Oddbjørn Leirvik:

The state of public debates on Islam today – a Norwegian perspective.


Prepared for the British Council conference “’From Rushdie to Jyllands-Posten’. Debating Islam in our multi-ethnic societies”, Oslo, 23 November 2006


In my contribution to this conference, I have been asked to give a Norwegian perspective of the state of public debate on Islam. When trying to address this topic together, we should remind ourselves there is no such thing as a neutral point of view on questions about religion and society. Religion-related debates should always be expected to reflect certain interests, be they religious or political, although those overarching interests might not always be spelled out. Those who present themselves as representatives of “Islam” or “Christianity” may either represent a very conservative or a very liberal interpretation of their religion, or a mainstream position in between. But also more secular minded citizens who take part in discussions about Islam have of course an agenda of their own. In cultural-political terms, the agenda of religious and secular people debating Islam can be anything on a spectrum ranging from secularism via liberal multiculturalism to various forms of religious identity politics (for instance, Christian nationalism or Islamism).

To make it easier for you to identify my own vantage point, I should emphasize that I’m not a media analyst. Neither am I merely a detached observer. I’m a theologian, with experience from (and vested interest in) Christian-Muslim dialogue at different levels. As an academic, I have a research interest in Islam and Christian-Muslim relations, and related issues of religion and society. My chair at the Faculty of Theology has got the name “Interreligious Studies”. One of the courses that I regularly teach is entitled “Islam, Christianity and the West”. The course title reflects that the encounter between Islam and Christianity takes always place in a particular context, which in our case is the West. More precisely, the encounter takes place in a European context in which Christianity has been subject to certain processes of change that should also be expected to put their mark on how European Islam will be configured.

Turning now to the role of the media, some secular-oriented newspapers in Norway have an interesting legacy of opposing religion but supporting a liberal interpretation of it. In the case of the liberal newspaper Dagbladet, the editorial approach to Christianity has traditionally been (as we say in Norwegian) “å vere mot prestar men for kvinnelege prestar”, to be against priests but in favor of female priests. Some recent examples indicate a similar approach to Islam. In 2005, the radical newspaper Klassekampen covered extensively the First International Congress on Islamic Feminism in Barcelona, under the suggestive heading of “femi-jihad”. In 2006, it was the liberals in Dagbladet who covered the second Congress on Islamic Feminism, expanding their espousal of female priests to embrace also female imams. After the Islamic feminist Amina Wadud lead Friday prayer in gender-mixed audiences in 2005, this became also a central theme of the Congress on Islamic Feminism. In 2006, Dagbladet was also able to report about a British-Pakistani woman who had convinced an imam to bless her lesbian marriage.


As a Christian who has struggled for similar developments in the churches, I really appreciate the attention paid by Norwegian media to the emergence of a distinctively liberal Islam, a tendency which will probably be as strongly opposed by conservative Muslims as it has been by conservative Christians. (By the way, last summer conservative Christian and Muslim leaders in Kristiansand, a city located in Norway’s Bible belt, published a joint appeal against homosexual marriages.)


Norwegian media’s relatively new interest in liberal developments among Muslims may help the public to realize that there is in fact a cultural struggle going on within Islam, as we have seen it for a long time in Christianity. But I sometimes wonder why not liberal Catholics’ struggle for female priests, and the rather conservative tendency that currently holds sway in the Catholic leadership in Norway, attract a similar (positive and critical) interest from the media.


As regards the position of women within religions, this has in fact been a persistent focus of Norwegian media when debating Islam. It has been noted by many that 9/11 and other terrorist attacks have had relatively weak repercussions in Norwegian media, in comparison with the constant focus on issues related to gender – be it arranged or forced marriages among Norwegian-Pakistani Muslims and in other groups, the practice of female genital mutilation (brought to Norway by the Somalis), or the never ending issue of the hijab. This reflects of course the strong emphasis on gender equality in general, in Scandinavian debates about values and interests. During the last decades, the Lutheran Church of Norway (as well as other Protestant churches) have changed their gender policies, as a combined effect of internal processes and expectations from general society. Although I realize that it must be much more difficult to face pressure from the outside when you’re part of a religious minority, I see no reason why Muslims, Jews and Catholics should not be constantly challenged by general society with regard to gender roles in their religious cultures. There are in fact many examples that Muslims in Norway have adopted gender equality as an Islamic value, as part of the emergence of a contextualized, Norwegian Islam. When in 2000 the commercial TV2 channel (by use of hidden camera) revealed that some African Muslim leaders in Norway were not sufficiently clear in their opposition to female circumcision (some of them even supported it), one of those who came out unfavorably was the then leader of the Islamic Council of Norway. As a result of painful media exposure, he decided to step down. What was the response of the Islamic Council? Their response was to elect a woman as the new leader of the Islamic Council, a historic event that has so far only taken place in feminist Norway. (Lena Larsen is present in today’s conference and may fill in my picture of how media-exposed pressure from the outside interacts with liberal processes within the Islamic community itself.)


I’m not condoning everything that has been done by Norwegian media by use of hidden cameras and microphones, often with vulnerable young Muslims as mouthpieces, and an implied anti-Islamic agenda. Neither have I any problem in understanding how desperate a young Muslim woman may feel when in public debates her hijab is always taken as an endorsement of conservative Islam or Islamism, and not simply as a sign of religious commitment. In principle, though, I will defend the liberal media’s right and duty to challenge religious cultures and faith communities from the outside. But it helps a lot if media aids the general public in understanding that most debates related to Islam are in fact intra-Muslim discussions, not a question of the Christian or secular “we” over against the Muslim “them”.


In this respect, I would like to commend the liberal-conservative newspaper Aftenposten for giving ample space to both conservative and critical Muslim voices, and to Muslim feminists with and without a headscarf. Although Aftenposten has recently been criticized for having given too much space to “Islam against the West”-rhetoric, my general impression is still that of a rather balanced presentation of Muslim plurality in Norway.


In general, I would argue that televised debates about Islam constitute in fact a much bigger problem than newspaper debates. I agree with the argument that was recently put forward by Lars Gule in Aftenposten, namely that the state-run Norwegian Broadcasting Company and the commercial TV2 channel compete in giving the general public an impression of a religious war going on. We know of course the logic of televised debates, which feed on the confrontational approach of certain people who are repeatedly called upon to create a maximum of havoc in studio. As Gule rightly notes, participants with a more nuanced approach feel also pressurized to be simplistic and polemical in these settings. To make things worse, both our national TV-channels compete in calling upon the basest instincts of the general public by inviting people to post their prejudiced sms-messages which function literally as the bottom line of these warlike discussions. What is it good for?


As a person who has invested some time in trust-building dialogue between the religions in this country, I really blame the television companies for aiding the most confrontational tendencies on both sides, instead of contributing to a critical and enlightening dialogue about the complex reality of Islam and the West. TV-channels should really learn from the mainline newspapers in this respect, although we are of course speaking of very different media here and television people seem always inclined towards exploiting the polemical power of images.


So far, I haven’t said a single word about the cartoon controversy. It is now due time to address it, and comment on the new alliance between secular liberals, neo-conservative Christians, and right-wing politicians that have been struck in connection with the cartoons. Initially, the cartoon controversy took on very different forms in Denmark and Norway. Whereas in Denmark, it was one of the country’s largest newspaper Jyllands-Posten that commissioned and published the cartoons, in Norway it was a small magazine of the New Christian Right (Magazinet) that made it an issue to republish the cartoons – in order (so they said) to test limits imposed by Islamists on freedom of expression in Europe. In my analysis, the cartoon issue demonstrates both the emergence of a more confrontational discourse on Islam in Norway, and the strength of country’s culture of dialogue.


On the confrontational side, we have for some time witnessed a growing alliance between Charismatic Christians and the right-wing populist party in Norway, Fremskrittspartiet (the “Progress Party”) which during 2006 grew to become the country’s largest party according to polls. When interviewed during the cartoon crisis, the editor of Magazinet, Vebjørn Selbekk, made no secret of his political sympathies for Fremskrittspartiet. In the summer of 2004, the chairman of Fremskrittspartiet Carl I. Hagen visited one of the largest Charismatic congregations in Norway, Levende Ord (“The Living Word”) in Bergen. On this occasion, he launched a malicious attack on Muhammad, applauded by his Christian audience when implying that Islam is essentially a violent religion. Later in the same year, Carl I. Hagen was seen in a TV-debate advertising a book published by Youth With a Mission, another mouthpiece of the New Christian Right as I see it. I’m referring to the book Islam and terrorism by a Christian convert from Islam, Mark C. Gabriel, who in his book puts forward the conventional argument about Islam as an inherently violent religion, adding to it conspiracy theories meant to warn Christians against dialogue-seeking Muslims who must be suspected of hiding their real agenda which is taking control of the West. (This has probably been one of the best-selling books about Islam during the last few years.)


I could have mentioned more examples, but there is in fact ample evidence for a rhetorical and political alliance between the Christian Right and the populist political Right in Norway. Internationally, we see similar alliances in the US –  grouped around a composite agenda of neo-conservative foreign policy (including support for the invasion of Iraq); solidarity with the right wing in Israel; family values (which means in practice resistance to homosexual partnership); and confrontation of Islam as a threat to the Christian West. When challenged by me in Aftenposten, Magazinet’s editor Selbekk readily admitted his inspiration from the New Christian Right in the US.


In the Norwegian context, the neo-conservative tendency takes often the form of Christian nationalism, as can be seen from recent developments in the rhetoric of Fremskrittspartiet. Carl I. Hagen’s speech to the Living Word audience in 2004 was probably the first example of him using the expression “we Christians”.


It is also interesting to note that more or less parallel in time to the cartoon controversy, a number of bloggers and website editors with a critical approach to immigration and Islam (such as honestthinking.org) have made their voices heard more loudly than before. Aided by alarmist books such as Bruce Bawer’s While Europe slept, they claim that totalitarian Islamism is the dominant tendency within European Islam and warn against a demographic takeover of Europe by Muslims in the course of this century.


Given the centrality of anti-Islamic discourses in neo-conservative circles, it should be no surprise that neo-conservatives have felt a need to assert themselves more strongly in debates about Islam (in opposition to the alleged discursive hegemony of the multiculturalists). What is more surprising is the fact that many secular-minded liberals have voiced their support of Magazinet’s brave defense of freedom of expression, out of fear for illiberal tendencies in European Islam. Celebrating the anniversary of Jyllands-Posten’s caricatures, both the Norwegian Broadcasting Company and TV2 published uncritical portraits of editor Selbekk, portraying him as a hero of liberal values who has faced numerous death threats from Islamists.


So far, I have focused on conservative Christian and secular position as exposed in connection with the cartoon crisis. What about the role of Norwegian Muslims, and how were they seen by media during the crisis?


In the first phases of the cartoon crisis, I think it is fair to say that Norwegian Muslims received much sympathy from both the general public, mainstream media, and the politicians. Differently from Denmark, where the Danish government simply refused to speak with the Muslims, the Norwegian government invited the Islamic Council to be their partner in crisis management. Mediated by the Christian democrats and supported by the government, a public reconciliation was staged between the editor of Magazinet and the Islamic Council. On the initiative of the Islamic Council and financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Muslim-Christian delegations were sent to the Middle East and to Pakistan in order to appease Muslim reactions internationally, by explaining Norwegian positions and demonstrating the Norwegian culture of dialogue.


I think it was at this point that some liberal authors and media people in Norway decided that they’d already had their fill of Islamic influence in this country. Who do the Muslims think they are? Have Norwegian newspapers gotten the Islamic Council as an additional editor on their shoulders, to decide what should be printed or not and (if Muslim feelings have been hurt) whom should be forgiven or not? And why do Christian leaders bow their necks and travel with their Muslim counterparts to visit Yusuf al-Qaradawi, as if his voice and the opinion of international Islamists deserved to be heard in a national controversy? (In addition, both press people and the general public felt offended by a remark uttered to Al-Jazeera by the chairman of the Islamic Council, right after the reconciliation with editor Selbekk: “Unfortunately, freedom of expression is their religion”.)


On the domestic scene, the Islamic Council worked really hard to prevent angry demonstrations in the street. Although no less than 46 imams joined the Islamic Council in warning against demos, some 1000 people took to the streets of Oslo, with a rather troubling combination of slogans saying “Freedom of expression is telling the truth” and “Islam is the truth”. The manifestation reflected rather conservative Muslim attitudes, with a separate section for women at the rear end of a demostration which could on a whole be taken as a sign of more confrontational attitudes among some younger Muslims in Norway.


As for the Islamic Council, which advised against the demonstration, it could be that the dialogical approach of the Council is out of tune with the frustrated feelings of young Muslims who (rightly or wrongly) feel that public debates about Islam in Norway are on verge of becoming as much infected by Islamophobia as we’ve seen it in Denmark and the Netherlands.


On the leadership level, however, we have in fact been able to build a solid fundament of trust between Muslim leaders, church leaders, representatives of other faith communities, and mainstream politicians (with the notable exception of Fremskrittspartiet). As far as Christian-Muslim relations are concerned, trust-building dialogue has been going on for at least 15 years, symbolized by the national Contact Group between the Church of Norway and the Islamic Council, and supported by local initiatives. In the Contact Group, we have been able to address all sorts of controversial questions in an atmosphere of calm and trust. This autumn, the issues of homosexuality and conversion are on our commonly agreed agenda.


On numerous occasions, church leaders have also warned against the Islamophobia of the political right. When the cartoon crisis broke out, Christian and Muslim leaders were able to immediately formulate a joint appeal in which they supported freedom of expression, warned against all kinds of violent reactions to provocative utterances, and called for moral responsibility in how we use the right we have to express ourselves freely.


The moral question of how we portray the faith of the other is a shared responsibility between Christians, Muslims and secular citizens. But in my view, the main responsibility rests always upon those with cultural power in any given context. In Norway, those in discursive power are either secular people or Christians of different inclinations. In Muslim majority societies, the reverse is the case, Christians and secularists being often the most vulnerable ones.


If you allow me, I will conclude my presentation by a normative note on the three competing tendencies that I have identified in and behind current debates on Islam in Norway.


  1. The dialogical tendency has fostered a climate of trust between religious leaders and more recently, between religious leaders and politicians in Norway. Those who represent the culture of dialogue must now defend it against neo-conservatives and hardcore liberals who see “dialogue” as a sign of weakness.


  1. The confrontational approach taken by Fremskrittspartiet in alliance with the New Christian Right is being applauded by a good number of citizens who voice their anger towards Muslims through blogs and other media that invite confrontation. The confrontational approach is shared by estranged Muslims and radical Islamists who want a tougher rhetoric against the Christian West. These tendencies feed on each other, and must be resisted by all people of good will.


  1. As for the liberal forces in society, one thing that could be hoped for is a more general realization of the dangers inherent in religious identity politics, not only when it comes in the form of Islamism but also in the shape of Christian nationalism. Instead of striking tactical alliances with neo-conservatives, liberal-minded people in the media and elsewhere should rather support the forces of liberal reform within the religions. 


That is my view, which is – of course – debatable.