The Finns Party elects a chairman with past convictions for statements against Islam

The election of Jussi Halla-aho (currently holding a position as a MEP) as the new chairman of The Finns Party has caused political trouble in Finland and rebellion against the party’s new leadership. The two other government coalition parties, Keskusta and Kokoomus, announced that they do not want to continue cooperation with The Finns Party and its new management. Moreover, The Finns Party faced immediate internal splitting as 20 MPs, including all those with minister positions, decided to leave the party and form a new parliamentary group named Uusi Vaihtoehto (“New Alternative”). The Premier Minister and chairman of Keskusta, Juha Sipilä, together with the Minister of Finance and chairman of Kokoomus, Petteri Orpo, commented that the gap in common values between the three government parties has grown now to the extent that the government cannot continue its work in its current composition anymore.

Much of this political mutiny and resentment is based on Halla-aho’s past convictions. In 2010, the Helsinki Court of appeal convicted Halla-aho for breach of the sanctity of religion for the quite Islamophobic statements in his personal blog Scripta. He declared in his posts for instance, that “Prophet Muhammad was a pedophile and Islam justifies pedophilia and. Pedophilia was Allah’s will.” The statement was then ordered by court to be deleted from the blog. However, although the posts date back to 2008, Halla-aho stated in an interview after the recent elections that he is not going to distance himself from his previous blog posts.

Jussi Halla-aho is not however the only member in the party leadership with public statements against Islam that have led to convictions. Namely, MP Teuvo Hakkarainen, the new second Vice-Chair of the party, was convicted in 2017 for incitement to hatred due to his facebook-posts that stated “Get Muslims out of this country! Not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims.” Moreover, Jussi Halla-aho’s profile as a politician is also very much marked by his aggressive anti-immigration policies. For instance, in 2016, Halla-aho submitted a written question at the European Parliament proposing application of ethnic profiling “to prevent Islamic terrorism” by police officers in the member states, explicitly overthrowing Human Rights which are tightly connected to such questionable measures.

The many faces of violent extremism in Finland

Whereas violent attacks motivated by religious terrorism have over and over again targeted several European countries in the recent years, Finland has factually remained safe and secure. However, in a news article on national security that was published shortly after the most recent attack on civilians in Stockholm, a representative of Finnish Security Intelligence Service (SUPO) noted that factors that used to safeguard Finland are breaking down.

The change can be observed affecting the general public. A recent survey conducted by the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE says that a fear of a danger of violence and terrorism has increased among Finnish people, and that this change in attitudes is particular since in early April a radicalized asylum seeker crashed a truck into the entrance of a shopping mall in Sweden’s capital, a heinous act that was very similar to previous attacks in Nice and Berlin in 2016. According to the survey’s results, Finnish perception of potential threats to the country due to growing strength of global extremist movements and due to terror have bypassed the threat image of economic downturn when compared to perceptions before the Stockholm attack.

Finnish media’s recent reports on jihadist networks in the country and the on-going discussions on the central mosque project’s possible effects in spreading radical Islamic preaching have certainly not put the public discourse at ease in terms of Islam’s role in the country. In their recent article for the online magazine of international politics The Ulkopolitist researchers Otso Iho and Juha Saarinen analyzed the nature of ISIS propaganda that targets Finnish speaking audiences. Their research shows that up until January 2017 one of the blogs operated by ISIS had translated into Finnish 15 publications that mainly focus on theological issues. The nation-wide newspaper Helsingin Sanomat had as well followed a Finnish Telegram-channel used by ISIS followers, and reported in a news article how the Finnish propaganda content found on the channel incites to attacks against civilians, “even if they were just on their way home from a walk”. The image of homegrown terrorism is strengthened by the analysis of Iho and Saarinen about the high quality of the translations; it indicates that the writers are either native Finnish speakers or individuals who have grown up in the country and learned the language and possibly have also received higher education.

However, public discourse on terrorism is sometimes misleading and causes essentialized images, as has been argued by Leena Malkki, who is a researcher of terrorism at the University of Helsinki. According to Malkki, coffee table talk is at times very generalizing, as in the discourse anyone who has left to Syria or Iraq can be stigmatized as a terrorist. Similarly, Tarja Mankkinen from the Ministry of the Interior commented on a news article on returning foreign fighters that not all of the individuals coming back to Finland bring with them jihadist views and thus pose a threat as they might have well abandoned the ideology.  Therefore, it can be said, that in order to maintain a rather balanced and unloaded public discourse, media’s careful use of terms related to terrorism is crucial.

Coming back to the survey on security perceptions, it has to be mentioned, that the results on threat images of extremist movements cannot be taken as a clear-cut indication of increasing fear towards jihadist violence. Namely, the survey did not specify the type of the extremist movements, and thus other sorts of extremist violence have to be considered in the current socio-political context of the country as well. In the recent years, especially the Finnish chapter of the Nordic Resistance Movement has been in the news headlines for their violent behavior. Also security officials have noticed the increase of such Neo-Nazi violence, as can be inspected from the 2016 Yearbook of the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (SUPO) and the situation report of the Ministry of the Interior (February 2017). While the report states that the presence of so called “new right-wing extremism” with Muslims and Islam as a particular target is still minimal in Finland, the right-wing extremist movements’ violence against individuals opposing their ideology is a concrete threat according to the Ministry of the Interior. Whereas Finland has not yet witnessed any violent attack by jihadists, members in the Finnish chapter of the Nordic Resistance Movement have shown violent behavior towards civilians and in September 2016, a young man died after having been physically assaulted by a participant in the movement’s demonstration.

Helsinki Grand Mosque’s rocky road

When it comes to building mosques, Finland is not any different from other European countries in terms of opposition that such projects receive either from the side of the officials or the public. The Helsinki Grand Mosque project has been on-going since 2015 and now once again, debates over funding have put a spanner in the works.

The mosque project has been previously endorsed by the deputy mayor of Helsinki and it is led jointly by the Forum for Culture and Religion “FOCUS”, local Muslim associations and the recently established “Oasis” foundation. Trying to fill a desideratum in facilities and services that would bring the Muslims together and away from the undersized prayer rooms, the objective of the central mosque project is to construct a building complex of 20.000 m2 in size, including prayer halls and a community center that would organize activities and events for Muslims and non-Muslims alike and thus contribute and promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue and social cohesion.

The concerns over funding have been directed especially at the involvement of Kingdom of Bahrain as the financial coordinator. In December, an event with international guests were organized in Helsinki to celebrate the Independence Day of Bahrain. In connection to the festivities, one of the nation-wide daily newspapers Helsingin Sanomat reported in January about the current concerns of the city representatives over possible extremist background of Bahrain and those instances that have shown interest to provide support in collecting the needed funds. Security officials insist now on an investigation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs based on fears of extremist readings of Islam spreading to the country through the cooperation with Bahrain. This despite continuous assurances from one of the project coordinators Pia Jardi that the help from Bahrain has no strings attached in any every-day matters of the mosque/community center and the fact that the board members in the Oasis-foundation which was established for the administrative purposes of the project are all based in Finland.

Concerns about the mosque’s ability to welcome Muslim worshipers from different backgrounds were also expressed in a radio show Horisontti broadcasted by YLE. The youth civil activist Anter Yasa, argued that the imams for the mosque should be educated in Finland, receiving an academic degree and thus following the example of the country’s practice in educating priests. With his statement, he was opposing the possibility of the future imams receiving their qualifications from Bahrain which would in his understanding cause segregation instead of integration. Moreover, he maintained that the Muslim communities should rather turn to bank loans in financial matters than help from abroad. However, any ability of the small Finnish Muslim community comprising of somewhat 60 000 individuals to meet such financial obligations for a project of over 100 million euros was not addressed.

The chairwoman of the Young Muslims’ Union Helsinki chapter (Nuoret Muslimit ry), Nahla Hewidy was in turn pinpointing in the discussion the aspect of such mosque and especially its services as a community center being a necessity that would put Muslims and the youth in particular to equal footing with other major religious communities who already have such facilities. She maintained, that the project would enhance the welfare and spiritual development of those generations that struggle with identities between cultures and offer a them safe space where they would find recognition and acceptance.

Finland: Islam in schools should contribute to anti-radicalization

Finnish pupils in elementary education have started their school year of 2016 with a new national curriculum. In Finland, every school is obliged to offer subject education in Islam for Muslim children, when at least three students would select it instead of the majority Evangelic Lutheran religious education or alternatively Ethics. Whereas until now the contents of teaching and learning for minority religion subjects (i.e. not Evangelic Lutheran) such as Islam, Baha’i, Mormonism etc. were determined in a separate document, the curriculum for Islam has been revised so that it is now for the first time included in the new national curriculum.

The change means that Islam as a school subject is now treated with the same degree of attention as all the other subjects are. As for each religious subject the curriculum is categorized into three different content areas; “Relationship to one’s own religion”, “Religious diversity in the world” and lastly “Good life principles”, the contents of Islam are hence comparable also with other religious subjects such as Catholicism and Judaism, ensuring equal literacy in their respective religions for students of these subjects.

The new curriculum aims at empowering the pupils of today to be able to deal with issues concerning the Finnish society in the early 21st century. The content areas outlined for the subject of Islam throughout the class levels 1-9 include for example reflections on religion as part of one’s cultural identity, the historical influence of Islam in the European culture, political Islam, inter-religious dialogue and religion in media and popular culture. Moreover, alongside with the traditional content-based learning the new curriculum emphasizes phenomenon-based learning in all subjects. Hence, for example in Islamic education children are encouraged to research and learn about current trends and phenomena in the society and analyze and critically think about them from the standpoint of their religion. The curriculum gives as well more space to co-operation across subjects, while for example visits to local worship places (e.g. churches or mosques) can be done together with Muslim and Christian student groups.

The importance of religious school education has been lately discussed in the Finnish media in terms of how it prevents radicalization and enhances social cohesion. The sociologist Karin Creutz commented in an interview that when Islam is taught in the schools, it will give tools and skills for the Muslim children and youth to understand and know their religion and hence avoid being drawn into radicalism and the dark-side of the violent Islamism, like the Islamic State. Also the Islam school teacher Suaad Onniselkä confirmed on a radio program what Creutz was as well had argued for, that Islam as a school subject will contribute positively to the construction of the Self-identity among Muslim children in Finland. Hence, according to Onniselkä, religion functions as an empowering element.

When Islam is now taught in schools on a comparable level with other religious subjects, it will support holistically the understanding of differences in religious structures and culture as such. Such a school education shall help to raise generations who will be enabled to build world peace. Yet, education in religious literacy should not merely be restricted to school children but should be expanded to the communal level, Creutz again argues. Thus, the general knowledge on religions and the discourse at the societal level should be more inclusive of aspects of religion as part of people’s lives in a world in which religions are falsely stigmatized in a pseudo-secularized society.

Reactions to multicultural Finnish society: Fear of social marginalization of ethnic Finnish men and bad vibes about sports

The newly report of the Finnish Government dealing with Finland’s internal security was discussed in the plenary session at the Parliament on the 24th of May. During the discussion, MP Teuvo Hakkarainen (Finns Party, Perussuomalaiset) expressed his concerns about the connection of Islamization to the internal security of the country. In his speech, which can be found in its full length in the verbatim transcriptions of the Parliament plenary session, Hakkarainen posed a question to the Minister of the Interior Petteri Orpo, asking, whether Orpo had considered the fact that due to the resettlement policies of immigrant refugees to certain rural areas the ethnic Finnish bachelors there could be marginalized in the society where as the immigrant Muslim men would take their place.

Furthermore, Hakkarainen argued that the biggest threat to Finnish internal security is the spread of Islamization. He doubts possibilities of integration for current Muslim immigrants, of whom most are men, based on demographic discrepancies between men and women especially in rural areas. Hakkarainen advocated in his speech rejecting further immigration and continued to argue, that the best way to fight Islamization is to secure the borders with barbed wire.

In May, Finnish media’s attention was also on another politician from the Finns Party, Seppo Huhta. The Green Party (Vihreät) and a local sports club in the town of Espoo announced a sports event, to which participants regardless of their national, political background were invited to enjoy a “multicultural baseball day”. Baseball in its Finnish version, is a very popular sports in the country and thus the event is aimed at teaching foreigners about this piece of Finnish culture.

Following the announcement, as a news article notes, Huhta had commented on the events facebook-page that the whole idea of a multicultural baseball was ridiculous since baseball, rather than ice hockey, is a national game. Moreover, in his comment – which, he maintains, he had made as a private person – Huhta wonders, how is it then even possible to make out of such a national game “multicultural” or “Mohammedean”. He claims that in reality the word “multicultural” now is restricted to mean only events and activities targeting Muslims and hence such events would not attract any Russian or even German immigrants.

Representatives of the Green Party noted that the object of the event is not to politicize sports. Huhta was criticized for his choice of words which allegedly have been harsh also before, for instance he is said to use the word “beard-child” to speak about Muslims. Afterwards Huhta commented that has nothing against anyone playing any sports, and actually sports would do good to Finns as well.

Expert on geopolitical conflicts, Alan Salehzadeh, urges to ban head scarves in schools and face veils in public spaces

Alan Salehzadeh, who has gained publicity in the past years as an expert on geopolitical conflicts and researcher for the Finnish National Defence College, urges in his blog for a ban on head scarves in schools and face veils in public spaces. Salehzadeh, an immigrant from Iran, has previously as well spoken out for issues that touch upon issues in multicultural Finnish society, such as migrants’ difficulties in the job market due to language skill requirements.

In his blog post from May 21st Salehzadeh maintains that in democratic Finland it is not acceptable that certain religious groups – with this implying to Islam – force their children to embrace a religion and at the same time force little girls to wear the headscarf to the school. He notes, that it creates inequalities between students for example when a girl who wears the headscarf is not able to attend gender-mixed swimming lessons. Hence, he urges for a citizens initiative that would call for a law which can forbid parents from determining their children’s dress style.
Salehzadeh argues that the headscarf should be allowed to be used only after the child has reached 18 years of age, which is the age of majority in Finland. However, he finds that even then, when a woman is able to decide for herself about her religious dress, face veils should be banned as they are not compatible with democratic values.

The issue of the face veil in the public space has been a topic of discussion also earlier this year, as MP Nasima Razmyar, like Salehzadeh with an immigrant background, expressed her concerns against the face veil in an interview. For Razmyar it would be necessary to ban the face veil in cases in which a woman is wearing it in her profession in the child education sector. Although she criticized the face veil as part of an employee’s dress in schools and nurseries, she extended her argument so that the face veil does not support the integration of its wearer into the Finnish society.

A report launched on ethnic and religious discrimination against Somalis in Finland

The mission of Finnish Somali League held a press conference on May 27th to launch their newly published report on discrimination. The report is based on a survey directed at residents and citizens of Finland of Somali origin and tackled issues of verbal harassment, violent attacks and discrimination in the public sector. The aim of the survey was not to offer generalizing figures but to identify and investigate diverse discrimination experiences.

The report shows that out of 105 participants 80% had experienced discrimination and 80% reported having witnessed discriminating behavior towards other individuals of Somali origin. Moreover, 61% reported that the discrimination had been due to their Islamic religion and 31% reported their clothing to be the cause of discrimination. The survey’s narratives in open-end questions provide accounts of everyday struggles that residents and citizens of Finland with Somali origin experience. Especially racist accusations and verbal harassment were frequently reported. Yet, accounts on discrimination in public spaces such as denying access to services, being barred from entry to supermarkets and explicitly rejecting a job application due to the applicants head cover depict a detrimental picture of the current situation.

The full report in Finnish language can be downloaded here on the official website of the League.

Ramadan in Finnish refugee reception centers – compromises and opposition

Ramadan in summer times poses a dilemma for Muslims in the Northern countries. Daylight times are long and in some cities the sun does not even set at all. Different courses of action were taken in the the refugee reception centers in Finland to facilitate the fasting for the Muslim refugees currently waiting for their asylum decisions. For instance, In the reception center of Evitskog, run by the Finnish Red Cross, Muslims observing the fast were of 26 different nationalities, which caused discrepancies for their individual wishes in the times to start and to end their daily fast. Many of the men would namely fast according to the respective times of their home countries, and some according to the times in Finland – although in the high summer it would mean a more or less 20 hour fast. The director of the center commented in an interview that the staff was prepared to work extra hours to offer meals even in the night times, despite the lack of extra payment for those taking on extra night shifts.

In the reception center of Hennala however, the approach was slightly different. Special arrangements to serve food were not made, although there, unlike in many other centers where refugees have kitchen facilities to prepare their own foods, the daily meals are included in the service. Instead, those who wanted to fast were given “lunch packs” which they could warm up in microwaves and ovens for their evening meals and breakfasts.

Although the arrangements in some reception centers have not always been as flexible as they were in the case of the Evitskog center, the representative of the Finns Party Youth Wing Juha Karjalainen expressed his discontent with the fact, that even arrangements of any kind to facilitate and respect the refugees religious traditions and practices were made. In his post in the blog platform “Uusisuomi” he argued that the task of reception centers is to offer accommodation for the time of the asylum application is processed and not to facilitate special religious or cultural demands. Hence, Karjalainen maintained that as no one had forced the refugees to choose Finland as their destination country, the refugees are the ones who should make compromises and be flexible, not those working in the centers. Facilitation of religious practices such as fasting in Ramadan would in his view have a negative impact on integration as it sends the wrong message about the necessity of being flexible in one’s religious practices in a Christian but secular country such as Finland.

A report launched on ethnic and religious discrimination against Somalis in Finland

The mission of Finnish Somali League held a press conference on May 27th to launch their newly published report on discrimination. The report is based on a survey directed at residents and citizens of Finland of Somali origin and tackled issues of verbal harassment, violent attacks and discrimination in the public sector. The aim of the survey was not to offer generalizing figures but to identify and investigate diverse discrimination experiences.

Out of 105 participants 80% had experienced discrimination and 80% reported having witnessed discriminative behavior towards other individuals of Somali origin. Moreover, 61% reported that the discrimination had been due to their Islamic religion and 31% reported their clothing to be the cause of discrimination. The survey’s narratives in open-end questions provide accounts of everyday struggles that residents and citizens of Finland with Somali origin experience. Especially racist accusations and verbal harassment were frequently reported. Yet, accounts on discrimination in public spaces such as denying access to services, being barred from entry to supermarkets and explicitly rejecting a job application due to the applicants head cover depict a detrimental picture of the current situation.

The full report in Finnish language can be downloaded from the official website of the League:

http://somaliliitto.fi/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Selvitysraportti.pdf