Two years ago Zain Elabdin left the Isis stronghold of Raqqa and sought asylum in Sweden. He wondered if he’d find it difficult to adapt to life in one of the world’s most secular countries. But that hasn’t been the case at all.
“Being from a Middle Eastern or an Islamic background doesn’t mean you’re incompatible with Western life,” he says.
Once he had started learning Swedish, no cultural hurdles seemed insurmountable. If anything, he found that the Swedish way of life was a lot more familiar than he had expected.
He attributes this in part to the Law of Jante, a fictional codification of typically Scandinavian ways of thinking in which the collective always takes precedence over the individual.
“In Islam we have numerous hadiths that talk about the same rules as the Law of Jante. I‘ve discovered how similar the ‘Scandinavian commandments’ are to the rules of morality in Islam. The moral framework is very similar to ours.”
By selling him to be himself, Sweden helped him gain a new culture without requiring him to lose his old one, he says.
“Being a Muslim wasn’t at any point a barrier against my integration: I built relationships, and now I have a Swedish family.”
And nobody raises an eyebrow if he doesn’t guzzle a few snaps at the crayfish party.
“I don’t mind if my friends drink alcohol or eat pork, why would they mind when I refuse? This is freedom: everyone has the right to choose what they want.
“For me these details shouldn’t be controversial at all; what should matter I think is respect for the law, and for others in the community.”
At the same time, he thinks Muslim newcomers to Sweden should respect long-standing cultural traditions, such as shaking hands with women.
“Let’s look at it the other way: If a Swedish woman travelled to an Islamic country, she would be asked to respect the cultural codes. She might be asked to dress with reserve, and if she didn’t, that could be considered offensive.
“Therefore, we need to respect their customs and culture, and follow their way of greetings, because it is a societal practice and an integral part of Sweden’s traditions.”
Instead we should be judged on our achievements and how we contribute to society, he believes.