Celebrating Norwegian Christianity – With a Muslim Imam

Celebrating Norwegian Christianity – With a Muslim Imam
Sherin Khankan poses for photographs during the international cultural meeting 'Biennale della Democrazia' in Turin, Italy on April 2, 2017. Sherin Khankan is Denmark's first female imam. Photo by Marco Piovanotto/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

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.

Which brought the discussion, briefly, back to Luther. The focus was largely his anti-Semitism. One of the panelists then mentioned the later “pioneers” and “heroes” who introduced female equality into the Lutheran Church. Which was Kristiansen’s cue to say: “… and among such pioneers and heroes I would add Sherin Khankan, who stands here as a female imam.” (As if there was a danger of our having forgotten her job description.)

That happened about forty minutes into the hour. Khankan got almost all of the time remaining. Luther was soon left far behind. It eventually seemed clear that the Luther topic had been a come-on, an opening act: the real purpose here, on the part of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) and the festival organizers, was to give this female imam legitimacy by placing her alongside leading Norwegian cultural and religious figures and then give her ample opportunity to whitewash Islam.


Those last twenty minutes were essentially a question and answer session between Kristiansen and Khankan. When she talked about founding her own mosque for women, which opened last year, Kristiansen asked if the idea of a women’s-only mosque doesn’t mark a step back – why can’t she be the imam of a mosque full of men? She replied that most members of her community have made the “democratic” choice to reject the idea of female imams.

You can say that again: while the organizers of the panel were manifestly out to present Khankan as the face of a new Scandinavian Islam – a contemporary equivalent of sorts to Martin Luther, if you will – the plain truth is that she represents an exceedingly tiny minority of Muslims in Denmark or anywhere else. (To her credit, Khankan was at least honest enough to admit that if she tried to lead prayers in a regular mosque, she’d get death threats – a detail that NRK’s subtitler decided not to translate into Norwegian.)

Kristiansen brought up the argument that Islam can’t be reformed because it’s based on an immutable holy book. Khankan disagreed, maintaining that Muslims interpret the Koran just as Christians and Jews interpret their scriptures. Balderdash!

The problem, she said, is the same one that those religions have been faced with: the men have had a monopoly on interpretation. Sorry, but I defy any woman – or man – to “interpret” the Koran convincingly as being anything other than a how-to book for a violent, totalitarian, infidel-hating, women-oppressing patriarchy.


Asked if she could imagine a “European Islam,” Khankan said that such a thing already exists, and she proceeded to paint a beautiful, fanciful picture of it: European Islam, she asserted, is successfully adapting to European values; imams are helping Muslims find “Islamic solutions” to Western challenges. It all sounded so delightful.

There was no mention, of course, of the “Islamic solutions” unveiled in recent months on London Bridge, at the Orlando Pulse nightclub, on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, at the Bataclan theater in Paris, and at the Manchester Arena. Islam, insisted Khankan, isn’t really all that different from Christianity – its pillars are mercy, compassion, and love. No, its pillars are unconditional submission, savage conquest, and unpitying punishment.

And on it went, all in the same vein. The Islam depicted by Khankan bore no resemblance whatsoever to the real thing. But nobody said so. Kristiansen didn’t challenge a single bit of her nonsense. Nobody did.

While she stood there sugarcoating Islam in the most preposterous manner, her fellow panelists stood there, and the audience sat there, in respectful silence, apparently buying into – or at least not daring to question – the absurd notion that this unutterably rare phenomenon, a female Sufi imam, could in any way be said to speak for or represent the true Islam, and that when she contended that serious reform of Islam is just around the corner (or already underway!) it was anything other than sheer poppycock.


The whole shameless exercise in deception was an insult to everyone murdered in the name of Islam, and a disconcerting glimpse of the new Norway, where the Islam-loving elite’s next step, presumably, will be to remove the crosses and altars from places like Nidaros Cathedral and replace them with prayer rugs and ablution fountains.

Join the conversation as a VIP Member