Religious and national identity of young Finnish Muslims varies by situation

For their part, young Muslims maintain the juxtaposition between Islam and Finnishness, as indicated by a recent doctoral dissertation in the discipline of study of religions. In addition to Finnishness, young Muslims of immigrant background have a strained relationship with the culture of their parents’ country of origin. Many also consider themselves Finns when travelling abroad but foreigners when in Finland.

In his doctoral dissertation to be publicly defended at the University of Helsinki on 15 September, Teemu Pauha studied the identity construction of young Muslims in Finland from the perspective of the social psychology of religion.

“In the data collected from young Muslims, being Finnish and Islam are described as clearly separate and at times even opposite or exclusionary phenomena,” explains Pauha.

Defining themselves as Finnish or non-Finnish is not a permanent characteristic of young Muslims, but national identities vary by situation.

“Within the scope of a single interview session, the same study subject could talk about both “those Finns” and “us Finns”, depending on the connotations linked with Finnishness in each case. Many considered themselves Finns when abroad and foreigners in Finland,” the doctoral candidate describes.

In the research data, Finnishness was typically connected to Christianity, substantial alcohol consumption, as well as certain ethnic traits, such as fair skin colour and blue eyes. On the other hand, the doctoral candidate points out that there are aspects of Finnishness with which young Muslims find it easier to identify.

“Finnishness is associated with customs such as going to sauna, as well as virtues such as modesty, honesty and reliability, unifying traits between Finnishness and Islam according to the study subjects.”

Pauha says that the findings are revealing in terms of the overall status of religion in Finland.

“Although Finland is officially non-denominational and Finnish citizenship requires no affiliation with any religious group, my research demonstrates that on a notional level, Finnishness and Christianity are tightly connected.”

“My doctoral dissertation supplements earlier research on attitudes (link in Finnish only) where Islam is often seen as an un-Finnish religion or even a threat to Finnish culture and lifestyle,” Pauha continues.

Young Muslims with immigrant background also have a strained relationship with the culture of their parents’ country of origin

Pauha finds it interesting that young Finnish Muslims have a particularly critical attitude to regional Islamic traditions practised in the country of origin of their parents.

“The young people who participated in my study think there is only one true Islam, common to all the people in the world, leaving no room for national or ethnic religious differences. According to them, the traditions characteristic of a certain geographic region or ethnic group do not actually fall under the scope of religion, but ‘culture’.”

Similar aspirations towards Islam purified of cultural variation have been detected also in studies conducted elsewhere in Europe.

“By defining certain religious customs of the previous generation as ‘culture’, young people are able to distance themselves from them and justify their own religious notions that don’t conform to those of their elders,” explains Pauha.

The dissertation is based on interviews of socially active young Muslims, prayers posted on Facebook by young Muslims and letters written during Islamic lessons at school in which young Muslims describe life in Finland to an imaginary Muslim friend.


Teemu Pauha, PsM, TM will defend the doctoral dissertation entitled "Religious and national identities among young Muslims in Finland - A view from the social constructionist social psychology of religion" in the Faculty of Arts, University of Helsinki, on 15 September 2018 at 10:00. The public examination will take place at the following address: Päärakennus, Auditorio XIV, Fabianinkatu 33 (käyntiosoite: Unioninkatu 34).

Professor Jonas Otterbeck, University of Lund, will serve as the opponent, and Professor Teemu Taira as the custos.

The dissertation is also available in electronic form through the E-thesis service.