I recently attended a lecture by a rabbi from Malmö, Sweden about how both the Jewish community in that city, the community in Sweden, and general Swedish society is assisting the influx of refugees to that country. The rabbi stated that as Sweden has one of the most generous refugee benefit systems in Europe, many of the refugees fleeing the Middle East and elsewhere eventually try to reach Sweden. As Malmö is the point of entry for many of them into Sweden via Denmark or elsewhere, the city and region around Malmö have been doing a lot of interfaith work. The rabbi stated that she is a leader of one of the groups, Open Skåne, and they run, among other things a language cafe that aims to be a safe space for refugees to learn a little Swedish and to learn from each other as well. Unlike here in the States where religious leadership and religion in general is seen integral to society and problem solving, in Sweden and Scandinavia more generally, religion is seen as part of the problem, rather than as a potential part of the solution.
She related that there is some reluctance from the various communities to some of the interfaith work, which is to be expected. She has partners with whom she works diligently to promote the idea that such partnership is not only sanctioned by Christianity, Islam, etc., but that it is commanded by the various scriptures that members reach out to their brothers and sisters in the other communities. One of the things that I found interesting is that many of the challenges revolve around the appropriate level of assimilation into Swedish society, which is a generational issue between those who have been in Sweden for a long time, and their children, and is the same here in the States. This shows me that such things are universals, and that trying to stay faithful to whatever one’s religious tradition(s) are, is an issue everywhere.While I knew that Scandinavia is thoroughly secular in outlook, I was not aware of the level of hostility to not only the current refugees and to Islam, but to religion in general. Another point I found very important was that her organization tries very hard to make sure that the people participating are diverse in ethnicity/country of origin, as well as the level of religious practice. This helps show the participants that the group is more diverse than might have been understood previously.
The rabbi said that while employers, for instance, will grant days off for religious holidays, they seem to do it more as “it’s the right thing” than out of a real understanding of what the holidays signify to that person. She stated that there is a need for more general knowledge of the religious practices of the different groups.Therefore, part of what she does is to show that Jews, Christians and Muslims can work together to help be part of the solution to the issues. Showing that the religious community as a whole is committed to promoting the idea of “Swedishness,” to the extent possible, helps to assuage some of the tensions. She also told us that while there have been some anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic episodes in both Sweden and Denmark, such as the attack on Copenhagen and an arson of a Arabic (but not Muslim) school in Malmö, the city and the region are very supportive. She made the crucial point that interfaith dialogue is only the first step, and even that can give the idea that it will be more of a debate rather than partnership. Interfaith partnership on social issues, whatever they may be, is the next step after the initial dialogue takes place to create the infrastructure.
I think there are many lessons we can learn from the situation in Sweden in regards to interfaith cooperation, one of which is that even if there are people who feel that it is inappropriate to participate, the partnership needs to have vocal advocates. One way this can be done is by showing that, as in the case of Sweden, even resolutely secular people participate, which I feel shows that the general population understands how important such programs are. Another lesson I found to be very profound is that the organization tries very hard to show that each group is not a monolith, by trying to make sure that those participating are diverse in origin and level of religious practice. Showing that the other groups besides one’s own are diverse, helps to correct assumptions. I feel that too often in the United States, the diversity inside religious groups, as well as more generally in ethnic groups, is elided to make it possible to paint people with broad strokes. Acknowledging difference in all forms is very important to dialogue, as it allows for multiple perspectives. I also found it inspiring that her organization is part a broader regional effort, which is something I feel such partnerships here in the US lack sometimes, and it would be beneficial to create more regional organizations, rather than those that are only local. This is because doing so would show that the area as a whole is committed to the positive outcome(s) of such dialogue. I found the experience very helpful, and it is very useful to see how the same types of projects are undertaken in different global contexts.
Image credit: Here, via Wikimedia Commons