Saturday, July 30, 2011
Norway's Muslims in Unwanted Spotlight
The mosque of the Minhaj ul-Quran movement in this town south of Oslo is not much more than an anonymous space in a bland commercial centre.
It has been mostly unnoticed but its board has nevertheless started to worry about security in the aftermath of the attacks in Norway, especially with Ramadan and Eid al Fitr coming up.
"Before, we never thought about it but now, I think everybody thinks about this. Yes, we will discuss security," said the imam of the mosque, Noor Ahmad Noor, on Thursday, almost a week after the attacks that killed 76 people in nearby Oslo and on the island of Utoeya. "Even the government will now think about not letting so many people gather without the protection of guards, the police or the army."
Norway's Muslim community, estimated at 200,000 people out of a population of almost five million, has been thrust into an unwelcome spotlight by the attacks, even though no Muslim was involved and up to 10 of the victims may have been Muslim.
The extreme anti-Muslim views of the attacker, Anders Behring Breivik, are ensuring that the debate about immigration and integration in Norway will rage on. And, while society for now is pulling together, many worry that ultimately the focus will come to rest on the Muslims and their role in Norwegian society.
"When we wake up from this shock and there is a return to normalcy, there will be a discussion on what is integration and what is it not," said Tore Lindhom, an expert on integration at the University of Oslo's Norwegian Centre for Human Rights.
He argued that Norway's Muslims are on the whole quite well integrated, when weighing criteria such as obeying the laws, speaking the language and being employed. He said that many who criticise the minority expect assimilation rather than integration. "Do we expect them to do exactly as Norwegians do? Whatever that means. But that is not integration."
If political participation is a mark of integration, then Norway's Muslims seem very well adapted. The Labour Party youth summer camp on Utoeya emphasises values such as multiculturalism and anti-racism. Even so, children with a Muslim background were well represented. Between 60 and 70 of the 650 youths at the camp reportedly were Muslim.
The 27-year old Muslim Labour MP Hadia Tajik is a veteran of the summer camp and is now described as a rising star by her party colleagues. She left the island shortly before the shooting started. Speaking outside the Labour Party headquarters in Oslo, she called the killings, "an attack on Norway's openness".
She was fierce in her defence of Norway as a harmonious country where Muslims and others get along relatively well. "It is a land of opportunities. It has given me and many other youngsters from immigrant backgrounds so many opportunities and that says much more about the country than the acts of this person."
Her views were echoed by Mehtab Afsar, general secretary of the mainstream Islamic Council of Norway. "Norway is the best country in Europe for Muslims to live in," he said while paying his respects to the victims in Oslo's cathedral, the Domkirke.
He was not worried about an increased focus on Muslims but thought that the debate on integration would be easier now. "The ugly tone which the debate had a few times, that ugliness will now disappear from the debates."
In Drammen, imam Ahmad Noor too was confident that the situation for Muslims would actually improve, but his argument was rather more sombre. He argued that now, finally, the extremism of the anti-Muslim fringe has been exposed. "This thinking was underground and the government and the parties never addressed it," he said. Now they will not have a choice but to meet the problem head on, he added.
He heard about the attack first just after Friday prayers, immediately after the bomb in Oslo went off. He and his congregants worried about the identity of the attacker. "Our second emotion after all the grief and sadness was maybe he was Muslim." He said that everybody went home and stayed indoors until the identity of the attacker became clear.
"This is bad but if it had been a Muslim it would have been a very critical situation for all the Muslims living here," said the imam. Even as it was, in the few hours after the bomb, before it was established that the attacker was a white Norwegian, a few incidents were reported of angry Norwegians harassing people in the immigrant quarter Groenland in Oslo.
Mr Ahmad Noor's movement, Minhaj ul-Haq, aims at openness and coexistence and has unequivocally taken a stance against terrorism. His movement celebrates Christmas with Christians and invites priests to join it in celebrating the birthday of the Prophet. After hearing of the attack on Utoeya, he and several colleagues rushed to the nearby town to offer his services to both Muslim and other families of victims.
"Everybody was very happy to see us there," he said, both Muslims and Christians. "To the Muslims we emphasised the Quran; to Christians we talked more about passages from the New Testament."
But the picture of harmony and Muslim integration only goes so far, warned Mr Lindholm. There are frictions over such issues as demands made by some Muslim parents over segregation at some school activities or over the way blonde Norwegian women get treated as they were prostitutes in some areas with a large Muslim presence.
"There are such conflicts, some such irritations," said Mr Lindholm. "It would be amazing if there were no such things. But on the other hand, does this lead to crime and harassment? I don't think very much."