Finland: An interview with the leader of Finnish Shia Muslims

The bars at the Laajasalo shopping centre are open already from the morning. Pensioners carry their shopping bags as drunken men murmur on the grey paving stones. A nearly unnoticed door leads to the premises of an Islamic community, where the sound of prayer is heard in a room whose floors are covered with soft carpets, and whose walls have Arabic texts on them.

The Shia Muslim organisation in Finland is called Resalat. The word refers to delivering a message.

Hassan Fathollahpoor, age 47, is an Iranian imam with smiling eyes. He has served as the religious leader of the community since September 2007.

The Shi'ite community has about 500 members. In addition, many other Muslims take part in the activities of the group, including Sunnis. Finland has about 30,000 Muslims, 10,000 of whom are Shia, and the rest Sunni.

Hassan Fathollahpoor is the highest-ranking Shi'ite scholar in Finland. His task is to lead the daily prayers, and to teach Islam to both old and young. In addition, the imam advises Muslims on aspects of everyday life, and he can be reached throughout the day.

"Families call me to discuss problems related to their marriages, or generational conflicts, for instance. I advise them from a religious angle", the imam says.

Imam Fathollahpoor came to Finland at the request of an acquaintance working in the Shi'ite community. Hassan Fathollahpoor plans to stay in Finland for a long time - possibly permanently. "I have goals for developing the community, and I need time for it", Fathollahpoor says, but does not specify what those goals are.

His wife and two sons are still in Iran, waiting for a visa to Finland.

Fathollahpoor's parents are Iranian, but the family lived throughout his childhood in Kerbala in Central Iraq, where the Imam Hussein, an important figure for the Shi'ites is buried. Like many other Iranians, Hassan Fathollahpoor's parents wanted to live near Hussein's grave.

Fathollahpoor was 14 years old when his family moved back to Iran, before the Islamic revolution of 1978. Fathollahpoor himself took part in the revolution.

"I studied law at the University of Teheran, but I noticed that I could learn everything through religion, that I would have learned studying law. That is why I decided to study religion."

Most of Finland's Shi'ites come from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Afghanistan - all areas that have been torn by wars. For instance, in Iraq, relations between the Shi'ites and the Sunnis have become strained, and violence has broken out.

Fathollahpoor hopes that Muslims living in Finland would leave their bitter feelings behind them. "We are Finnish Muslims and we have our own problems. Conflicts should certainly not be brought into the mosque."

Hassan Fathollahpoor himself has not experienced racism in Finland, but establishing mutual respect requires work. Fathollahpoor does not believe that there are any insurmountable conflicts between the Christian and Muslim worlds. One problem that he sees is a lack of grave sites for Muslims, and attitudes toward the use of scarves by women.

"It is often hard for a woman wearing a scarf to get work."

When the subject turns to young people, the imam becomes excited. Fathollahpoor feels that it is important for Muslim youth to learn to respect both Finnish and Islamic culture.

"Fortunately there are many similarities between Christianity and Islam, and they specifically need to be emphasised. We want to encourage our young people to succeed in Finnish society. We must seek to offer young people a childhood full of love, so that they will succeed in life."

Success for Fathollahpoor comes from diligence, self respect, and a morally correct life.

Source: Helsingin Sanomat (English)

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