Norway's police chief is unable to rid from her mind the certainty that mistreating a copy of the Koran is wrong and that she and her fellow flatfoots should have the power to do something about it. (Images source: iStock)
Recently I wrote here about how, on November 16, the group Stop Islamization of Norway (Stopp Islamisering av Norge – SIAN) set fire to a copy of the Koran in a public square in Kristiansand, only to have the fire doused pronto by a group of 30 or more police officers. It later emerged that they were under secret orders from the chief of the Norwegian police, Benedicte Bjørnland, not just to put out any such fire but to prevent SIAN members from committing any such act.
Bjørnland defended her orders by citing the so-called "racism clause" of Norway's criminal law, and the Minister of Justice, Jøran Kallmyr, stood behind her, making the baffling statement that while burning a Koran was not illegal, it could (depending on how you translated his words) "become" or "morph into" a crime.
In reaction to this assault on their holy book, Norwegian Muslims got worked up, Muslims in Pakistan and Turkey burned Norwegian flags, and the Pakistani government called the Norwegian ambassador on the carpet. At first, the Norwegian authorities seemed as spineless as they had been during the 2006 Danish caricature crisis, when, in contrast to the government in Copenhagen, which boldly defied demands by a dozen-odd Muslim nations for an apology, the wimps in Oslo crawled like cowards.
Nine days after SIAN's Koran-burning, however, the authorities -- apparently feeling not only the pressure from Muslims but (finally) the outrage among ordinary Norwegians at the brazen attempt to shut down free speech -- changed their tune. Sort of, anyway. In a November 25 appearance on an evening news discussion program, NRK Debatten, Bjørnland admitted that her orders had perhaps been unclear and that she and her colleagues were now "re-evaluating" their policies. Kallmyr, also present, had jettisoned his ridiculous line about legal acts morphing into illegal acts and acknowledged unambiguously that it is legal to burn a Koran in Norway. "Freedom of speech is sacred," he said. At the same time, in good Western European fashion, he made sure that everyone knew that he, personally, strongly condemns the burning of the Koran and considers it vital to convey to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims that most Norwegians do not support such an act.
Also on the panel was Anine Kjerulf, a jurist and human-rights researcher, who criticized the police chief and Minister of Justice for having tried to use the racism paragraph to squelch free expression, and congratulated them for having admitted their errors. Lene Vågslid, a Labor Party politician, called it "remarkable" that the police and Justice Ministry could have interpreted the racism clause as they did and said it was a "shame" that it had taken them this long to recognize their mistake.
For his part, Jan Helgheim of the Progress Party, who agreed that Bjørnland and Kallmyr had screwed up big time, quite appropriately recalled the 2006 Danish cartoon crisis, during which then-Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre apologized to the Muslim world for Norwegian free speech and savaged the small Norwegian newspaper that had reprinted the cartoons. Helgheim had the most stirring words of the evening: "We can't allow ourselves to be brought to our knees when other nations, other religions, other cultures, which are not free, have an entirely different view."
Despite her apparent willingness to admit error, Bjørnland still wasn't entirely letting go of her original story. She kept maintaining that the matter was "complicated." "If the Koran is burned," she insisted, "it is an expression of hate" that creates a "stressful atmosphere" and can cross over the line into a criminal act. To listen to Bjørnland was to get the distinct impression that she is one of those people who do grasp that a freedom of expression with major exceptions, or a freedom of expression that can be "balanced" by other freedoms or rights or considerations, is no freedom of speech at all. While she is shaky on free speech, however, Bjørnland is unable to rid from her mind the certainty that mistreating a copy of the Koran is wrong and that she and her fellow flatfoots should, under some statute or other, have the power to do something about it. In short, for the Norwegian police, the Koran is, in a way, as holy as it is for Muslims.
The exchange on NRK Debatten -- whose host, Fredrik Solvang, later in the show interviewed two leading Norwegian Muslims, although representatives from SIAN were conspicuous by their absence -- seemed to be intended to bring the whole Koran-burning story to a close. No such luck. Three days later came the news that the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, and in fact the government as a whole, officially condemned SIAN's burning of the Koran. Writing in VG, Deputy Minister Jens Frølich Holte stated that while Norwegian subjects and organizations enjoy freedom of speech, that doesn't mean that the government gives up the right to condemn what they have to say.
Once again, one was reminded of the cartoon crisis, when the Norwegian diplomatic corps saw it as urgent to beg the pardon of authoritarian governments for whatever is left in Norway of individual liberty. The idea of a supposedly free country's Foreign Ministry conducting itself in such a way is shameful and pusillanimous -- and foolish, too, because these Norwegian diplomats fail to grasp that their Muslim counterparts undoubtedly read such behavior as a sign of weakness, period.
To be sure, this cringing mentality is not restricted to people in government. The other day, when a Trondheim man named Roar Fløttum was severely beaten on his way home from church by four Muslims who demanded he convert to their faith, the report of the attack in Trondheim's main newspaper, Adresseavisen, scrubbed the religious identity of the perpetrators as well as their aggressive approach to evangelism.
Meanwhile, in Seljord, a small town near where I live in the mountains of Telemark, middle-school students are now under orders, in the name of inclusivity, not to use the everyday words julemat (Christmas food) or juleball (Christmas party) but, instead, to say tradisjonsmat (traditional food) and skoleball (school party). A teacher at the school explained that she had "made a conscious decision not to buy napkins with 'Merry Christmas' written on them" or to use a red tablecloth or red tree ornaments because "certain religions are very sensitive" and care needs to be taken "not to offend anyone."
Finally, here's one last cozy seasonal story: the Norwegian government has recently spent well over $100,000 to convert churches in Stavanger and Skien into mosques and is kicking in a huge sum of taxpayer money for the construction of a mega-mosque in Bergen with, according to journalist and political activist Hege Storhaug, "open ties to extremism."
Bruce Bawer is the author of the new novel The Alhambra (Swamp Fox Editions). His book While Europe Slept (2006) was a New York Times bestseller and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. His other books include A Place at the Table (1993), Stealing Jesus (1997), Surrender (2009), and The Victims' Revolution (2012). A native New Yorker, he has lived in Europe since 1998.