Liberal Muslims in Norway Call for Free Speech Demonstration

I didn’t know that liberal Muslims in Norway had finally managed to form their own group -- which goes by the name LIM -- though it has been known for a while that some gutsy efforts have been made in this direction. For I am in no doubt that there are liberal Muslims in Norway -- in fact, I am less in doubt about this than I was a few years ago. Indeed there seem to be more and more of them. To this I say, with hope, "Hurrah!" At the same time, I believe that it is the less liberal Muslims, and especially the criticism that has been directed at them (and for their failure on this score, most of the media should be ashamed of themselves), that have gotten more and more Muslims to declare themselves liberal. Not that I think all "liberal Muslims" will be able to be brought together in a single group: they’re too diverse for that. But I am pleased to see that the hegemony of the illiberal Muslims is finally being broken.

Since the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 Islam-related cartoons in 2005, the debate has been loud and long, if not very broad, as to whether it should be permitted to caricature and criticize the prophet Muhammed and Islam. On one side are those who defend such publication on the basis of freedom of speech and the possibility that such criticism might contribute to the development of Islam; on the other side are those who argue that such publication wounds and insults the world’s approximately 1.5 billion Muslims. I belong to the first group and have never understood what seems to me an idée fixe -- namely, that somebody’s claim to have been offended should be taken to apply to all of the Muslims in the world. Case in point: the editor in chief of the online newspaper Nettavisen, Gunnar Stavrum, who, under the headline "Is It Brave to Offend Muslims?,” asked his readers whether Nettavisen should publish the Muhammed cartoons. So far Stavrum has received 325 replies -- and a quick perusal of them suggests that the readers feel that Nettavisen, and all other media that report on stories relating to the Muhammed cartooons, should publish the drawings they’re writing about. And not because it’s brave to offend Muslims, but because it is totally misguided to believe that such publication offends all Muslims. Indeed, to believe this is to offend Muslims.

It was not wrong that the cartoons of Muhammed were published, and in any case this doesn’t justify violence.  Muslims have as much interest in defending freedom of speech as anyone else.  Therefore Muslims should also support Kurt Westergaard.

So says Shakil Rehman, spokesman for the LIM (which stands for the Norwegian words for Equality, Integration, Diversity), to the newspaper Klassekampen. Rehman is hoping for a reaction from the Islamic Council of Norway (IRN) after one of the Muhammed cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard, was attacked with an ax in his home on New Year’s Day. The LIM has challenged the IRN to arrange a demonstration in support of free speech. If the IRN doesn’t do so, the LIM will:

I’m afraid that they won’t take up our challenge, because they don’t want to lose face in the Muslim world. But if they support freedom of speech, they must also be able to show that they mean it in practice.

In all likelihood, Rehman’s suspicions that the IRN will give its proposal a thumbs-down are correct, precisely for the reason he mentions. Of course the IRN would lose face in "the Muslim world" -- namely, in that world that is qualified to control and direct how the world’s Muslims should conduct themselves. Moreover, if they held such a demo, they would be giving up their most important tool -- namely, the assertion that they have been offended.

Rehman himself supports the publication of the cartoons (can it be that he’s the only Muslim in the world who does?), and he also believes that Muslim leaders who oppose their publication have misunderstood the situation.

Muhammed didn’t want to be depicted, because he didn’t want to be turned into a false god. When Muslims believe that depictions of the prophet insult him, then they are turning him into just such a false god. There should thus be no reason not to caricature him. I would go so far as to say that Muslim leaders are unqualified.

Surely the IRN couldn’t care less about Rehman’s claim that Muslim leaders are unqualified, because in their eyes Rehman doesn’t belong to "the Muslim world." In that world, only the "qualified" can say what is right and wrong.

But when Rehman serves up his politically incorrect argument about the ban on depicting Muhammed, Klassekampen’s reporter is "helpful," suggesting that the main issue in question is that the cartoon strongly links Muhammed to violence:

"Maybe they’re reacting mostly to the strong connotations of violence?”

"He was also a commander of an army.  It is one of his bad sides. We must be able to criticize this. Muhammed mustn’t be so holy that we can’t criticize him,” Rehman says.

It’s great that Rehman doesn’t deny Muhammed’s role as a military leader, but what is more significant is that Klassekampen continues to present untruths about the message of the cartoons. The cartoon that has become the most famous, and that has been most strongly linked to violence, is of course Westergaard’s drawing of Muhammed with the bomb in his turban. I don’t know how many times Westergaard has explained that the picture is meant to symbolize all those who resort to violence in Muhammed’s name -- that is to say, by abusing his name -- which is diametrically the opposite of what Westergaard’s critics repeatedly represent his message to be. When you look at it this way, all of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims should applaud the cartoon.

Rehman is also receiving support from the Socialist Left politician Hamsa Mohamed. Mohamed was against the publication of the Muhammed cartoons in 2005, but he has now changed his mind. Hurrah again:

”For me, it’s entirely OK now. I don’t react as strongly as I did before. In the aftermath, I can see that the Muslim reaction has been unnecessarily strong. Cartoons are drawn all over the world,” says Mohamed.

(I have chosen to overlook the fact that this same Mohamed has just returned from spending his Christmas vacation in Hargeisa, Somalia, even though he, or his family, have presumably been granted Norwegian residence because they supposedly cannot live in Somalia.)

Mohamed is willing, moreover, to take part in a demonstration in support of freedom of speech, but he is not comfortable with the idea of taking part in a demo exclusively dedicated to supporting Westergaard. "Nonetheless, he thinks that it is now important to correct the image that has been created by the tragic event in Århus” (my emphasis). What he means by "the image that has been created" is not particularly clear to me. A man breaking into Westergaard’s home with an ax, and being armed as well with a knife, is an "image” that pretty much creates itself. Yes, perhaps he is just a confused Somali and a Muslim who, moreover, enjoys the support of the group al-Shabaab -- factors that are perhaps relevant here, and are, in that case, precisely the factors that should be discussed.

But there will not be much discussion of these matters in Norway unless the IRN agrees to sponsor a demo in support of Westergaard and freedom of speech. Shoaib Sultan, secretary general of the IRN, told the NTB news service that they "will make a decision about a demo for free speech and against violence in the usual manner, but there are no plans to arrange anything."

"If the main slogan is the same as in 2006, ’Respect freedom of speech, no to violence and threats,’ then we’ll support it," says Sultan.

Yes, that’s what the IRN’s Sultan says -- and as everyone remembers, the IRN did not take part in the 2006 demo, either.

So there it is. The message to LIM, and to all other Muslims who don’t consider themselves to fall entirely under the umbrella of the IRN, is quite simply this: the floor is yours.

This article originally appeared in Norwegian on the website of Human Rights Service, www.rights.no, and was translated into English by Bruce Bawer.