Very Little to Debate at 'Human Rights in Islam' Discussion

It is impossible for me to provide a complete account of the debate on “Human Rights in Islam: Just or Unjust?” that was held under the auspices of IslamNet, Norway’s largest Islamic organization, on November 7, 2011. The “ideas” that were presented were utterly lacking in logic or intelligence, and the whole thing raced by very fast.  It was almost impossible to keep up with it all: claims were made at a tempo out of another world, and were absolutely without substance.  It was far more a revival meeting than a debate.


They delightedly applauded the chopping off of hands and feet.  And they didn’t raise an eyebrow when executions committed by family agreement were defended as a reasonable ”human right in Islam.”

You would be forgiven for thinking that we were in deepest Saudi Arabia, or in a long-ago century.  Far from it. We were in an auditorium at Oslo University College, where our future was being hatched onstage.  The place was packed, and the great majority of the young students were wearing clothes that identifed themselves as followers of the Prophet.

The website reported prior to the “debate” that the participants were sharia expert Fadel Soliman, Lars Gule, and myself, and that Gule would withdraw from the event if IslamNet separated the audience members by sex.  But they did.  The young women used one entrance to the auditorium, the young men another.  The auditorium consisted of four sitting areas.  The areas in the back were entirely separated by sex, while one of the areas in the middle contained members of both sexes — though not in the same rows.  The sexual separation “just happened — entirely naturally.”

To walk into the Oslo University hall that night was like entering another world — or a past era.  The overwhelming majority of the young women had dolled themselves up in full-length hijab; several  were in niqab.  A few were Norwegian converts.  Many of the young men, including Norwegian converts, were strongly inspired in their attire by the clothing styles prevalent on the Arabian peninsula in the time of Muhammed.  Some will maintain that superficial appearances don´t count.  But that’s not the whole truth.  I was not dismayed that the audience applauded when Soliman explained why robbery — but not fraud — should be punished by chopping off limbs.  I noticed that it wasn’t just the heavily covered women and uniformed men who clapped; so did the young women without hijab.  That was a little surprising.  Nor did anyone protest.  This is perhaps surprising, but to stand up to the intense pressure for conformity in this community takes guts.  And if there was anybody with guts in the Muslim audience that night, we will never know.


The atmosphere was intense.  Every single time the name of the Prophet Muhammed was mentioned, mumbled words of blessing echoed loudly through the auditorium.  Even a Norwegian woman in Western clothing joined in.  This was in sync with the audience’s sentiment about human rights in Islam, which was perhaps best formulated by a male Norwegian convert with a long beard, a shawl over his head, a white robe, and baggy pants.  The UN’s notion of human rights, he insisted, has failed.  Even criminals are given human rights!  (Here he began to tote up all the benefits accorded inmates in Norwegian prisons.)  The answer, of course, is Islam: cutting off limbs.  Only in this way can the world be liberated from crime.  Islam is the answer to humanity’s challenges.

Or, as someone else in the audience put it: Our society has hit bottom because we haven’t implemented sharia.

Gule spoke up several times about uncivilized barbarism — yes, his words hit hard — but I would have trouble believing that they reached a single student.  Nor was there any hint of protest when Soliman explained Islam’s view of execution: in cases of murder, it is up to the victim’s family to negotiate with the murderer’s family.  No trial, then.  Instead, do what the tribes on the Arabian peninsula did 1400 years ago: if the victim’s family insists on execution, then out comes the sword.  An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.  Simple and fair Islamic logic, according to Soliman. I never did get an answer when I asked what exactly counts as “spreading mischief in the land,” which, according to a verse of the Koran that Solimon himself quoted, can be punished with death.  Does this apply to blasphemy, for example?  Does it apply to any activity that can be characterized as undermining Islam?


I gather that in Soliman and IslamNet’s dream world — a global caliphate — the answer to this last question is yes.

The mood grew angry and explicitly hostile when the subject of satire — an exceedingly delicate matter in Islam — came up.  It was Soliman himself who brought up the “hatred” that religious satire engenders.  Soliman illustrated this “hatred” with cartoons from my website,  The students’ reactions showed very clearly that satire plus Islam and Muhammed can be a deadly cocktail.

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 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.


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