had removed most of the evidence.

One of the perpetrators later called a radio station to claim responsibility. The individual in question, Óskar Bjarnason, claimed to have been part of a group of four men (with wider backing, he insisted) who wished to register their hostility in this way. Mr. Bjarnason, who resides in Sweden, claimed the group had been seeking to “desecrate” the site in order to scuttle plans to build a mosque on the plot and claimed similar tactics had been used in Scandinavia. He described the proposed mosque building as a “military base” for Muslims in Iceland. “Ever since they [Muslims] acquired mosques in Sweden for instance”, Mr. Bjarnason insisted, “they started to form designated groups because these [mosques] of course constitute nothing else than military headquarters. They come together to rape women in Sweden and beyond. Islam tells them to rape. A Swedish woman, she´s a whore. They behave like beasts, as you can see from media reports from Sweden and Norway.” “They [Muslims] are planning to take over the world”, Mr. Bjarnason continued, “and that´s what we are protesting against”.

Mr. Bjarnason claimed in the interview that powerful people in Iceland were supportive of their opposition and efforts to derail plans to build a mosque in Reykjavik, and insisted he was member of a much more radical group than that represented by the Facebook collective mentioned above.

Police eventually spoke to Mr. Bjarnason but complained they had no evidence, since city council workers had been too quick in clearing the site. Remarkably, and contrary to the opinion of human rights lawyers, police investigators rejected claims that anything illegal had taken place and insisted people had to be free to protest in Iceland. There was no difference, police argued, between this incident and other protests of yore, for instance when people gathered to protest the building of the central bank by planting horses’ heads. Icelandic law, of course, protects religious freedom and protects religious minorities from intimidation and hate crime, but police chose not to interpret these events in this way.

There are, according to the Icelandic Statistics Office, approximately 900 registered Muslims living in Iceland. Animosity against them, although – it should be stressed – clearly not representative of general national sentiment, hardly seems to stem from any form of tangible community tension within the country itself. Iceland has not experienced any of the incidents that are used by anti-Islamic groups in the UK, for instance, such as acts of Islamist terrorism or cases of ‘Asian sex grooming gangs’ that serve to fan the flames of anti-Islamic sentiment locally. Rather, the anti-Islamic debate in Iceland is a case of spillover from abroad, particularly the Nordic countries. Islam, in the most extreme cases, is equated with Islamist terrorism, whilst the mainstream and the diversity of divergent Islamic strands are ignored. Some of these attitudes, albeit in a watered-down version, have entered the political mainstream in Iceland via, primarily, some members of the Progressive Party.

Ironically, meanwhile, the scale of efforts against Muslims’ plans to build a mosque in Iceland risk to exacerbate community relations within the country and create genuine tension, more akin to that experienced in some parts of Europe.

One politician remarked that political debate in Iceland had “lost its innocence” in the wake of Ms Sveinbjörnsdóttir’s comments. Politicians will also be aware, however, of the impact that the comments had and the ability of candidates willing to voice their suspicion of Muslims to mobilise pockets of support with minimal effort. It would seem likely, therefore, that populist politics of this nature will become a permanent fixture on the Icelandic political scene. What seems equally clear, moreover, is that the anti-Islamic movement has spread to the outermost peripheries of Europe where, for certain groups, notions of security, safety and national cohesion have become tied to open hostility towards Islam and Muslims.

About the author

Dr Donald Holbrook is a Research Fellow at the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, School of International Relations, University of St Andrews.

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