Racialisation of Religion – What Can Be Learned from Scandinavia?

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The racialisation of religion is a widespread phenomenon. In Norway, folk church culture is often an antidote to religious conservativism, but it is also shaped by Norwegianness and whiteness.



On the 22nd of July 2011, a far-right terrorist, Anders Breivik, bombed government buildings in the centre of Oslo and attacked a Labour-party youth camp on Utøya, an hour’s drive outside Oslo. 77 humans were killed. The terrorist’s motive was Islamophobic. He saw Norway, and Europe, as under threat from Muslims. However, even though he scattered Christian imagery through his cut-and-paste online manifesto, it seems clear that Christian iconography and rhetoric were largely pointing to a racist vision of white national and civilizational supremacy: It wasn’t the rituals, beliefs, or practices of Christianity that the terrorist was pointing to with his Knight Templar photo-shoots. Christianity was a label of identity, a way of delineating an “us” and a “them” that racist extremists like Anders Breivik deemed intuitive enough, clear enough, and emotionally powerful enough, that he hoped that his actions would speak to many people, including those beyond the extremist right.

The racialisation of religion is a globally widespread phenomenon. Nevertheless, there is something to be learned from the Scandinavian and Norwegian case. The Norwegian case allows us to see that the racialisation of religion is not only confined to the obvious examples visible in the violence of the extreme right, or the blatant racial othering of Islam in populist rhetoric. The Norwegian case shows that the racialisation of religion is not only about other-ing, but also us-ing. Furthermore, Norway exemplifies how it can be traced across the political spectrum, all the way into liberal religious and secular milieus. Scandinavian Christian folk church culture can be seen as an antidote to religious conservatism, including xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia. However, in the Norwegian case, this space is deeply shaped by Norwegianness and characterised by whiteness. The racialisation of religion is not only about the extreme racist right. It is pretty pervasive throughout society, in Scandinavia and elsewhere.

The racism in the violent attacks of the extreme right is obvious. The killing of Muslims in two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques on the 15th of March 2019 was directly aimed at Muslims and explicitly motivated by white supremacy. The 2011 terror attack described above targeted the Labour party youth movement, seeing immigration of Muslims as a politicized racial conspiracy against a white and Christian Europe. Between 2001 and 2019 there were over 300 instances where Sikhs were attacked because the attacker thought they were Muslim, clearly misidentifying their victims because of racialised appearance.

These violent attacks make the connections between religious hatred and racism easy to see. The widespread anti-Islamic rhetoric among right-populist movements in Europe (but also elsewhere) follows a similar pattern. The rise of Hindutva in India, the “race and religion protection laws” in Myanmar and, of course, the close connection between white evangelicalism and Trumpism in the USA all exemplify religion being used for exclusionary politics that reinforce racialised identities.

However, racialisation of religion does not need to happen through extremist or nationalist politics. In recent decades, scholars in several European countries started noticing that immigrant minority groups more often were referred to, and referred to themselves, in a religious register. For example, most Pakistanis in the UK or Scandinavia were both Muslim and Pakistani. However, up until the 1990s, they were more often spoken about as Pakistanis, the racialised slurs used referred to their countries of origin, and they were also themselves more likely to mobilise politically around their national origin.

Increasingly, however, the same people (and not only people of Pakistani origins) were spoken of as Muslims, received slurs directed towards their Muslim identity, and referred to themselves as Muslims. Nasar Meer and Tariq Modood, among many other scholars, speaks of the racialisation of Muslims. It seems to me that this more grass-roots racialisation is intimately connected to the extremist anti-Muslim violence mentioned above. It provides the explanatory trope that religions are “race-like” groups of people. When religious groups are seen as race-like, they are understood as in essence similar to each other, and essentially different from others.

They can also be imagined as a society that can sustain itself separately and over several generations. As I see it, this understanding means that intergenerational categories that can be imagined to sustain separate societies, like ethnicity, nationality, religion, and cultural groups, are all easily racialised – indeed they are deeply historically entwined with ideas about race. Other identity categories distinguish groups within a society and are less easily seen as intergenerational, such as gender, sexuality, age, or class. These are also deeply implicated with racialisation, but I see these entanglements as intersectional rather than entwined.

Christianity was a label of identity, a way of delineating an “us” and a “them” that racist extremists like Anders Breivik deemed intuitive enough, clear enough, and emotionally powerful enough, that he hoped that his actions would speak to many people, including those beyond the extremist right.

Edward Said suggested that when Europeans were describing and categorising Orientals – in this case Muslims – scholars should look at how this knowledge production worked to create European understandings of Europeans. The populist Islamophobia shared by many right-wing parties in Europe comes with a nostalgic emphasis on Europe’s, and the individual country’s, Christian identity. Christianity is mobilised as a defining trait of national identity, identifying an imagined national core. The seminal book edited by Marzouki, MacDonnell and Roy called this process the “hijacking of religion”. The term “hijacking” demands some more attention, but for now it is sufficient to note that the terms makes intuitive sense for mainstream Churches. Marzouki, MacDonnell and Roy show how mainstream Churches tend to dislike the new-found populist embrace of Christianity.

However, many people in Western and Northern Europe especially do not see themselves as Christian. And if they do, they do not see it as particularly important in their lives. Thus, Christianity can hardly be mobilised as faith but is rather presented as cultural heritage. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Crucifixes in Italian classrooms were defensible because they were not necessarily religious but also expressions of Italian culture.

These moves re-frame religious belonging as something cultural rather than something distinctly religious. Paradoxically maybe, downplaying the believing and behaving aspects of religion makes religious belonging even more race-like. It becomes less something the individual chooses and practices, and more an intergenerational destiny, an accident of birth.

Moving even further away from the obvious anti-Muslim racism of right-wing extremist violence, the religious landscape in Scandinavia is characterised by national folk church cultures. Compared to low-church lay movements, and high-church elites, folk church cultures were often seen as less interested in policing the beliefs and ethics of Church members. Rather, the emphasis was on celebrating life rites such as baptism, weddings, and funerals, as well as maybe Christmas. The local Church was seen as a part of local cultural texture. The origins of the folk church cultures were tightly bound up with 19th century Scandinavian nation-building and grass-root democratic mobilisation.

Today, people who approve of folk church culture also often align with anti-racist efforts. Being positive to the folk church often comes in a package that includes affirming women pastors and bishops, same-sex marriages, LGBTQ+ rights, climate change action, refugees, and generally down-playing notions of individual sin and shame. Women and LGBTQ+ people within the Church have successfully fought for their own rights. The battle against racism in the Church, such as it is, is different. It is done on behalf of others: the Church of Norway remains an overwhelmingly white institution. At the same time, the national nature of the folk church is often an argument for intertwining Norwegianness with Christian heritage – a move that in practice racialises both Christianity and Norwegianness. Might it be that folk church culture is so bound up in national, albeit democratic, imaginaries that it is hard to give up the ghosts of past cultural hegemony?

For 2030, there are great plans afoot for a major celebration of the 1000-year anniversary of the battle of Stiklestad, where King Olav Haraldsson was killed. According to received storytelling, this battle symbolizes the establishment of Christianity in Norway, and Olav Haraldsson became known as St. Olav. The tight entwinement of folk church culture, narratives of Christian belonging (with or without believing), and the well-intentioned but nevertheless overwhelmingly white Church of Norway is going to make celebrations such as these extremely hard to manoeuvre without further racializing Christianity.

So far, I have discussed the racialisation of religion as an empirical phenomenon: Something that was previously seen as religion is increasingly seen as race-like. However, there is a large scholarly literature that looks at the co-production of these two terms from late medieval times and through colonial modernity. The very idea of racial difference may have emerged in late medieval Spain, where Muslims and Jews who were forcefully converted to Christianity were still seen as suspicious. Moreover, so were their children and grandchildren. Jewishness and Muslimness were seen to reside in bloodlines in ways that implied essential differences, and mere conversion could not hide it. The category of race, and racism, included religion from the start. Conversely, it looks as if the modern concept of religion was also entangled with ideas about race from the start. And both concepts were forged by the colonial modernity that still entails Euro-American dominance and a range of privileges for white people.

The Scottish religion scholar Malory Nye argues that the whole term “religion” is obsolete because it is so entwined with ideas about race. And indeed, the term “religion” is a pretty shaky construct as it is. The range of phenomena that are deemed religious may not really have anything substantive that connects them. Given this shakiness, and the close connections between religion and ideas about race throughout their genealogies, maybe some of the assumptions above need revisiting. The term “hi-jacking” for instance, seems to imply an original pure religion, owned by mainstream Churches, that nationalists and populists then proceed to rudely claim for their own purposes.

There is plenty of food for thought in this argument, but I think it is overstated. Consider what happens neurologically when an individual encounters the words “religion” or “race”: Their brains spring into action, and a network of meaning is activated across the brain. This network of meaning is simultaneously emotional, associational, logical, and categorical. It consists both of salient prototypes (the most religion-y or racial things we can think of) and a whole range of neighbouring concepts which are primed when our concept is mentioned. Now, it seems to me that there are good reasons to believe that the networks of meaning that are invoked by the words “race” and “religion” will overlap. When “race” is mentioned, “religion” will be primed in our brain. When “religion” is mentioned, “race” will be primed.

However, Nye goes on to say that they overlap completely. I do not think this is the case. Even though they share their context of origin, and even though they continue to overlap, the terms “religion” and “race” have accrued their full assemblages of meaning through different historical pathways. That these pathways increasingly re-entwine in our present time and in recent decades is, I would argue, an empirical phenomenon, a change in the world. It is not merely the necessary consequence of how the terms emerged together in late medieval/early modern Europe. You couldn’t have discovered the realities of the recent racialisation of religion by thinking about the terms “race” and “religion”. You would have to go out and observe the world.

The Norwegian and Scandinavian case can teach us a lot about the racialisation of religion. It showcases the violent potential when mobilised by the extreme right. However, it also calls attention to the more subtle and contradictory ways in which religion, nationality, and whiteness can be connected within folk church culture. This can inspire a rethinking of our concepts of both “race” and “religion”. But even though these two terms are entwined, they still work in different ways. To understand their relationship, we have to look at the world, not merely ponder our concepts.




Marzouki, Nadia, Duncan MacDonnell, and Olivier Roy, eds. 2016. Saving the People: How populists hijack religion. London: Hurst Publisher.

Meer, Nasar, and Tariq Modood. 2019. “Islamophobia as the Racialisation of Muslims”. Pp.18–31 in The Routledge international handbook of Islamophobia. Routledge.

Nye, Malory. 2019. “Race and religion: Postcolonial formations of power and whiteness”. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 31(3):210–37.

Said, Edward W. 1995. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. Reprinted with a new afterword. London: Penguin Books.

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