While these two groups—ex- or nonreligious young adults and Muslim youth—rarely encounter one another in their daily life in Kristiansand, their responses to the local social order have surprising parallels. They have comparable responses to their respective experiences with public rituals. They share a sense of being marginalized and have developed strategies for establishing ‘alternative’ spaces, offline and online. They also both have a sense of being framed negatively (or ignored) by mainstream (national and local) media, which leads them to shy away from potential conflicts online and instead use social media as a way of creating safe spaces and facilitate in-group bonding. The following describes their experiences during public rituals, their sense of a hostile dominant media frame, and their attempts to establish spaces for themselves on- and offline.
3.1. Public Rituals
In his book Models and Mirrors
, Don Handelman distinguished between three types of public events based on the logic of their organisation and performance. First there are public events that model
, or seek to instigate or at least predict some real transformation in the social order of the lived-in world. Secondly, there are events that present
the social order of the lived-in world. These events hold “up a mirror to social order, selectively reflecting versions of the latter that largely are known, if in more dispersed and fragmented fashion (Handelman 1998, p. 48
). Finally, there are events that re-present
the social order by contrasting or comparing it to distinct alternatives, or by highlighting its internal contradictions thus questioning its ultimate legitimacy.
As Judith Kapferer has convincingly shown, Norwegian Constitution Day (or simply ‘17th of May’) celebrations clearly belong to the second type (Kapferer 2004
). On Handelman’s terms, they occur at the very interface of social order and the event itself, imparting a sense of affirmation of the existing order. The celebrations put a strong emphasis on intergenerational relations, family and kin, and the historical continuity of the national and local community (despite their national significance, in most Norwegian towns apart from the country’s capital, these celebrations often carry a strong scent of local patriotism (Blehr 2000, p. 177
). For Kapferer, local Norwegian Constitution Day celebrations constitute suitable case studies ‘in situational analysis [as described by Gluckman 1958 and others], concentrating on the Constitution Day festivities as a way of making sociological meaning of the city’s cultural and social characteristics (Kapferer 2004, p. 109
). This is particularly the case in the so-called citizens’ parades, a case which according to Kapferer ‘reveals […] the central myths and everyday constructions of reality in [the city, giving] point to the sites and events of Constitution Day (Kapferer 2004, pp. 112, 117, 120
). We might therefore expect the peculiarities of Kristiansand’s social order to be more pronounced in its official Constitution Day celebrations.
In 2017 we attended and observed the May 17 celebrations in the city center of Kristiansand, prioritizing the events that were given prominent space in the official programme, and especially the citizens’ parade. We also followed the celebrations the following year, largely through news media reports.
The city center is the site of a range of events throughout the day. The most common kind of event is laying down wreaths at local and regional memorial monuments: the local Eidsvoll men (those from the area participating the writing of Norway’s constitution in 1814), locals fallen in the two WWs, local cultural personalities like authors or artists, and the July 22 Memorial Monument.4
In many cities the official celebrations include church services (many of the parades start and/or end at a local church). Religious groups tend to show high degrees of participation. In larger cities, especially in the western and southern parts of the country, many Christian free churches and mission organisations organise events in addition to the official celebrations. In Kristiansand, the church service (at 11 a.m.) in the cathedral is very well attended. The sermon celebrates a narrative that casts Norway as a ‘Christian country’ since the 11th century, with a harsh climate and generally poor in natural resources but which through God’s blessing and protection has become one of the wealthiest nations on earth. The moral responsibility that comes with this is also highlighted, and people are encouraged to show gratefulness and generosity. Hymns are sung celebrating God’s protection and blessing.
In the middle of the day, an association of free churches, “Together for the City”, has organized an event at the main stage. The official programme states that a named person (his surname shows him to belong to a local business family) will have a ‘conversation with exciting guests’. The event is fairly well-attended, and the predominantly young crowd also includes numerous heads of local Christian business families. A gospel choir from one of the local Christian university colleges performs two up-beat songs from the latest album of a black gospel singer. The ‘exciting guests’ turn out to be two Iraqi men in their fifties who are interviewed via translator. They answer questions about what they think about Norwegian culture and the 17 May celebration in particular, before the host guides the short conversation into the question of conversion to Christianity. They are both recent converts and speak very warmly of Norway and Christianity. The crowd applauds when the host can reveal that they have both recently been granted asylum, though it is unclear whether this happened before or after their conversion. The choir performs two more songs before the event closes. The centrality, visibility and loudness of this event is illustrative of the status enjoyed by particular networks of free churches, business, and politics in Kristiansand.
But in terms of importance none of these events can compete with the citizens’ parade. By far the most well-attended event of the day, this parade is a celebratory manifestation of Kristiansand’s social order. The main part of the parade consists of representatives of the city’s civic society. By far the most common type of organization attending are the local sports association: football, handball, rowing, trial, martial arts, skating, gymnastics, dancing, ice hockey, swimming, cycling, volleyball, tennis, fencing, badminton, and more. More than 83% of the city’s children and youth are members of a sports club. There are also NGOs such as the Red Cross, Skeiv Ungdom (Queer Youth), or Redningsselskapet (a volunteer sea rescue organization), all interspersed with marching bands from the city’s schools. Most sections count between 30 and 100 people.
Of all the sections in the parade, one stands out: the association of free churches walking under the banner ‘Together for the City—a network of Christians’. More than 800 people, mostly between the ages of 15 and 30, dance and sing along to Hillsong’s tracks booming from loud speakers on a truck carrying a live band. Participants in their 20s, some carrying flags or individually made placards with ‘Jesus loves you’, walk with several of the same heads of local Christian business families and church leaders that attended the 2:00 p.m. event. The general sense among onlookers seems to be one of fascination towards the sheer size of the section, but not surprise. There is little snickering at or mocking of the open public worship.
3.1.1. Other-Religious Minorities
Generally, visible minorities Asian or African descent tend to be found interspersed among groups not directly related to ethnicity (for the most part sports clubs). When visible as a group, ethnic minorities are mostly found on the margins of the events, for instance as vendors in temporary food tents put up for the occasion.
The Thai Association participates in the main parade with a small section, some wearing their own national costumes. Remarkably, none of the city’s Muslim organisations or associations participate with their own specific section in the citizens’ parade. According to the official programme (distributed to all households a week earlier) the Afghan Association is also supposed to participate in the parade, but they do not. During a later interview with two young Muslim respondents, we asked why this might be the case:
- It’s partly about how the mosque and the imam see themselves, and indeed how the population sees the imams and the Islamic faith. Maybe they don’t feel welcome enough to present themselves publically in a parade? […] but [Muslim immigrants] have to understand that this too is part of Norwegian culture.
When we ask why the Muslim Union does not participate with a section in the parade, Akif (26) argues that religion is not supposed to be central to the event, at least in principle. We ask him if he did not notice the section with all the Christian churches in it.
- Well, yes, towards the end there was this section called ‘Youth for Jesus’ or something, and that was the biggest section of all, really. But I was like, oh well, there’s Kristiansand for you…
3.1.2. Ex- and Non-Religious Groups
Akif’s resigned response parallels that of participants in the local branch of the Humanist Association’s section in the parade. Their section is remarkably small for a city of almost 90,000 people, counting only 8–10 participants, several in their twenties. This low turn-out is also in stark contrast to the more than 200 teenagers who signed up for the Humanist ‘confirmation’ ceremony the same year. As they walk past us, a group of young men on the other side of the road start mocking them, pointing fingers, and singing a Christian childrens’ song: “Jesus loves all the children/all the children in the world/red, yellow, white, or black—it’s all the same to him/Jesus loves all the children in the world”. They sing loudly, almost shouting, extending their arms and pointing towards the Humanist participants in a shaming gesture, as if turning them into an altogether different kind of spectacle. Most onlookers ignore it, some giggle, and a few of the participants smile nervously.
In interviews, the young humanists confirm that the shaming is a regular occurrence during the annual parades.
- I’ve actually learned that song just from hearing it being sung at me in the parade […] That happens at least two or three times every May 17 parade.
- But it varies from year to year. Two years ago there was a lot of it, I believe it happened more than twenty times just during that one parade. And someone spat at me. But someone in the section behind us phoned up that Christian association thingy later, and the year after it was a bit better.
- You seem to simply accept it?
- I haven’t thought about it, to be honest […] You can’t do anything about it. I mean, when you live here, that’s what you get.
The following year, the same thing happened. This time, a young woman participating in the Humanist Association section for the first time since she moved to Kristiansand that same year reacted by writing a letter to the editor of the regional newspaper. Other national media news quickly picked up the story. In an interview we conducted with her, she said many responded by saying she was over-reacting to what was essentially harmless fun but that she also received phone calls from Christians saying such shaming behavior was not representative of their faith. Being from another town, she was also surprised at how her local co-members simply accepted the situation as a given.
For the present purposes, this is the crucial point: that most onlookers appear to view this behaviour as harmless fun, and that the victims accept their place in the local social hierarchy. According to Elias’ theory of established-outsider figurations, such episodes of shaming point to the uneven balance of power between the established group’s sets of norms and codes and other groups’ ‘failing’ to emulate these norms. Here, we might make the simple observation that onlookers seem to get the joke. The joke works only if there is already a shared understanding of the idea that not participating in practices associated with learning Christian children’s songs is to diverge from expected behavior. While most people witnessing the shaming would not consider Christian faith necessary for living a good life, they must be aware of the norm as existing among prominent groups in the city. This is then not simply a case of Christian young men being confident in their own beliefs. What is in the moment cast as good-humoured teasing equally expresses the established-outsider figuration and the attempted (and silently legitimized) stigmatization of outsider groups as divergent.
The centrality, visibility, and overwhelming physical presence of networks consisting of Christian free churches and business families in a celebration that to such a large degree celebrates local community, family ties, and regional patriotism is remarkable. Again, it should be underscored that the issue is not one of majority versus minority but one of social status, visibility, and power. The visibility and centrality, both in terms of the official programme at the main stage and in terms of physical presence in the most important parade, of a group strongly associated with business and conservative Christianity points to these characteristics as defining for the ‘established’ in the social order of the city. The responses to this dominance we observe from ethnic-religious minorities and non-religious groups are similar in that they seem to accept the situation and their place in it.
3.2. Media Framing
Recent research has shown that immigrants from Asia and Africa are under-represented in Norwegian mainstream media, including the regional newspaper Færdrelandsvennen
in Kristiansand. When this group is represented, it tends to be in negative terms, as criminals, victims in need of help, or indeed as ‘exotic’ or different in some or other respect (Dahlstrøm 2013
; Engebretsen 2015
). Young immigrants from the area report that this makes integration more difficult for them (Fjeldstad et al. 2013
; Mainsah 2011
In the Norwegian/Danish interviews we conducted between 2015 and 2016, respondents were asked a series of questions concerning their social media use, the way the national media represents Islam, and in what ways media representations impacted on their lives and behaviour in public environments, including on social media. All respondents experienced a negative framing of Islam in mainstream and a sense of heightened public exposure after a terror attack. They reacted to this with a variety of strategies, from avoidance to invisibility to modelling good behaviour in daily life (e.g., giving their place in a queue to an elderly person) and building support networks.
However, it was noticeable that only Copenhagen based respondents expressed a sense of being exposed or on trial daily, and only they (or at least four of the five) spoke of using social media as a tool to engage wider networks. In Kristiansand, by contrast, it seems young Muslims to a greater extent have accepted a fundamental separation between their minority culture and the surrounding social environment. Here, respondents describe similar feelings of tiredness but referring to days in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack rather than on a regular basis.
3.2.1. Other-Religious Minority Tactics
Isra (24) describes the days following terrorist attacks as ‘extremely exhausting’ and explains how she, her family, and friends seek to avoid contact outside their immediate social circle in order to, ‘remain in the background and as far as possible to try not to attract attention’. Similarly, Akif (26) describes how his normal social media routine is occasionally punctuated by a felt need to comment on recent terror events, at least if these occur in Europe:
- When there is a terror attack, I often feel I have to write something. But I often wonder why I feel that way. I mean, this guy [London terrorist attack] was a British bastard, born in Britain, originally from Pakistan. Why should I have to publicly disavow him, when I am here in Norway, originally from [another country]? But again, he is a Muslim. So I do it. I have disavowed so many terror attacks in Europe. But when that thing happened in Afghanistan, where 80 people were killed—much more than in any European Islamist attack—then I didn’t write anything. And the day after I thought about why that might be. Why do I do it?
Crucially, when Akif does respond to news on social media, his comments are not directed to the Norwegian majority culture but rather to younger members of his own in-group. While he sees himself as a bridge-builder of sorts between Norwegian society and Muslim groups, his efforts target primarily Norwegian-born young members of Muslim families.
- I try to inform young Muslims about Islam. I might have some more knowledge, since I have lived in Palestine for so many years […] I am educated, and I might know a few things more than someone who is 16 and was born here. They have many questions, and I try to explain how one might be both Norwegian and a Muslim. (Akif, age 26, Kristiansand)
On Facebook, Akif separates his Norwegian and non-Norwegian networks into separate groups so that the one cannot always see what he is posting to the other. He assumes that Norwegians will not really be interested in what is important to him and his fellow Muslims, and so he does not try to explain himself to ‘outsiders’. While talking about this, he jokes about the suspicion this might cause in a culture where Muslims might be portrayed as conspiratorial.
- Sometimes I share [on Facebook] things that my Norwegian friends can’t see. I have Norwegian friends who only speak Norwegian, so I put them in one group. But if I write something in Arabic, then that’s something else. The Norwegians don’t get to see everything—you know, I am a dangerous man [laughs] Oh, are you recording? I’m joking, I’m joking! [laughs] […] One guy said to me ‘write so people can understand you!’ He only knew Norwegian. So here [on the Arabic-speaking group] I put things about Ramadan or other things that you [Norwegians] don’t care about.
Facebook does allow its users to distinguish between close and remote friends, but this does not seem to be what is at stake for Akif:
I never add (as friends) anyone I haven’t met, except, like, celebrities. But everyone I know in Kristiansand, and who are on Facebook, are friends. [Online and offline] are not two separate worlds.
Together with other young men in the Muslim community, Akif has set up closed groups on Facebook and SnapChat (where potential new members need to be accepted by one of the group’s two or three administrators) in order to distribute information about common events.
Like Akif, Farshid (28) separates his Norwegian and non-Norwegian networks on social media.
I try to write things that point beyond the mundane […] Quotes and poetry and so on. And maybe I translate the poem to English, even though it loses much of its meaning. I do it in Norwegian and English, and sometimes in Persian. If I am writing to people outside of Norway, I use Persian. For instance, if I am posting something about Afghanistan, I post in Persian so that only Afghanis can understand it, and not others. Because it is none of their business. But if I am saying ‘Happy Constitution Day’ or something like that, then I use Norwegian.
(Farshid, age 28, Kristiansand)
Farshid’s attempt to use social media to raise awareness of something transcending the everyday is, in other words, primarily targeting family and friends already belonging to the minority culture (or indeed living in other countries), and even there, it might not always work as he intends. As he admits, laughingly, ‘If my status update gets less than 30 likes, I delete it!’ This seems to affirm social media as a space for building networks of solidarity amongst marginalised groups (Leurs et al. 2012
3.2.2. Ex- and Non-Religious Tactics
The experiences of our ex- and nonreligious young adult respondents mirror those of the young Muslims. Julie (26), for instance, grew up in a strict Christian community, where she experienced some abuse. After a few years in therapy (as she puts it) she moved to Kristiansand, trying to avoid religion as best she can. A semi-closeted bisexual, she finds this more challenging than she expected in a city comparatively larger than the town where she grew up. She knows of few others with similar histories still living in Kristiansand. This is why she doesn’t participate in the annual Pride parades.
- I don’t know of any others [like me]. I mean, most queer people who have some kind of religious belief tend to move away from Kristiansand anyway […] Living in Kristiansand you can’t escape the sense that there’s this class division, and that it’s got to do with religion.
When asked from where she gets this sense, she points to the regional newspaper. Her impression is that the regional newspaper gives more attention to religious topics ‘than is normal’, and she can list off the top of her head a number of examples of recent positive stories about local churches and congregations.
- It’s probably a hangover from my religious days. I still feel ashamed of who I am. I mean, you never see any positive interaction between religion and homosexuality in the newspaper here. There’s just two sides. One accusing the other of being sinful, the other accusing the first one of being bigoted. Just accusations, accusations all the time […]
She is not alone in feeling this way. In the milieus we encountered while snowballing for respondents, it is not uncommon for respondents to describe the regional newspaper in similar terms. When asked to point out the source of the sense of being an outsider, Heidi (32) puts it this way:
In Kristiansand, you see it in [the regional newspaper]. You see it in Concert Hall. You see it in the City Council. You see it everywhere. There’s always a Christian finger in the pie […]
These experiences might be understood on the background of certain editorial changes made in the regional newspaper over the past decades. In 2005, several local Christian churches threatened to withdraw their adverts, being dissatisfied with its alleged ‘critical approach to religion’. Five years later, the new Editor in Chief was looking to accommodate and quoted the strong local ties between Christianity, local business, and politics as examples of why religion should be considered relevant to the regional news media. In 2012, the newspaper officially declared this field a priority and hired its first journalist specifically covering ‘religion and worldviews’. Local media scholars have shown that following this shift, the most common news stories about religion in this regional newspaper are previews of cultural events taking place in a church, where the emphasis is on ‘everyday heroes’, music, and positive experiences (Dahlstrøm 2013, p. 132–33
). The Editor in Chief reports that the newspaper is now receiving far fewer complaints about how they cover religious topics.
So how does the ex-religious group respond to this in their social media life? Some, like Bjorn (27), tend to avoid social media as much as possible.
- I don’t have Instagram, and I hardly ever post or read anything on Facebook except in some group chats where we tell each other of upcoming events.
Having left the religious group where he grew up, he has now joined the social circles associated with the Free
podcast. He describes the milieu as politically left-leaning, with a strong interest in cultural entrepreneurship, and with a high percentage of detractors from religious groups. Many are active in organizing music or artisan festivals during the summer.
Similarly, Lisa (19), active member of the local youth section in Humanist Association, as well as the local organisation Queer Youth, is reluctant to share too much of herself in social media.
- I have my [facebook] profile as private as is possible. You never know… things get taken out of context […] I want to know who the receivers are, but if I share with everyone, I won’t have that kind of control.
Julie uses both Facebook and Instagram every day but mostly for catching up with whatever is going on in her social circles. She does little posting herself. Occasionally, she will post links to discussions about religion on her Facebook page, but she very carefully avoids drawing attention to her own ex-religiosity. She reserves her own posting for closed groups or (even more) group chats where she feels secure only like-minded friends will see her posts.
- I am very careful about what I’m posting on Facebook. I don’t want to post anything on homosexuality or religion […] but I do in closed groups with other sceptics.
Still, the ties to the world of the established are hard to break.
- I don’t unfollow old friends, because that’s signalling ‘I don’t want you in my life’. But I scroll past them, especially if they’re spouting right-wing politics or religious bullshit […] It’s also kind of a guilty pleasure to just look at what people are posting and see how low they can go […]
So, even though Julie finds it hard to break completely from her old religious friends, she might turn them into a spectacle to be mocked in secret together with her ‘new’ in-group of outsiders. Simultaneously, she has to navigate the internal norms of the new in-group, not showing too much solidarity with the established.
- … I think I’m somewhere on the spectrum between atheist and agnostic. I grew up on a farm, and everyone who grows up on a farm is a little bit superstitious […] I feel some [‘Force’] being there, but I don’t believe it’s real. I mean, outwardly, I’m more of an atheist, because you can’t go into all those nuances and paradoxes in conversations with people. I mean… it’s complicated. And creepy!
Drawing on Elias again, we might note here that outsider niches are also policed by certain codes of belonging so that Julie now feels torn between her experience of a kind of supernatural ‘force’ in the world and the atheism considered normative in the outsider group. Hence, she will not discuss the nuances of her non-religion with other sceptics.
3.4. Ex- and Non-Religious Minority Spaces
According to the former Head of the Department for Child and Adolescent Mental Health (ABUP) at the Southern Hospital in Kristiansand, the prominent position of Evangelical Christianity in Kristiansand’s social order means that it ‘[…] is probably difficult to be a young person in Kristiansand if you don’t want to join any of the Christian youth activities’. ABUP is an established research centre focusing on relations between culture and mental health, conducting its research primarily in Kristiansand and the surrounding region. While they do not make claims about the ‘religious’ culture of Kristiansand, the center’s research output has emphasized the importance, at least locally, of including so-called ‘existential information’—including the patients’ and therapists’ religious or nonreligious worldview—in the psychotherapeutic process.
As a part of this strategy to integrate cultural engagement with therapeutic practice, ABUP is also known to support a range of local creative projects. Among these is the podcast-turned-radio-show Free
, hosted by Heidi and Elisabeth, who are both in their early 30s.5
Heidi is a mother of two, and grew up in a local religious sect, from which she has now exited. Elisabeth is a single mother, identifies as queer, and moved to Kristiansand from a neighbouring town. Their website presents the podcast in the following terms: ‘A shameless, humorous perspective on everyday life in this jungle of prayer houses, jovial southerners and good girls.’
The podcast’s rationale is directly related to their experience of being outsiders.
- Kristiansand is so, like… nuclear family parenting, Christianity, outdoor activities and sports. I am in opposition to all of that. Our goal is to promote being ‘outsiders’, not just tolerate or accept outsiders.
- That’s what I think of as this particular kind of ‘being in’ in Kristiansand. And church is somewhere to hang out. When I was married I lived at [neighbourhood], and even if I didn’t try to fit into any church… It was like, all the neighbours went to different churches—they have more churches than trees there—so it was like, “which church do you go to?” […] And all the parents in our street went to bible groups, and were like “if you want, you can join our bible group”… And they go to Bible camps […] so all the kids know each other through that. So, it’s not only that they go to the same school, but they also go to the same church or congregation.
In addition to support from the Department of Child and Adolescent Mental Health, the Free
podcast has been given a one-hour slot on the local radio station, as well as occasional live broadcasts (with a live audience) from the Theatre, a recently opened venue in an old theatre building. The managing director is explicit about the purpose of offering them this space:
- Tor (42):
- We want to be an alternative cultural venue. For many, the term ‘alternative’ has a negative ring to it, but for me it’s something positive […] We want to be a space for those who don’t drive in the middle of the road, so to speak. And that’s exactly what we do. We had Free there for a live podcast, for instance, we want to be there for that particular social segment as well as all the other niches.
At the Free
podcast’s first live-show from the Theatre, one central topic of discussion was Heidi’s ironic use of Christian idiom and mock swearing on the podcast. During an interview, she describes it as a way of reacting against her former religious background. Elisabeth added:
- [W]e’ve had lots of feedback from other detractors from Christian groups, about making episodes dedicated specifically to that topic. Because they feel that Heidi [because she is so outspoken and secure in herself] is not representative of how difficult it might be to leave [a religious group]. For many, it’s really complicated.
Creating an alternative community apart from the dominant Evangelical culture is one of the podcast’s primary goals.
- […] That’s the point of us working with ABUP as well. We target young people who don’t fit in, we talk about body positivity, self-worth… for young parents, especially young mothers.
- At least we’re trying to illustrate an alternative […] Many contact us and ask to be part of the ‘community’ […]