I knew this, of course. As Ayatollah Khomeini himself put it, “There is no fun in Islam.” In our own time, this fact has been illustrated by a besieged Jyllands-Posten, a vandalized Norwegian embassy in Islamabad, and the bombed-out Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo after it published an issue with the Prophet Muhammed as “guest editor.” But to experience at close quarters, in the same room, face to face, the reactions of young Islamists when their religion is mocked is an entirely different experience than to witness these reactions in the media.
After Soliman showed the drawings from rights.no on using an overhead projector, the mood in the auditorium remained heated for over two hours. It felt as if Soliman had thrown a matchbox at the audience with the message: you know what the Prophet did to people like this, don’t you?
Then it was time for Q. & A. They didn’t hold back, and the questions were pretty hateful. I tried to give sensible answers and to provide history lessons. For example, I pointed out that we have a tradition in the West of satirizing another religion, Christianity, a tradition that over time lifted our society up into freedom and prosperity — a freedom and prosperity that I so passionately want the Muslim world to enjoy as well. I noted that perhaps the most important event in twentieth-century Norway, in this context, was the 1933 blasphemy trial of author Arnulf Øverland, who had given a high-profile lecture entitled “Christianity — the Tenth Plague.” He was acquitted, and no one has been tried for blasphemy in Norway since.
My words fell on deaf ears.
Satire of Islam was, by definition, an expression of hatred for all Muslims, including innocent Muslim children. Period.
Soliman’s principal message was that in Islam, you can find the whole of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights — and more besides. It is not just a matter of rights. Islam is, after all, bound up with the divine Koran, which, needless to say, supersedes any worldly declaration. Soliman defended his claims with a series of Koranic verses. He carefully selected the good bits. He didn’t go near the not-so-good bits. Nor did he mention that the often brutal passages dating back to Muhammed’s later years in power are regarded as canceling out the often kinder and gentler verses from his younger days.
You would probably have to look long and hard to find a setting where the “we vs. they” attitude is more intense. This attitude is so prominent that those of us who fall into the category of “the others” experience a sense of exclusion so strong that the feeling of human isolation becomes overwhelming. Many students explicitly articulated discriminatory and racist sentiments. Two young women held placards singling out my organization, Human Rights Service (HRS), for condemnation. One of them read: ”No to hatred. No to HRS.” The other: ”Norway: stop funding HRS’ racism.” They seem unaware that they themselves exclude others and place themselves above non-Muslims. They also appear incapable of imagining that a person such as myself is, in fact, deeply concerned with the inviolability of the individual, and that I long to have intimate and real conversations with unique individuals, conversations held in complete confidentiality and with mutual respect. To them, such an idea is, apparently, completely absurd.
Encountering such a faith community doesn’t just make you feel isolated. It makes you uneasy — about the future.
I should mention that when I asserted that there are many ways to practice Islam, I was shouted down by the entire audience. There was only one Islam — the Islam in which every word of sharia is a living reality. I also need to add this: when the master of ceremonies first presented Soliman, Gule, and me to the audience, Soliman and Gule were given long and respectful introductions, while I was described in a few brief sentences and labeled an “Islamophobe.”
One reporter, Åse Cathrine Myrtveit of NRK P2 radio, found her way to the event. She wasn’t allowed to turn on her tape recorder. (Nor was I given permission to photograph the auditorium.) That no other major media were represented there is as unsettling as the fact that “heads will roll in our streets.” Is it that the media do not take the students seriously? Do they see these young people as having been infected by an ideological influenza that they’ll eventually shake off?
But there were two others in the auditorioum who took the ideological revival seriously. When, because of an illness, I threw in the towel after three hours, they rushed over to me at the exit in the lobby. A woman and a man. He was dressed like a rocker. They were Oslo police in civilian garb. They escorted me to my car, “for security’s sake.”
In the car on the way home my thoughts turned to the Norwegian minister of integration, Audun Lysbakken, who is determined to intensify the effort to overcome discrimination and racism — against people with immigrant backgrounds. It is the challenge of our time, apparently. Lysbakken might have had a wake-up call — yes, perhaps even experienced an awakening — at Oslo University College that evening.
But I have a gnawing doubt that he will change his worldview and see “the New Norway” as it really is.