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”,
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
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
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
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
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
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
On the confrontational
side, we have for some time witnessed a growing alliance between Charismatic
Christians and the right-wing populist party in
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 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
I think it was at this
point that some liberal authors and media people in
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
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
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
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
That is my view, which is – of course – debatable.