Mustafa is a young father, living in a suburb of the Swedish capital of Stockholm. / Photo: Hetty Rooth

A sense of belonging

Stockholm-based Mustafa Al-Sayed Issa found a community in the Muslim study organisation, Ibn Rushd. Now he works there as a volunteer to help Muslims to live as Swedes without losing track of their own background.

He needed a community where he did not feel different. That is why Mustafa Al-Sayed Issa chose to join a study circle in the Muslim study organisation, Ibn Rushd.

– As a Swedish Muslim teenager, I was not part of the norm – and then you become extremely insecure, he says.

When we meet, Mustafa Al-Sayed Issa is at home, and invites me into the family kitchen. An engineer by profession he is currently on paternal leave with his eight-months-old baby son. The baby smiles and Mustafa brings coffee and cakes. In the tradition of Swedish non-formal education, thoughts should be exchanged in a nice setting, sharing food and drink. So we sit down together comfortably and talk.

– As a human being I am global, he says.

Before the immigration to Sweden, he had moved between eight different countries. Now at 28 he has lived in Sweden since he was a teenager. He grew up in a family whose way of life was to stand up for their beliefs. That is why they had to move. But now he is rooted here. He is Swedish.

Mustafa tells me about when he first arrived in this country. How the family stayed in a mid-country town for the first years. Being a sociable and already life-experienced teenager, Mustafa felt desperate to learn the language and to find new friends.

– I was very eager to find people I could feel comfortable with, people to whom I did not have to constantly explain myself. I felt that I needed people who were capable to recognize who I really was.

Culture and music

In his search for a sense of belonging, Mustafa found a Muslim culture club with music sessions and other activities for young people. His interest in music helped him to find new friends. It also made way for his future commitment to non-formal education.

– Popular movements as such were new to me. In some countries people are not allowed to gather for meetings, even less to organize themselves. For me this was a new and fun experience, and my newly started non formal education journey eventually moved on from music to Muslim study circles.

At the time the Muslim study organization Ibn Rushd was starting up in partnership with a study organization which adhered to the Swedish Protestant Church.

Mustafa’s elder brother already had joined as a study circle leader, and it was close at hand for Mustafa to participate. The circle was dedicated to Swedish-Muslim identity, with questions raised about how to hold on to your religion and still understand and respect life in Sweden and the Swedish society.

Mustafa says he needed the study circle – a community where he would not feel different. For him it was important to be able to keep the two things together in his head – being a Muslim and being Swedish.

– The thing is that when you are a Swedish Muslim and a teenager you are not part of the norm. Not at school and not among your friends. You get questions all the time, especially when something terrible happens. And you feel so apart.

Mustafa explains that the feeling is very pressurising for young people.

– If you are not sure of who you really are and what you believe in, you either react with denunciation, or you become extremely insecure. I think that can be damaging for your mental health.

Belonging or not

But are there no downsides to escaping hard questions and resorting to homogenous groups of similar minds, I ask. Is there no risk of isolation and disintegration, even segregation from society?

Mustafa agrees to this, in part.

– Yes, sure, maybe you could say that joining a Muslim study circle was an easy way out on my part. But instead, the mission of the study association is to give energy, inspiration and tools to the participants. It was evident to me that I was expected to take part in discussions and that I should act as a role model to other young people.

He adds that the democratic Swedish popular movements really need to continue to include young Muslims in activities and discussions. And to take this task seriously.

– We must bring forward the message that you can change things without fear. You can ask questions from other people who are willing to share their experiences. That you can be helped to understand yourself better. A study circle is the perfect forum to work for change.

Many young people today, who feel as uncertain as Mustafa did, choose to isolate themselves via web sites and closed forums, Mustafa says. They are not aware of opportunities to talk with others. They have not learned that study circles are free and open for everyone and could make a difference in their lives.

– Everything I am today is thanks to the activities I took part in during my adolescence, the study circles, the discussions. It made me conquer the Swedish language and it taught me respect and humility.

Today’s Muslim youth are different

For some years now Mustafa himself has been a voluntary study circle leader in Ibn Rushd. He arranges study circles that more or less deal with the same subjects as his first study circle experience – being a Muslim in Sweden and building bridges between cultures.

As a leader he is aware that the young participants today have other questions than he had himself when he first joined. That they have their own distinct aspects of life.

– When I was younger I still felt like a refugee. I came from another culture. Everything was new to me, food, habits and manners. I needed so many answers.

The young people who now join the circles in Ibn Rushd still search for a Muslim identity, but they are in their 20’s and they are all born in Sweden.

– Within our study circles today, no one speaks as an outsider. They all feel like Swedes and many of them are even familiar with non- formal education and popular movements, because their families have been involved before them.

Religion is discussed a lot, Mustafa says, but also islamophobia and racism. And daily questions like what to study after school, and going to the university.

Still Mustafa recognizes that today´s participants are as confused, as he was, when questioned about difficult things.

– We do not have answers to all these questions.  My role as a study circle leader is not to deliver answers. I manage the circle and the participants all contribute with their thoughts. Discussions with other people in the circle develop our own thoughts and standing points.

Popular education for change

Ibn Rushd is a young study organization and, given that, the work that Mustafa describes seems connected to the roots of Swedish popular movements. A hundred years ago, when people got together to share knowledge on equal terms, activity was an important part of the set up. Not only learning was an issue, but joint activity for change.

Part of the philosophy is that all study circle participants are supposed to take part in social activities that are arranged, Mustafa explains. These include family meetings and other gatherings.

– It is fairly easy to sit in the study circle and say that we must live as Swedes or we need to cherish our beliefs. It is quite another thing to get out into real life.

Mustafa has a mission, he says, to combat an unreal and wrongful image of Muslims, which is conveyed through media today. And to fight for Muslim civil rights.

– Someone has said that the most common media picture today, of a terrorist, is a young male Muslim. This is something I work to change.

He devotes his time ten hours a week to non-formal adult education, as a leader and as a participant. But time is not an issue, he says. His wife is also a study circle leader and participant.

– We live the commitment in our family.

Non-formal adult education and religion

Nordic non-formal adult education (folkbildning) started with popular movements in the 19th century, mainly emanating from the workers movement, sobriety, and free churches.

Core principles in all study circles have always been to offer free and democratic discussions. Still, even today, different interests or ideologies characterize Sweden´s national study organizations. Three study organizations are based on religious beliefs: Sensus is the study organization of the Svenska Kyrkan (The Church of Sweden), Bilda has got free churches and the Catholic Church as its members and Ibn Rushd serves muslim communities.

The Ibn Rushd study circles were organized by Sensus until Ibn Rushd was accepted as an independent organization.

Ibn Rushd

The Muslim study organization Ibn Rushd is one of ten Swedish non-formal study organizations that are partly funded by the state. Ibn Rushd started as a project in 2001 and was accepted as a national study organization in 2008.
Ibn Rushd consists of nine national civil organisations. In addition to promoting Muslim identity, Ibn Rushd promotes three core values in common with other Swedish study organizations:

  • Meetings between people,
  • Reflexivity in all activities,
  • Change, which is a central issue for all non-formal education.