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Celebrating Norwegian Christianity – With a Muslim Imam

Olavsfestdagene – Olav's Days – is a festival held annually in Trondheim, Norway, and named for the eleventh-century Norwegian king Olav II, also known as St. Olav. Identified both with the unification and the Christianization of Norway, Olav became the nation's patron saint soon after his death. His day of celebration is July 29, and the Olav's Days festival always takes place some time around then.

Suitably, the event has historically centered on Norwegian national identity, Norwegian culture, Norwegian history, and the Christian faith as embodied in the Church of Norway. Which is why one of the highlights of this year's festival was an hour-long televised discussion, held outside Nidaros Cathedral, that would purportedly address the question “Does the world need a new Martin Luther?” But the real topic turned out to be something rather different.

The moderator was Tomm Kristiansen of Norwegian Broadcasting; the other participants included theologian Tarald Rasmussen, author Edvard Hoem, and Bishop Helga Haugland Byfuglien, all of whom are in their sixties or seventies, as well as TV personality Are Sende Osen, a man of forty-six. At the beginning, these all had their turn, each talking for a minute or two about Luther's place in Christian and Norwegian history and about people today who might possibly be compared with him.

When those four were finished, Kristiansen, with a flourish, announced that it was his honor to introduce the final member of the panel – Sherin Khankan, a female imam from Copenhagen. She appeared to be an ethnic Dane, slim and pretty (she turned out to be the daughter of a Finnish mother and a Syrian father); her long brown hair was uncovered and she was wearing a long white robe that made her look more like a Church of Norway priest than an imam. She is forty-two, but looks much younger.

After Kristiansen introduced Khankan, the sizable audience, consisting mostly of older folks, presumably active Christians, broke into a hearty round of applause – something they hadn't done for any of the other guests.

“Can Muslims learn from Luther?” Kristiansen asked Khankan. Her answer: yes. Luther had inspired her, she claimed, to believe that it's possible for a small group of people to break with the status quo in religious institutions and to challenge patriarchal structures. Just as Luther insisted on returning to the Bible, thereby helping to usher in the modern world, she, at the all-female Sufi mosque she founded in Copenhagen, has “gone back to the source, the Koran, and that is our reform.”

Nobody – nobody! – challenged her view of the Koran, that sewer of hate, as the perfect guidebook for modernizing, anti-patriarchal reform. Khankan also mentioned and denounced Luther's anti-Semitism, while neglecting to mention the Jew-hatred that saturates the Koran. Kristiansen invited the audience to applaud her again. They did.