State-Funded Faith-Based Schooling for Muslims in the North

Jenny Berglund. Religion & Education. Volume 46, Issue 2. 2019.

Nearly 100 years ago (1916), John Dewey noted that

Education in the largest sense is any act or experience that has a formative effect on the mind, character, or physical ability of an individual. In its technical sense, education is the process by which society deliberately transmits its accumulated knowledge, skills and values from one generation to another.

From this it can be understood that all state educational systems carry the potential of being institutions of “indoctrination.” Education is the means by which a state creates what Benedict Anderson so elegantly called an “imagined community.” Of course, education might conceivably have more important goals than this. But it is undeniable that throughout the world attempts are made to instill certain common attitudes, values, and ways of thinking by means of education. Until the end of the 19th century, the fostering of good Christians was the aim of European school systems; in the 20th and 21st centuries, the foremost goal has become the fostering of good citizens. Yet, as worthy as this goal might be, it is obviously not education’s only function. Another is the crucial role that education plays in the maintenance, preservation, and survival of religious systems. Indeed, it would not be overstating it to say that religious education (RE) lies at the very heart of all religions. Perhaps this explains why I have dedicated so many years to this compelling and important field of study.

For members of a majority religion, the transmission of religious traditions to future generations differs from that of those belonging to a minority religion. Majority society is, in one way or another, “marinated” in the majority religion. Hence, certain religious values and narratives are “transmitted” through state institutions, traditions, cultural expressions, and so on—although formal education is also necessary for long-term survival. For minorities, on the other hand, the opportunity to teach their religion to future generations is far more urgent: If not somehow taught, the religion will eventually disappear. This is the reason that Islamic education is of such great concern to many Muslims in Europe; it also explains why Islamic RE (IRE) has become a topic of intense public debate. People are concerned that their state is doing either too little or too much when it comes to shaping the spiritual beliefs of private citizens. State response to the unease has ranged from sponsoring Islamic education in public schools to forgoing such education entirely—with policies varying according to national political culture. In many European countries, for example, Muslims have been granted the opportunity to obtain state funding for religious schools, introduce IRE in public education, train teachers of Islam, and/or establish university chairs of Islamic theology. In this way, the emergence of state-funded IRE in Europe can be seen as a positive development, affording educational equivalency to Muslims and other religious minorities through partnerships with the state.

It must be said, however, that securing equal rights for religious minorities is only one side of the coin. The other side is the tendency of the state to use public funding as a means of achieving not only social cohesion, but also social control (i.e., molding the conduct and thinking of the Muslim minority so that it coheres with the conduct and thinking of the Western majority). This includes controlling the content of Islamic education and, in some cases, Islam itself. Indeed, Islamic education is sometimes singled out by the state for this kind of treatment in a way that is not done for other minority religions.

My studies have focused on state-funded preuniversity Islamic education in a number of European countries. All these countries are secular states with majority Christian populations and all contain Islam as a minority religion. Despite these similarities, the availability of state-funded Islamic education varies widely between them. In this article, I will compare the provision of Islamic education in Finland and Sweden, neighboring Northern European countries with secular Protestant majorities and Muslim minorities, each of which has established its own unique brand of state-funded faith-based schooling. Over and above this, I will show how each of these countries operates in the broader context of religious diversity.

We can begin by establishing a definition of Islamic education as well as a general description of state funding for both education and religion, after which I will introduce my claim that the study of Islamic education can serve as a type of litmus test for state-society-minority relations. Following this brief introduction, I will provide a detailed description of faith-based schooling in both Finland and Sweden. At the end I will compare certain features indicating that although both countries have similar aims, their historical context (including church-state relations and societal changes) has led to the development of markedly different approaches to RE and faith-based schooling.

Islamic Education: A Definition

Despite its religious connotations, scholars generally use the term Islamic education to refer to both religious and secular education about Islam; over time, of course, the term has been invested with a variety of usages and meanings. In this article, it is broadly applied so as to encompass the following three categories: (1) Islamic instruction, provided in mosques, Muslim organizations, and homes; (2) IRE, offered as a subject in public schools; and (3) teaching about Islam, referring to nonconfessional courses on Islam offered to both Muslim and non-Muslim students.

State Neutrality and Religious Educations

Most forms of state-funded Islamic education occur within the framework of an already established school system. In each country, state-funded RE has been shaped by multiple factors, including its historical and political development, its church-state relations, and the structure of its educational system. Over and above this, the dominance in a country of one particular religious tradition has obviously affected all these factors, even in countries where religious freedom is guaranteed. Two models of RE can be discerned: (1) the confessional (or denominational) approach and (2) the nonconfessional, comparative “Study of Religions” approach. A primary distinction between these two types revolves around the entity responsible for determining the content, developing the curricula, selecting the materials, and training the teachers.

Islamic education programs also differ in terms of whether they provide education into, education about, or education from religion. Education into religion introduces the pupil to a specific religious tradition, with the aim of promoting personal, moral, and spiritual development as well as building religious identity within that tradition. Many confessional approaches emphasize learning into religion, meaning learning how to live in accordance with specific religious tenets and practices. Education about religion provides the pupil with a more or less academic examination of various religious traditions. It is an approach that contextualizes religion within the framework of the comparative study of religions, history, and sociology. Education from religion takes the personal experience of the pupil as its principal point of departure. The idea is to enhance students’ capacity to reflect upon important questions of life and to provide an opportunity to develop personal responses to major moral and religious problems. In other words, students learn from different religious traditions and outlooks of life. Even in countries with shared history and traditions, such as the Nordic countries, there are broad differences in the organization of these different kinds of RE. One important distinction centers upon the relationship between academic and religious authorities. Related to this is the question of who “own[s] … religion in the classroom—religious tradition, society or teachers?.” Yet another distinction concerns whether RE is voluntary or compulsory.

Education as a Litmus Test for Relations with Muslim Minorities

The term secular state generally indicates a strict separation between church and state, meaning that no particular religion should hold a privileged position in society or a privileged relationship with the state. Secularity, however, does not necessarily imply that there is absolutely no relation between the state and religion. Secular states have always shown interest in religious matters, and many have provided financial support to religious institutions through the public funding of RE or the granting of special nonprofit corporate statuses and tax exemptions.

Elsewhere I have argued that publicly (state) funded RE can be viewed as a litmus test for church-state-society relations. If this is indeed correct, it follows that the specific study of state-funded Islamic education can afford valuable insight into the general relationship between Western democracies and their Muslim minority populations. In the history of Europe, Islam has had a presence in such countries as Spain for over a millennium, Poland and Lithuania since the 14th century, Finland since the 19th century, and Sweden since the beginning of the 20th century. Despite this, it has been only over the last several decades that public discourse on Islam has particularly addressed the matter of Islamic education, and only over the last two decades that Islamic education has become an item of concern. Moreover, as already noted, during the period in which various European states have begun to address this issue, they have done so in decidedly different ways.

After World War II, many Western European countries experienced a substantial influx of labor migration; several exceptions were Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Finland, all of which were primarily emigration countries during this phase. Moreover, most countries had yet to develop specific immigration policies, because they expected immigrant workers to either return to their home countries or take their place alongside other socially disadvantaged groups. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s, when it had become clear that many labor migrants would not be returning to their countries of origin, that serious policy discussions on immigration began to take place. Countries like Sweden and Britain, for example, embraced multiculturalism, whereas others, such as France, promoted assimilation instead.

During the 1990s, riots and social unrest in several countries led immigration discourse in the direction of fostering “social and community cohesion” over integration. The growing interest in state-funded Islamic education that has occurred over the last two decades is strongly related to this new emphasis on “social cohesion,” made possible not only through ordinary contact between immigrant communities and the majority society but through institutions such as schools as well.

The matter of Islamophobia is equally relevant to discourse on the state funding of Islamic education in Europe. Discrimination against Muslims is an argument used both for and against establishing Islamic RE in public schools, teaching about Islam in nonconfessional school subjects, and state-funded Muslim schools. Since the 1990s, Islamophobia has become a common, although somewhat disputed, term for the longstanding Western fear of Muslims. In this study, it refers to the fear, rejection, and hatred of a stereotypical notion of Islam as well as both gross and subtle forms of discrimination against Muslims, including verbal abuse and overt actions taken against Muslim property and individuals.

The fact that Islamophobia has become a growing problem can be seen in countries such as Sweden, France, and Holland, where political parties that are highly critical of Islam have made electoral gains in parliamentary elections. One argument used by such parties asserts that Muslims are not capable of adapting to European law, and thus would find it difficult to balance their loyalty to Islam with their loyalty to their new nation. Available research indicates, however, that despite the popularity of this argument among certain European figures seeking to promote the notion of a clash between Islam and “the West,” it is only applicable to a small number of ultraconservative Muslim groups. In her comparative study of European and American Muslims, political scientist Jocelyn Cesari found that most Muslims identify more with their country of residence than with their religion or ethnicity and tend to see their own Islamic values reflected in the liberal democratic values of Western societies.

Although European Muslims tend to be less secular than non-Muslim populations, Cesari noted that when making comparisons between Muslims in Europe and Muslims in the United States, one must focus on certain contextual factors rather than on the factor of greater or lesser secularity in and of itself:

The gap is not between religious Muslims and “secular” Europeans or Americans but rather between the European and American context in which Muslims are living. Across European countries, the level of self-declared religiosity in the general population is systematically much lower than among Muslims groups, while in the United States, this is not the case. In other words, the general context of religiosity and social legitimacy of religions in each country is the real discriminatory factor that must be understood to grasp the situation of Islam and Muslims.

Another common assumption conflates heightened religiosity with “fundamentalization.” However, several studies have shown that high levels of religiosity generally go hand-in-hand not with fundamentalism, but rather with the search for alternate forms of identity and the individualization of faith.

Here it is important to note the connection between the emergence of state-funded Islamic education and the emphasis on equal rights in Europe, which demands that all religions be treated equally. In many European countries this has allowed Muslims to obtain state funding for religious schools, introduce IRE in public education, train teachers of Islam, and establish university departments of Islamic theology. Securing equal rights for religious minorities, however, is only one side of the coin. The other is the tendency to use the public funding of education as a coercive means of achieving social cohesion, that is, as a way to mold the conduct and thinking of Muslim populations so as to cohere with the conduct and thinking of the Western majority populations.


Compared to many other European countries, the current Muslim population in Finland is relatively small (only 60,000-70,000 persons among a population of 5.4 million). Although a significant increase in Muslim immigration began only recently (towards the end of the 1980s), for the last hundred years Finland has had a small Muslim population, the Tatars, which arrived during the time that the country was a grand Duchy of Russia. Today Finland contains a highly diverse Muslim population, which includes Somalis, Arabs, Kurds, Kosovo Albanians, Bosnians, and Turks as the largest groups.

Religious Education

Finland is an interesting country in terms of education, not only because it has obtained the highest ranking in PISA Studies, but also because it offers nonconfessional RE specifically designed for each separate religious tradition. In Finland, RE is a compulsory school subject in both comprehensive (7-16 years) and upper-secondary (16-18/19 years) schools. It is based on a model that enables pupils to follow the RE of the denomination to which they belong. In 2004, Finnish RE was changed from a confessional to a nonconfessional school subject that is taught “in accordance with the pupil’s own religion”. This categorical change also has been described as “weak confessional,” with “confessional” referring to the fact that both the pupils in the classroom and the curriculum reflect a common worldview. Whereas Lutheran RE (LRE) is taught in all schools, alternate RE is offered only if the municipality or town contains a minimum of three pupils that are members of one of Finland’s registered religions and there is a parental demand that RE in their specific tradition be offered to their children. Those that desire a RE that is not connected to any particular religion are given the option of a course in “Ethics”—a subject that is arguably more neutral but that can include teaching about religion and religions. At the moment, there are 13 registered RE curricula in Finland’s comprehensive schools and 10 such curricula in its upper secondary schools. This separation of REs has to do with Finland’s state-church relations. Since 1919 Finland has had two state churches: the Lutheran Church of Finland and the Finnish Orthodox Church. This arrangement has provided parallel systems of institutionalization (and thus RE). The framework was originally meant to provide equal rights to the orthodox minority; over the years, however, it has given religious minorities such as the Muslims the opportunity to create a parallel path for RE within the school system—and now also for providing university-level teacher education.

State-Funded Islamic Education

According to the above arrangement, Muslim students are to receive IRE within the state school system and the curriculum for this education is to be non-confessional in nature. This means that the orientation of IRE in public schools will be primarily educational rather than religious. According to the Finnish National Board of Education, experiential forms of learning and ways of familiarizing students with different forms of religious practice are needed, but all learning activities are to be enacted on sound pedagogical grounds.

According to the new comprehensive school curricula for IRE, the purpose of this subject is to strengthen pupils’ Islamic identity as well as their understanding of the significance of Islam for both themselves and society. Over and above this, pupils are taught to understand and interact with persons holding different worldviews, something that is stressed in the overall curriculum of religion, which stands above the 13 available alternatives.

Recent research on IRE in Finland indicates that the country’s model of RE safeguards the rights of Muslim minorities and contributes significantly to the development of a Muslim identity. It also encourages Muslim students’ commitment to and participation in Finnish society. In her study of IRE in Finland, Finnish researcher Inkeri Rissanen has shown that IRE teachers are deeply involved in developing a representation of Islam that is appropriate for RE in a liberal educational context and that pedagogical and ideological negotiations are closely entwined in decisions on this matter. She has also shown that, because of their ability to identify with both groups, IRE teachers sometimes serve as cultural interpreters in practical discussions between immigrant Muslim families and school personnel. Rissanen noted that although teachers sometimes have difficulty handling the diversity of interpretations of Islam, they attempt to manage this by focusing on aspects that are shared by most Muslims, although this is also sometimes challenging due to the parents diverse cultural backgrounds.

Because the Finnish curriculum mixes liberal and confessional approaches to RE, teachers are required to balance between the self-understanding of religions and the social aims of education, thus making RE a meeting point of societal and religious notions as well as a space for conveying the values of liberal democracies while still holding on to a particular religious tradition. This means the creation of a space for discussing topics that are sometimes considered sensitive, such as clashes between the ideals of religious traditions and modern liberal democracy. In this way, Finnish IRE teachers can be understood as mediators (or perhaps translators) between religion and society. As Rissanen pointed out, “recognizing the teachers’ need to mediate the negotiations intertwined in the curriculum for RE indicates a shift of focus from the role of the RE-teacher simply as a transmitter of religious tradition towards more transformative aspects of teaching.” In Rissanen’s study, Finnish IRE teachers were seen to balance the aim of developing citizenship and the aim of developing religious identity by “supporting citizenship through supporting religious identities.” This was largely accomplished by interpreting modern liberal values within an Islamic framework.

Muslim parents and pupils viewed the existence of IRE as recognition of Islam in Finnish society and acknowledgement of Muslim identities in Finnish schools. Rissanen concludes that providing RE that is in keeping with the pupil’s own religion supports integration by affording religious traditions a tangible role in education, that is, religious persons are integrated not only as individuals but also as a part of the country’s institutional infrastructure. Because IRE exists within the public school system, the demand for separate Muslim schools has not been an issue in Finland.

Teacher Education

In 2007, an educational program for IRE teachers was established at Helsinki University. Thus far, however, the program has attracted few students because university studies require a high level of proficiency in the Finnish language, and also because existing IRE teachers have found it difficult to relinquish their posts for further education. The IRE curriculum had been in place since 1995, but there had been the possibility of such education outside the school context even earlier. Prior to 2007, the Finnish state did not require teachers to have formal Islamic pedagogical training, although some had received education while still living in Muslim majority countries. Because Finnish RE is nonconfessional, one does not have to be Muslim to teach IRE. For example, although I myself am not a member of a Muslim tradition, I have nonetheless taught courses on Islamic education at the University of Helsinki for both Muslim and non-Muslim teaching students. This, of course, goes for Muslim students as well, who can become teachers of LRE or Orthodox RE (ORE) as they like.

Textbooks for IRE

In recent years, Finland’s National Board of Education has published a book series titled Salam for IRE, which includes workbooks and materials for teachers. The stories about Muslims in these books are set in a Finnish environment; two Muslim Finnish children, for example, are portrayed baking wheat buns, visiting a forest, and spending time at their grandmother’s farm. The books are sponsored by the state, which has sponsored teaching materials for other minority religions as well. Because Swedish is an official language in Finland, some of the textbooks on Islam have been published in both Finnish and Swedish. This speaks well of the Finnish approach because the number of Swedish-speaking Muslims in Finland is extremely low. The book series received some media attention and its strong Finnish orientation has been discussed, with some perceiving it as an attempt by the Finnish state to control the expression of Islam. According to Inkeri Rissanen, those portions of Finnish society that oppose both immigration and Muslims have also criticized the series, but rather as the state’s attempt to establish the “frightening” notion of a Finnish Islam.

Teaching about Islam

Non-Muslim students are not excluded form learning about Islam. Rather they are provided with the opportunity to attend shorter, very basic courses on this tradition within their own RE subjects. In Finland’s new curricula for RE, teaching about diverse religions and minority cultures is required even at the primary school level; thus Muslim, Jewish, and Christian students in primary school are afforded the opportunity to learn about each other’s tradition.

State Support for Muslim Organizations

In Finland, religious community organizations and registered associations can apply for municipal support. In the 1990s, when the first groups of Muslims arrived, this provision enabled those that had few resources of their own to thrive. Many local Muslim groups organized and gradually became approved as representatives of local Muslim interests. State support could then be used to develop various religious educational programs and activities within these organizations.

Political Debate on Islam and Islamic Education

Despite the fact that Finland’s Muslim population is relatively small, the level of prejudice and discrimination experienced by its Muslim communities is similar to that of other European countries. Much of the explanation for this negativity can be traced to the abundance of media reports on disturbing international events that involve Muslims (e.g., war, terrorism, beheadings, etc.). Certain political party members have even begun to openly speak about Muslims in very derogatory terms.

Finnish researcher Toumas Martikainen has noted that over the last decade Finland’s Nordic welfare state model has changed in a manner that has forced all religious organizations to become more competitive for state moneys. He concludes that,

Except for the high-level security concern over radical Islam, there is nothing that makes the Muslim experience different from that of other religions in the country. It actually seems that the social positions of all religions are becoming closer to each other, including the nationally specific Lutheran and Orthodox Churches, and potentially more controversial. It is in this sense that religion has become public and Finland post-secular.

The Finnish model of RE has been a much-debated topic, with many arguing in favor of a more integrative multifaith model in which all pupils are taught together, providing the opportunity for dialog between different religions. Finland’s minorities, however, are satisfied with the present model, and thus they are highly interested in maintaining the status quo. This differs from the position of the municipalities, which find the model to be both costly and cumbersome, largely because IRE and other minority-religion teachers are required to travel to many schools each week. These shortcomings notwithstanding, it is clear from Rissanen’s study that Finnish IRE is appreciated by teachers, pupils, and parents alike, being viewed as an important acknowledgement of Islam in Finnish society.


The presence of Muslims in Sweden is relatively new as compared to other European countries, with the Tatars (from Finland) having been the first to arrive at the end of the 1940s. The 1960s marked the beginning of Muslim Labor migration; and when the need for Labor decreased at the end of the 1970s, immigration policy once again became more restrictive. Today’s Swedish Muslim population is comprised of individuals from a wide variety of national, ethnic and religious origins, many of whom arrived as refugees since the 1980s and many of whom were born in Sweden.

No reliable statistics exist regarding how many Muslims currently reside in Sweden. However, with well over one hundred established communities, Islam has clearly become this country’s largest non-Christian religion. Available data indicates that the Swedish Muslim population stands at around 5-600,000. Of these, approximately half are held to be secularized, an estimated one-third are considered to be school age and younger, and around 110,000 are said to belong to some kind of registered Muslim organization.

Religion Education in Sweden

The Swedish school system has a long history of Christian education related to the former Lutheran State Church. Although schooling was made compulsory for all children in 1842, Sven Hartman notes that “Swedes [had been] a reading people” long before that—a result of the Ecclesiastical Act of 1686, which charged parents and masters with the domestic responsibility of teaching their children and servants to read. At that time, the most important school subject was religious instruction and this remained the case until the occurrence of a major curriculum adjustment in the year 1919, the starting point of the secularization of Swedish schools. Thereafter, religious instruction was reduced by 50%, other subjects were introduced to balance the difference, and “[f]ostering for national citizenship instead of the Lutheran faith became the task of the school system.” In 1962, a school reform required the subject of Christianity to maintain a “neutral” profile with respect to questions of faith; and in 1969, the subject’s name was changed from Christianity to religionskunskap, which literally translates as knowledge about religionor, more simply, as religion education (a term that is increasingly used for nonconfessional education about religions).

The change in name indicates the transition from a confessional to a non-confessional school subject that prioritizes teaching about religion—including different religions—from a “Study of Religions” perspective. Despite the fact that the school subject is non-confessional, it can be understood as having been “marinated in Lutheran Protestantism.” The following quote from the present syllabus explains the Swedish educational perspective:

Teaching in religion should aim at helping pupils to develop knowledge of religions and other outlooks on life in their own society and in other parts of the world. By means of teaching, pupils should become sensitive to how people with different religious traditions live with and express their religion and belief in different ways. Teaching should in a balanced way illuminate the role that religions can play in society, both in the pursuit of peace and resolving conflicts, in order to promote social cohesion and as a cause of segregation.

Although several studies point to the positive aspects of non-confessional RE, a recent Gothenburg University study has found that Swedish schools often characterize the nonreligious position as being the “neutral norm” and the religious position as being “problematic.” Apart from this, the study also shows that Swedish Christian traditions and history are often used as a way of defining “us” vis-à-vis “them,” with “them” (the “others”) being religious people in general and Muslims in particular.


There are a number of publishing houses that produce knowledge about religion textbooks. Each school and/or teacher decides which book to use or whether an alternative, such as a webpage, is preferable. School textbooks are a complicated genre: within only a handful of pages the author is challenged to present an entire religion—its history, creeds, rituals, narratives, personages, and so forth. Both Kjell Härenstam and Jonas Otterbeck have analyzed textbook chapters about Islam. In Härenstam’s study, the manner in which textbooks have generally represented Islam is contrasted with the manner in which Islam has been represented from the perspective of Muslim self-understanding. Here the question of choice is highlighted by the finding that the adherent’s perspective on Islam is nowhere to be found in many of these textbooks even though this vantage point is one that Sweden’s national syllabus considers important for pupils to learn. In keeping with these findings, Otterbeck’s more recent examination of secondary-level knowledge about religion textbooks concludes that the choice of content in the chapters about Islam is sometimes “tendentious,” marked by an insensitivity to the matter of power relations (since many Islamic traditions are not represented), and misleading (since Islam is often depicted as if it were “Islamism” instead).

This finding is problematic when juxtaposed with the national curriculum’s stated general aims for a Swedish school education:

Education should impart and establish respect for human rights and the fundamental democratic values on which Swedish society is based. Each and every individual working in the school should encourage respect for the intrinsic value of each person and the environment we share.

The inviolability of human life, individual freedom and integrity, the equal value of all people, equality between women and men, and solidarity with the weak and vulnerable are the values that the school should represent and impart. In accordance with the ethics borne by the Christian tradition and Western humanism, this is achieved by fostering in the individual a sense of justice, generosity of spirit, tolerance, and responsibility. Teaching in the school should be non-denominational.

The school should be open to different ideas and encourage their expression. It should emphasize the importance of forming personal standpoints and provide opportunities for doing so. Teaching should be objective and encompass a range of different approaches. All parents should be able to send their children to school, fully confident that their children will not be prejudiced in favor of any particular view. All who work in the school should uphold the fundamental values that are set out in the Education Act and in this curriculum, and clearly dissociate themselves from anything that conflicts with these values.

The use of the term non-denominational (icke-konfessionell) in the above quotation is meant to imply that education in the Swedish school system must be presented such that no particular worldview is prioritized and that pupils from all cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds would feel comfortable in attendance. This neutrality, however, does not extend to the realm of what is described as society’s “fundamental values,” the mediation of which the national curriculum considers a primary task of Sweden’s educational system. This is one reason that knowledge about religion is taught from a study of religions perspective, which, in 1996, was made obligatory for all pupils.

In accordance with Sweden’s Education Act, the general goals outlined in the above quotation are meant to be achieved in both non-denominational and denominational settings, and thus the “objectivity” of education is not to be intruded upon by indoctrinating or tendentious modes of discourse regardless of a school’s profile—be it confessional or any other. In pursuit of these aims, most denominational schools arrange only a small number of hours per week for the introduction of certain subjects. In the specific case of Muslim schools (see below), this number amounts to 1 to 3 hr per week of IRE. And because there are no national syllabi for such subjects, local syllabi must be developed instead; these, however, must also adhere to the above-described “fundamental values.” How this has been accomplished in three of Sweden’s Muslim schools is discussed in Teaching Islam, Islamic Religious Education in Sweden (Berglund, 2010).

State Support for Muslim Organizations

In Sweden, Muslim organizations that are “approved” after being appropriately organized can receive financial support from the Commission for State Grants to Religious Communities (Samarbetsnämnden för stöd till trossamfund [or SST]). The granting conditions are that the religious organization must contribute “to the maintenance and strengthening of the fundamental values upon which [Swedish] society is based, must be stable, and must play an active role in the community” (Law on Governmental Support of Faith Communities SFS 1999: 932 § 3). The purpose of the support is “[to] help to create conditions whereby religious communities can pursue… long-term religious activities in the form of services, pastoral care, [and] religious instruction…” (Law on Governmental Support of Faith Communities SFS 1999: 932 § 3). Based upon these criteria, a number of Sweden’s Muslim organizations have qualified for the receipt of financial support, which they can then use for the purpose of Islamic education. Communities that are unable to obtain this sort of support remain dependent upon voluntary membership support and/or support from organizations located in Muslim majority counties.

Faith-Based Islamic Education in Sweden

Muslim schools are yet another setting in which Islamic education is taught. In 1993, Sweden’s first Muslim school opened in the southern city of Malmö, and at present there are 11 schools classified as “Islamic” by the Swedish National Agency for Education. Because a number of the schools characterized as “Swedish-Arabic” provide some sort of IRE—for example, lessons in the Qur’an—it is possible to consider them “Muslim” as well. This raises the number to between 15 and 20, with each school currently educating between 20 and 250 pupils.

Among the many reasons for the establishment of Muslim schools at the beginning of the 1990s, one concerns the fact that in 1992 Sweden’s Education Act was amended such that it became less difficult to found independent schools. Here it should be noted that although independent schools are permitted to maintain a “profile” that distinguishes them from standard municipal schools, the education offered by such schools must teach all the standard subjects and follow the national curriculum; this requirement includes schools of a denominational character. The profile of such schools often consists of a particular school ethos as well as the incorporation of additional curricular subjects into the weekly schedule. The nature of one denominational school may be extremely different from that of another, and a distinction is frequently drawn between those that have “strong” and those that have “weak” profiles. These classifications pertain to the degree of impact that a specific religion has on the profile of the school. In denominational schools, activities that are confessional in character cannot be mandatory, meaning that if students so desire it, they must be permitted to opt out of such things as religious celebrations or morning gatherings that include prayers.

As already mentioned, there is no national syllabus for IRE; instead, each school is responsible for preparing its own syllabus. I have previously shown that in Sweden the content of IRE lessons among Muslims schools tends to vary according to such factors as the interpretative tradition and/or education of the teacher, the make-up of the student population, the background of the parents, the choice of teaching materials, how the teacher views the majority society, and so forth. Here it should be noted that there are no available Swedish-language teaching materials for IRE, meaning that most teachers import their textbooks from Muslim majority countries.

Several studies have shown that certain Muslim parents place their children in Muslim schools more for academic than for religious reasons. Gunnel Mohme, for example, has shown that parents with Somali backgrounds place their children in Muslim schools as a reaction to the lack of respect and understanding they had experienced while attending the local municipal school, often because of religious and ethnic narrowmindedness. Highly valuing academic achievement, they searched for a suitable alternative and eventually placed their trust in one or another Muslim school. A further reason for the choice of a Muslim school involves the difficulties Muslim parents have sometimes encountered in their dealings with municipal school officials and staff—interactions that have left them feeling humiliated, alienated, and shamed. Apparently, these sorts of unpleasant encounters have convinced some parents that it is impossible to effectively execute their parental responsibilities within the framework of the municipal school system; as such, they have opted to send their children to a Muslim school instead. Considerations such as these cannot be excluded from any relevant discussion on Muslim schools in Sweden.

Apart from the above subjective concerns, many Muslim parents also consider it important to find educational environments in which their children can be educated into Islam via confessional lessons rather than about Islam via textbooks based on a secularized study of religions perspective (as is done in mainstream schools). Confessional lessons afford Muslim pupils a learning experience in which Islam is the norm and the “good life” is presented from an Islamic point of view. An education into Islam, or for that matter any religious tradition, can also be viewed as standing in clear contrast to an education into secularism, the so-called “neutrality” that municipal schools are considered to uphold.

An unfortunate circumstance relative to the present discussion is that currently there are no available statistics regarding the comparative performances of Muslim pupils in Muslim and in other types of schools (e.g., municipal schools). This needs to be addressed, as such studies would obviously contribute to the discourse on this subject in significant ways. Although the decision to send one’s child to a Muslim school may not be exclusively based on its offering of IRE, the inclusion of this extracurricular subject in the school syllabi is nonetheless significant in terms of drawing a formal distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim schools in Sweden.

Islam at Swedish Universities

Swedish universities afford students the possibility of studying Islam from a nonconfessional perspective in both study of religions and history of religions departments, where Islam is approached from a historical, sociological, and/or anthropological point of view. Although many universities offer short introductory courses on this subject, a number of others offer Study of Religions with a focus on Islam up to the level of PhD. An example is Uppsala University, which has recently introduced courses on Islamic theology. In 2007, Sweden’s first and only Muslim Community College (or Kista folkhögskola) was established in Stockholm. This interesting initiative offers courses to compliment the education of adults that lack a secondary and/or upper-secondary education. The college has a Muslim ethos and offers complementary courses in Islamic studies.

As already mentioned, with the exception of denominational schools, RE in Sweden is not connected to any specific religion and can be more accurately described as knowledge about religion rather than RE per se. Those that teach in such schools require an education that familiarizes them with various religious traditions since they will be called upon to teach their students about those traditions from a nondenominational study of religions perspective. Such an education can be acquired at Swedish universities, where teacher-degree programs are oriented around this goal, and thus include courses about the major religions from study of religions departments.

For those that teach some form of Islamic education in Muslim schools, Muslim organizations, or mosques, Sweden currently has no available teacher training program. As a result, the typical IRE teacher either has no higher Islamic education or has received that education abroad, from an institution in one or another Muslim majority country. This indicates that there is an immediate need for IRE teacher education in Sweden, where such teachers are today formally classified as “unaccredited” in accordance with the protocols of Sweden’s National Agency of Education—a classification that counts against the standing of the school during Agency evaluations.

Comparative Discussion

Although both Sweden and Finland are considered so-called “Nordic welfare states,” the two countries have very different conceptions of how religion/RE fosters social cohesion. In Sweden, social cohesion is considered best achieved by a nonconfessional religion education that is open to students of all persuasions. The course teaches about several major religions, among which Islam is one. Finland, on the other hand, offers separate RE courses, each of which is designed for a particular religious adherent. The Swedish approach is based on the premise that offering a mixed group of students one course that teaches about a variety of world religions effectively forestalls prejudice and xenophobia, thus contributing to social cohesion. The opposite Finnish perspective argues that when students are allowed to participate in a RE course that is specifically designed for their own tradition—be it Muslim, Orthodox, Jewish, or whatever—they develop knowledge of their origins and build a strong sense of personal identity. This then creates solid Finnish citizens that can contribute to social cohesion in unique and meaningful ways.

Within the same country, the basic approach, content, and priorities of Islamic RE can vary from school to school, based upon the theological interpretation that guides the teaching and governs the school ethos. In some Swedish Muslim schools, IRE frequently employs contemporary musical forms (e.g., halal-pop) to enhance teaching, whereas in other such schools, all forms of instrumental music are entirely banned. It is thus impossible to speak of “state-funded Muslim schools” in homogeneous terms, either globally or nationally. The variation of IRE content from school to school can be attributed to factors such as the interpretative tradition and/or education of the teacher, the student population, the background of the parents, the choice of teaching materials, and how the teacher views the majority society.

Schools are powerful socializing agents in that they represent, reproduce, and instill the dominant conceptions of the wider society. Because of this, teachers can become unwitting agents of state policies toward religion by merely following the requirements of a national curriculum. This is not meant to imply that teachers have no personal influence in the classroom. Clearly, they play an important role, indirectly upholding or challenging such policies through their choice of content and mode of presentation. In this regard, the type of influence exerted by IRE teachers in particular depends upon their preferred interpretative tradition and personal point of view as well as their didactic competence and knowledge of Islam. Qualitative research conducted in Finnish, Swedish, but also British IRE class indicates that the selection of IRE content generally balances existing interpretations of renowned Islamic scholars with the values of Western modernity as expressed in national curriculums. Thus the selection of IRE content is not a matter of inventing an Islamic interpretation; rather it is a matter of adapting common features of Islamic tradition that might be considered relevant to the specific national context. Such adaptations are based on the teacher’s knowledge of existing Islamic interpretations in combination with her assessment of the behavioral and religious skills required for Muslims living in European society. This demonstrates how tradition, local school context, situational perceptions, and global issues can impact IRE content.

Perceptions aside, the state obviously has an abiding interest in establishing thorough training programs because of the school’s role in fostering future citizens. Parents also prefer their children to be taught by “well-educated teachers,” although ideas about what constitutes a well-educated teacher often vary. Offering IRE without providing appropriate teacher training disregards the power of well-informed educational choices. Thus, standardized teacher training will likely be an essential element in the successful integration of IRE in Europe. The matter of what IRE teacher training should encompass and who should bear the primary responsibility for providing it remains an open question.

The Litmus Test

I have described the provision of state-funded faith-based Islamic schooling in both Sweden and Finland and highlighted some of the similarities and differences between the two countries. Now it is time to revisit the suggestion mentioned at the beginning of this article that the study of both faith-based and nonconfessional state-funded RE can function as a type of litmus test for church-state-society relations. The analogy builds on the understanding of “litmus test” as a simple yet revealing procedure by which the acidity or alkalinity of a substance is determined through the use of litmus paper. It also connects to the expanded idea of “litmus test” as “an event, decision, etc. that provides a clear sign of what someone is really like or what their intentions are”. My claim in this regard is that the study of state-funded RE sheds valuable light on church-state-society relations and that the study of state-funded Islamic education in various European countries facilitates our general comprehension of how those states are handling relations with their Muslim minority populations, thus enabling us to better pinpoint the state-society-minority situation of each given country. The effectiveness of this test is based on the fact that in each county, state-funded RE (regardless of type) has been shaped by multiple factors, including that country’s historical and political development, its church-state relations, and the structure of its educational system, with the dominance in a country of one particular religious tradition having affected all these factors, even in countries where religious freedom is guaranteed. This has become especially clear over the last several decades, during which public discourse on Islam has included Islamic education as an important item of concern.