Dr. Michal Rachel Suissa is a Jewish Amazigh (Berber) refugee from Morocco, working as an associate professor in medicinal chemistry at University College of Oslo. She regularly lectures and has written many articles on minorities in the Middle East, human rights in the Muslim world, and the use of religion as a weapon against Jews and minorities. She is the director of the Center Against Anti-Semitism (CAA) and the editor of the quarterly magazine SMA-Info on Israel and Anti-Semitism. I asked her a few question regarding racism, anti-Semitism, and Islam in Norway.
Does Norway have a racism problem?
Suissa: Racist or xenophobic political parties do not exist in Norway. We may identify some individual examples of racist behavior, racist comments in the media, and even racist violence and murders committed by individuals, but these cases do not have an organized character and should not be considered as a particular Norwegian phenomenon. On the contrary, comparing with other countries, the low level of such behavior in Norway has been more striking.
Several churches were burned down in the 1990s. Can we call that religiously motivated violence?
Suissa: As far as we know, all church fires resulting from arson in Norway were committed by people with connections to a Satanistic or “Black Metal” milieu. The majority of the cases were solved and the culprits have been sentenced. In my opinion, this has nothing to do with the recent atrocities.
Has there been a public discussion about Muslim immigration?
Suissa: Immigration is a topic that has been discussed in Norway for many years, as in other countries. Occasionally there may be a reference to Muslim immigration, but this generally has to do with a perceived low level of integration or assimilation into Norwegian society by some Muslims; in particular, Muslim women. Even Muslim leaders and spokesmen have made critical comments about Muslim practices of marriage and such phenomena as cousin marriage, genital mutilation, and honor killing.
But I see no difference between Norway and other Western countries in this respect. In my experience, the majority of Norwegians definitely favor cultural and ethnic diversity within the common liberal constitutional polity they have created in this country, but in a way that safeguards hard acquired basic rights and values of their own constitutional democracy, such as equal rights for women and gays, freedom of critical expression, etc.
Is there a clash of opinions about these issues?
Suissa: There is no way to deny that there have been verbal confrontations over issues of this kind with local proponents of Islam. This kind of debate may be rather difficult in Norway, as the risk of being labeled a racist or “Islamophobic” by the media and some Muslims is very high. I have not observed similar debates with Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs or other religious groups. I do not experience Norwegian society as “muslimophobic” at all, but I do see how concerned people are when it comes to political values brought to Norway by some Muslim immigrants, such as circumcision of girls, forced cousin marriage, and the support of death sentences for homosexuals. Open warnings and threats from fundamentalist Muslims have also been a part of this picture.
What’s the role of the media?
Suissa: An undebated problem is that Norway has practically no completely free mass media, as they are all financially supported on an annual basis by the government and therefore have an observable tendency to echo politically correct opinions. As it is not politically correct to criticize any aspect of Islam, anyone who dares to address simple questions like: “How long can we turn a blind eye to the fact that Mecca is still a forbidden city for non-Muslims, while the number of mosques in Norway is growing like mushrooms after the rain?” is guaranteed to be labeled a racist. In Norway, as in the rest of Europe, there is in effect a ban on telling the truth about these matters, and that frustrates people.
Some newspaper reports claim that anti-Semitism in Norway is extreme, even by European standards.
Suissa: There is no evidence that antisemitism is more extreme in Norway than elsewhere, although a general rectification or “Gleichschaltung” of public information and lack of alternative channels has no doubt had an effect on public opinion in a small language group. We do however have a recent public report on the presence of anti-Semitic behavior among schoolchildren, published by the municipal authorities in Oslo on June 7, 2011. It provides clear evidence that Muslim youths are overrepresented in the group mobbing Jewish schoolchildren.
The children testified that the word “Jew” has again become a common insult among pupils in Norwegian schools, and that most of the Jew-hatred is committed by Muslim pupils. Our Information Center, the CAA, has said that for years, but Norwegian authorities have tried to downplay, ignore, or otherwise remove this from public debate.
So is it Muslim immigration that is mainly responsible for the spread of anti-Semitism in Norway?
Suissa: No. Anti-Semitic attitudes, both direct and concealed, have been both created and maintained by mainstream Norwegian media, such as the state broadcasting organization NRK and Oslo’s largest newspaper Aftenposten. There are also politicians and journalists who make a career by castigating Israel at any given opportunity. This goes along with a biased and negative description of Israel’s friends in Norway, as well as a brisk support to Hamas and the PLO. Hence, radical Muslim immigrants must necessarily have noticed that their anti-Semitic and even racist attitudes are often met with significant support, direct or indirect, by Norwegian media and some political spokesmen.
In an anti-Israeli demonstration led by the Norwegian minister of finance and other left-wing notables directed against the military operation in Gaza, many young Arabs marched through the streets of Oslo chanting: “Itbah al yahood!” (Kill the Jews!). This did not occur during the Holocaust, but in January 2009 in the streets of Oslo. Norwegian and Muslim children saw their leaders walk hand-in-hand with radical Islamists. This affects people’s attitudes, and the results of this kind of leadership are summarized in the report I mentioned.
The responsibility for Jew-hatred in Norway lies with the “mind-designers” who recklessly use the media and their political platforms to distort reality and depict Jews as the world’s most dangerous people, in the words of former Prime Minister Thorbjørn Jagland (now secretary general of the Council of Europe): “If there is something that is a threat to world peace, then it is the Israeli occupation.“ Such often-repeated statements are among the unquestionable sources of Jew-hatred in Norway.
How would you describe the government’s stance toward Israel?
Suissa: Over the years it has made an easily observable u-turn. From being an ardent supporter of the young Jewish homeland and a formerly neutral peace broker in the Arab-Israeli negotiations, Norway has under its present government taken a decisive step to ally politically with the Palestinian side and to leave her former friend by the roadside. This is another aspect of Norwegian politics downplayed by the media.
One of the foremost advocates of this change of Norwegian foreign policy in recent years and the man who irreversibly took sides with the Palestinian Arabs in the conflict is Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre. His role in changing his country’s relationship with the international community has to a great extent passed without significant debate in Norway. Norwegians have been generally satisfied by living in their own growing welfare bubble, isolated from the evils of the world and very content by having their country ranked number one among countries worth living in.
What can you tell us about Gahr Støre?
Suissa: He came to political office after having been headhunted by leaders of the Labour Party. As a former career bureaucrat he also had to prove his mettle among the radical fringes of his new party. He did so by clarifying Norway’s stance towards all the parties of the conflicts of the Middle East; he was the first Western leader to recognize and establish political and economic ties to organizations like Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, and recently the Somalian terrorist organization al-Shabaab. His most important slogan is: “Dialogue.”
What does the Utoya massacre mean for Norway’s Jewish community?
Suissa: The majority of Jews in Norway try to conceal their Jewish identity. We have three very small congregations which represent a few hundred observant Jews. For the time being there is a full silence, as most Jews have reacted instinctively with fear, afraid of becoming victims of the ongoing blame game. I know this for fact, as some of them have let me know in private conversations. The media were quick to make headlines of the allegation that the murderer was “pro-Israeli.” I see this as part of the massive media propaganda to silence the “right-wing” opposition, which is also generally positive towards Israel.
Are there already any reactions to the massacre which you would describe as anti-Jewish or anti-Israel?
Suissa: I do not fear that the recent atrocities by themselves will increase anti-Semitism in Norway, and I do not see at the moment any reactions to the massacre and bombing which I would describe as anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli. I am however quite worried that the witch hunt directed against the political opposition by the largely left-wing media may make it even more difficult to express solidarity with Israel in public.
We have seen examples of anti-Israeli incitement — not the least of which came from the foreign minister — just prior to the terrorist massacre, which I fear may settle as a rock bottom “truth,” in particular among the less historically informed younger generations who were traumatized by the terrorist, and this scenario worries me a lot.
After the publication of the report on anti-Semitism in June, the minister had the courage to state that our politicians did have a responsibility for the situation, saying that: “A jargon of slang terms which may have unintended and very grave consequences, may easily take root. Those of us who have the political responsibility must talk about this and counteract such expressions.” Unfortunately, he had forgotten his own piece of good advice — as late as the day before the shooting he met his expectant colleagues with unmistakably anti-Israeli slogans, saying to his cheering young audience: “The Palestinians must have their own state. The occupation must end, the wall must be torn down, and this must happen now!”
One of the more long-term negative consequences of this brutal terrorist act in Norway is a limitation of the freedom of speech. People have become terrified of being connected to the mass-murderer, whom the media describe as a “conservative Christian fundamentalist.” This tag is sufficient to paralyze half of the Norwegian population, where the majority of the supporters of Israel and the Jews are found. At present we observe a form of slanderous media defamation of Christians which in some cases has already acquired an eerie resemblance to classical anti-Semitism. This witch hunt, spreading like a steppe fire, has already paralyzed conservative bloggers in this country, and I fear others will also suffer before the media may end up with the classical compromise of blaming the Jews.