Islam and Multiculturalism Under Attack

July 26, 2011
The Muslims of Norway
Islam and Multiculturalism Under Attack
Shoaib Sultan
SHOAIB SULTAN, the former Secretary General of the Islamic Council of
Norway, is running as the Green Party candidate in Norway’s upcoming
elections.
Last Friday’s terrorist attacks by Anders Behring Breivik against
Norway’s central government district and a political youth camp of the
Labor Party targeted not only the Norwegian political system but the
very idea behind Norway’s multicultural society and, in particular,
the place of Muslims within it.
Muslim immigrants, mainly from Morocco, Pakistan, and Turkey, first
began arriving in Norway in the late 1960s and early 1970s in search of
employment. Norway did not actively recruit Muslims, as Germany and
other European countries did, but the arrival of these so-called guest
workers coincided with a growing need for labor. Although the Norwegian
government halted work-related immigration in 1975, immigrants continued
to arrive throughout the next decade by seeking family reunification and
political asylum from oppressive Muslim-majority countries. During the
1990s, Norway welcomed a large influx of Muslim refugees from various
conflicts, including the Gulf War and the struggle in the Balkans that
followed.
The Muslims in Norway are highly diverse, hailing from a wide range of
geographical and religious backgrounds. Norwegian Muslims seem to have
integrated more effectively and in less time than Muslims in other
Western European countries. They have close relations with other
minority groups and are engaged in the society at large. They are active
in the country’s political parties and cover the entire political
spectrum, but tilt toward the ruling Labor Party because its
socio-economic positions benefit them more than other parties’
policies do. As in most other Western European countries, Muslims in
Norway are typically middle-class or lower, but an increasing number of
them are entering higher education. There are now more than 100,000
Muslims in Norway and over 100 mosques, making the Norwegian Muslim
community small but vibrant by European standards.
The growth of Norway’s Muslim community has created tensions with the
country’s native population. In recent years, some non-Muslim
Norwegians have raised concerns about the Muslim traditions of
circumcising newborn males, slaughtering animals according to Islamic
dietary laws, and, for women, wearing a hijab. These practices, not
native to Norway, have been exploited by Norway’s right-wing parties
to feed fears of a Muslim encroachment on the country’s way of life.
In the election campaign of 1987, for example, the leader of the
right-wing Progress Party, Carl I. Hagen, publicized a purported letter
from a Muslim citizen that foretold a Muslim takeover of Norway. The
letter was later proven to be a forgery, but the party enjoyed
unprecedented success in those elections. It has used anxieties about
the Muslim community to its advantage in several elections since then.
The Gulf War sparked further suspicions about the Muslim community.
Norway’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam
Hussein led some Norwegians to see Muslims as a disloyal fifth column.
Norwegian journalists discovered that the State Bank had fired Muslim
cleaning staff because it saw them as a security risk. Several years
later, during the Bosnia conflict, there were calls in Norwegian
newspapers to support the Serbians, arguing that they were defending
Europe from Islamic conquest. Anti-Muslim sentiment in Norway reached
new heights after the 9/11 attacks. Suspicion of the Muslim community
spread from the right-wing fringe to the political center. A politician
from the Christian Democratic Party proposed banning Muslims from
broadcasting the Islamic call to prayer in public. Another former
parliamentarian for the Conservative Party wrote a book in which he
accused Muslims of trying to take over the country by deliberately
increasing birthrates.
Whereas previous verbal assaults on Muslims were often nakedly racist
and antiquated, referencing the old “Muhammadan” threat to conquer
Europe, a more sophisticated bigotry against Muslims has emerged over
the last several years. The anti-Muslim rhetoric does not make reference
to race or color but instead turns to Muslim scripture to find passages
to show that Islam is an evil religion. Critics of Islam also cite
former Muslims who have left the community and now call it dangerous.
Those who accept these claims without questioning them or attempting to
find out more become scared that Muslims are aiming to overtake Norway.
These more insidious attempts to raise fears about Muslims are often
part of a broader critique of Norway’s multicultural society. Critics
of Muslims argue that multiculturalism has failed and point to the
Muslim community as the reason for its failure. For example, Christian
Tybring-Gjedde, the leader of the Progress Party in Oslo and a member of
the National Assembly, wrote in a recent op-ed that the Norwegian
government has stabbed Norwegian culture in the back by importing
“multiculture.” He and others condemn Muslims for failing to
integrate properly and see a multicultural society, which allows Muslims
to keep their traditions, as a policy designed by the government to
eradicate Norwegian culture.
Anonymous forums on the Internet have allowed anti-Muslim bigots to
connect and reinforce each other’s worldview. Breivik participated in
many such forums and wrote about a coming war in Europe to remove Islam
and Muslims from the continent. Indeed, there are several Norwegian
anti-Muslim groups on the Internet, including Stop Islamization of
Norway. The most successful entity is the blog document.no, which
combines a conservative outlook with criticism of Islam. Breivik was
active commenting on the blog, but felt that while he shared its
worldview, it refused to promote violence. As a result, he embarked on
his own mission.
Despite this anti-Muslim turn in Norway, the country’s political
establishment has sought to promote dialogue with the Muslim community,
including Muslims in hearings in the policymaking process. The
government also funds an inter-religious council that addresses and
advises regarding policies that affect religious minorities.
Anti-Muslim voices have strongly criticized these outreach efforts. The
current leader of the Progress Party, Siv Jensen, has argued that these
efforts permit the creeping Islamization of Norwegian society. "The
reality,” she said, “is that people are now in the process of
allowing a form of sneak-Islamization in this society and we must put a
stop to that." Jensen sees any concession given to Muslims as proof of
the Muslim takeover. Although her party does not condone violence, its
anti-Muslim rhetoric encourages hatred, which can breed violence.
In the aftermath of the attacks this past week, it was feared that
Norway would move to increase security and perhaps pass a law similar to
the Patriot Act in the United States. Yet instead of demanding more
control and greater security, the country’s political leadership has
participated in large public meetings with minimal security, sending the
signal that Norway will not let terror dictate the country’s behavior.
And when initial stories about the attacks last week implicated Muslims,
the Norwegian media did not jump to conclusions. These are early and
encouraging signs that Muslims will continue to integrate and feel
welcome in Norway.

Person of interest: