Reykjavik Mosque Controversy

Whenever we discuss our project with the Icelanders, be it those we interview, run into in cafes, or meet through friends, it doesn’t take long until they ask if we’ve heard about the controversy surrounding the potential of building Iceland’s first mosque.  Most people say something along the lines of: “So, you must have heard about the mosque, then.”

As we mentioned in a previous blog post, Iceland has been discussing the possibility of building its first mosque, and people in the country have spoken out from all sides of the issue.  After the city council initially granted the Muslim Association of Iceland a piece of land to build a mosque, progress on the issue and plans for the mosque have stalled.

A key voice in the debate surrounding the Reykjavik mosque has been city councilperson Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir, a member of the Progressive Party.  She stated her belief that Iceland should not grant land to a mosque, saying, “I lived in Saudi Arabia for about a year. My opinion is not based on prejudice, but on experience.”

A woman we spoke with recently voiced a similar opinion to that of Sveinbjörnsdóttir, explaining that this is a matter of upholding the rights of Icelanders.  She expressed concerns that Islam was not a religion that allowed people to integrate into a society such as Iceland’s.  A strong supporter of women’s and gay rights in the country, she also expressed concerns that a decision to build a mosque in Iceland would be at odds with Icelandic laws of equality.  For example, Iceland does not fund churches that refuse to marry homosexual couples.  She concluded that because the mosque would not be willing to do this, it should therefore not be granted land from the government.

Furthermore, she expressed the view that Islam and its practices would be in conflict with the gender equality established in the country, saying, “I fear for the accomplishments that we’ve made.  I fear the younger women don’t realize how hard we’ve fought and how easily we could lose it.”  In this way, she framed the mosque as a threat to the rights of women and the LGBTQ community in Iceland.

However, while her concerns were framed in a rights-based context, some other dissenters to the Reykjavik mosque have used much more Islamaphobic rhetoric.  So much so, that Sveinbjörnsdóttir, the councilperson who originally spoke out against the mosque, recently announced that she has reversed her decision and will no longer fight against the building of the mosque, after having received an uncomfortable amount of support from Islamaphobic groups.

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Aerial image of the land plot proposed for the mosque, image courtesy of mbl.is

To further complicate the issue, we have also spoken with a number of people who oppose the mosque due to geographic logistics.  Apparently when the city voted for the mosque to be built, they decided to give the land to the Muslim Association of Iceland rather than have the association purchase it. This does not sit well with many Icelanders in a city where real estate is extremely expensive (well, everything is for that matter), and they believe that the city should not give this plot of land to anyone for free.  Interestingly enough, depending on which media outlet you read, that plot is either considered a “modest piece of land” or “prime real estate.”  While this land issue might just be the façade of a deeper issue, it certainly does thicken the plot.

Meanwhile, those who favor the building of the mosque have been registering as Muslims in the country, to show their support.  As of now, there are 770 Muslims registered in Iceland.

Sveinbjörnsdóttir’s change in position, as well as the push for Muslims to register to show support, illustrates the constantly changing debate surrounding the mosque, and the wide-ranging array of opinions that have developed around the issue.  This issue is only one example of how immigrants to Iceland and Icelanders themselves face challenges regarding a changing demographic.

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