According to service leader Imam Sharif Mohammed Issaka, Ethnic Somalis, Arabs, Turks, Kosovars and Bosnians are among those who utilise the Sunni Islamic Multicultural Dawah Center in Munkiniemi for Friday prayers.

Although perceived as new arrivals here, Muslims actually have deep roots in Finland.

IF THE PAST is a foreign country, getting there can be tricky business. Guidebooks are sketchy and incomplete, and sometimes even finding the place on a map can be difficult – literally true in Finland’s case, as the former colonial subject of two empires with fluctuating borders. Another complication is that history is often less a story about the past than it is a function of anxieties of the present.

And in the most popular current understanding of the past, to judge from the current electoral and rhetorical mood, Muslims are recent arrivals in Finland. They come to this pristine land of blue and white bearing strange foods, strange clothes and a strange, perhaps violent religion. Some, indeed most of the natives have no problem with the new arrivals, so long as they obey the law. A substantial minority, however, are getting increasingly alarmed and want to do something about it – though exactly what, and how, is never really specified, at least in polite company. The only thing that’s clear is that tolerant liberals and xenophobic reactionaries alike tend to agree that these newcomers are “other”. Tension is in the air.

The face of Islam in
Finland is changing as
much as Finland itself,
and has been for
more than 20 years.

But as I sit talking to Feysal Samarhan, the dissonance between popular discourse and everyday life feels acute. Samarhan, a former project manager at Kone now enjoying a comfortable retirement, has lived all his life in Järvenpää, a pleasant and leafy town about 40 kilometres north of Helsinki. A Tatar Muslim, he volunteers as the board secretary of the Finnish Islamic Association, the organisation of Finnish Tatars. His grandparents arrived in Järvenpää early in the 20th century, joining a community of Tatar merchants who first arrived in the 1870s. They came by rail from Sergach, near the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod in Imperial Russia, all the way to Järvenpää – also then in Imperial Russia. “They were just moving to another town in the same country,” says Samarhan with a laugh.

“Our grandparents managed to integrate themselves completely, while preserving their mother tongue, religion and cultural heritage even today, into the fifth generation,” elaborates Okan Daher, a lecturer in Tatar language and culture at the University of Helsinki and chairman of the Finnish Islamic Association. “In the Volga basin their ancestors already had a long history of trade and communication with the Finno-Ugric nations there. So it was easy for them to come to Finland and interact with Finns.”

Järvenpää’s wooden mosque was completed in 1943.


1870s Muslim Tatars from the Volga basin begin settling in Finland.

1917 Finland and Idel-Ural, a multiethnic Volga republic, declare independence from Russia.

1918 Red Army dissolves Idel-Ural, whose Muslim Tatar leader Sadri Maqsudi Arsal escapes to Finland.

1923 Finnish law guaranteeing freedom of religion takes effect.

1925 Finnish Islamic Association founded.

1935 Land acquired for mosque in Järvenpää.

1939-1940 / 1941-1944
77 Finnish Tatars serve in the Winter and Continuation Wars. Ten killed in action.

1943 Järvenpää mosque completed.

1990s As Finland opens up again to the outside world, new wave of immigration begins,
including Muslims from North Africa, the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia.

2011 Between 40,000 and 60,000 Muslims in Finland. Many cities have at least one Islamic prayer room or meeting space; in the capital region, there are more than a dozen.

A shared history

When the Czar’s empire fell apart in 1917, Finland wasn’t the only new nation born amid the chaos. Another, less lucky one was Idel-Ural, a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional state occupying a large area in the Volga region roughly the size of present-day Poland. With the capital in Kazan, it was a unique but fragile experiment in multiculturalism under the rule of law, bringing together the diverse region’s Turkic, Finno-Ugric, Germanic and Slavic populations, each traditionally practicing some variety of Islam, Christianity, or even as with some of the Finno-Ugric Mari people, forest paganism. The sapling state on the Volga lasted until late 1918, when the Bolshevik Red Army finally crushed it and went about methodically executing the intelligentsia. Idel-Ural’s first and only leader, the scholarly Tatar Sadri Maksudi Arsal, barely escaped with his life. His first destination? Helsinki.

The first Muslim asylum seeker in Finland – then a young, bitterly divided, mostly rural country whose ultimate fate might still have mirrored Idel-Ural’s – was received not as a humanitarian burden but as a kindred spirit and something of a brother in arms. Foreign Minister Carl Enckell, one of the founding fathers of independent Finland, toasted Arsal in the Hotel Seurahuone, fondly recalling the exiled Tatar’s defense of Finnish statehood in the old Russian Duma. Arsal later moved on to Estonia, Berlin and Paris, trying to corral more Western support for his lost European country. He eventually settled in Turkey, helping to lead Atatürk’s secular revolution, while Finland, including its Muslim community, put down roots, consolidated statehood and grew up.

In 1925 Tatars from Helsinki, Tampere, Järvenpää, Turku and elsewhere formed and registered the Finnish Islamic Association, not long after the passage of laws guaranteeing freedom of religion. The community secured land for a mosque in Järvenpää ten years later. As Samarhan leads me through a tour of that mosque, a modest and dignified wooden structure completed in 1943, I’m struck by the Finnishness of the place. It’s recognisably a mosque, complete with crescent moon atop a short, rectangular minaret, but it looks and feels like a piece with any traditional wooden building typical of small town Finnish life. A protected landmark, it remains the only purpose-built mosque in all of Finland.

“Järvenpää has been very good to us,” Samarhan says. “Many Finnish Tatars also used to live in Viipuri and Terijoki in Karelia, and were resettled here along with other Finns after their land was lost in the war. We shared a history and a common fate together.” In the association’s well-appointed Helsinki office, Daher shows me a thick book containing portraits of 177 Tatar veterans – including his father – of the Winter and Continuation Wars. “Ten of these soldiers died in battle,” he says. “They defended the independence of Finland.”

The mosque and the community’s various other prayer and meeting rooms around the country are open to all, but the group doesn’t proselytize and meetings are held in Tatar. That doesn’t stop speakers of Turkish (closely related to Tatar) or other Muslims who simply want a quiet place to pray from coming to the association’s premises, but since the organisation is also linguistic and cultural in nature, participation of non-Tatars tends to be limited. And while Tatars from all over Finland continue to use their Helsinki centre and the Järvenpää mosque for weddings and special occasions – and as schools for Tatar language, culture and history – the community is aging with the rest of Finland.

According to Daher, about 10 to 15 people in the community die off each year, replaced only by four to six newborns. When Järvenpää was still a small village, Samarhan remembers, “half the local pesäpallo team were Tatars, and for years the hockey team had an all-Tatar line.” Nowadays the community numbers only around 800 nationwide. The face of Islam in Finland is changing as much as Finland itself, and has been for more than 20 years.

The new wave

Finland is also perhaps
a little luckier than other
European countries, in
that it already has a proven
model of successful
integration with the
Finnish Tatars.

Depending on who you talk to, today there are between 40,000 to 60,000 Muslims in Finland, mostly now originating from North Africa, the Middle East, and the former Yugoslavia. The bulk started arriving in the 1990s. In Helsinki, the faithful can choose from about a dozen different Islamic centres or prayer rooms. Among the more popular is the Sunni Islamic Multicultural Dawah Center, founded in 1999. Fashioned out of the basement of an apartment block in Munkkiniemi, the centre has a bustling vibe, despite the subterranean setting. Signs at the entrance remind visitors to switch off their mobiles – “There is no call more important than that of Allah!” – and dozens of pairs of shoes are neatly arrayed on racks.

According to Imam Sharif Mohammed Issaka, during the holy month of Ramadan about 70 people come streaming into the space every evening for iftar, when the fast is broken. Issaka, originally from Ghana, came to Finland in 1990 and leads services in English. “We are an international centre, with people who come from all over,” he says. Ethnic Somalis, Arabs, Turks, Kosovars and Bosnians are among those who join in Friday prayers. “English is what everyone knows.” Issaka has seen his flock grow in the past ten years, thanks largely to immigration; since 2000 Finland has received about 20,000 immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.

The spiritual home of the capital region’s Shia Muslims, meanwhile, is the Resalat Islamic Society, founded in 2001. The society, around 700 members strong, was formerly based in Laajasalo but recently began renovating a 700-square-meter former bar and restaurant in Mellunmäki in eastern Helsinki. “This was a run-down place before,” says filmmaker and businessman Madjid Bahmanpour, who volunteers with the society. “We’re bringing it up to modern standards and showing the neighbors that we are a peaceful, positive community.” Work on the low-slung, industrial-looking building is incomplete, but so far the center includes a prayer hall and meeting space, library, a few offices and a large kitchen. Bahmanpour hopes that the completed center will also be able to show films, host exhibitions and hold public lectures. “We want to mix with the wider Finnish society,” he says. “It’s good that we live together, that we learn things from them and they learn things from us. We do not wish to segregate ourselves. We are pro-integration.”

True Finns

While the influx of immigrants since the 1990s has been quite minor in European terms, and Islam is an old minority tradition in Finland, the changes that Finnish society has undergone in the past two decades are undeniably unprecedented. It may be a credit to the Finnish character that relatively sudden exposure to large numbers of foreigners has been taken more or less in stride, so far. Interfaith dialogues are frequent and Muslim citizens are still part of the social contract – UK or French-style social exclusion on a large scale is not yet a problem.

“If there are social problems in Britain or France, it has nothing to do with Islam,” Bahmanpour continues. “It has to do with poverty, segregation and social grievance. Anyone who lives in a ghetto makes problems.” Mellunmäki certainly isn’t a ghetto. Indeed, despite concentrations of immigrants in places like Itäkeskus or Meri-Rastilantie (so-called “Mogadishu Avenue”), Helsinki is remarkably free of no-go zones.

Finland is also perhaps a little luckier than other European countries, in that it already has a proven model of successful integration with the Finnish Tatars – who could provide a bridge between newer Muslim immigrants and the Finnish mainstream. “Members of our community have created their identity in a balanced way, based on the values of their heritage and on the values of Finnish society – because Finland is our fatherland,” says Daher. When the first Tatars came here, he notes, most of the women in the community wore headscarves – as did Christian Finnish women at the time as well. These days, Tatars and ethnic Finns alike have abandoned them – after all, Christian Finnish women and Tatar Finnish women have experienced the same long history of changing norms and attitudes.

The newer wave of Muslim immigrants, from dozens of different backgrounds, does not share that same history. There is a gap, which is why Daher stops short of recommending to them wholesale assimilation as soon as possible. “But we hope that they can find a way to integrate fluidly and constructively,” he says. “Education, employment and entrepreneurship will also play a significant role, as they did for us.”

In any event, they are here already, and they are here to stay. “I have four kids,” says Bahmanpour. “They are Finnish.” It will be their task – and the rest of Finland’s – to create yet more shared history together. But Finns of all kinds have found ways to do that before.

Joseph Knowles
Driton Hapqui