UPDATE, December 16: In the originally posted version of this article, I criticized a Norwegian translation of the Koran for whitewashing some of its more brutal passages. It turns out that the book contains reasonable translations of the passages in question; my confusion was caused by the fact that the verses in the Norwegian version are numbered in a way that differs from the standard numbering. I apologize for this inadvertent misrepresentation. – Bruce Bawer
To borrow a phrase from Lewis Carroll, the news about the aftermath of a public Koran-burning in Kristiansand, Norway, on November 16, keeps getting curiouser and curiouser.
As explained in previous pieces here, the 30 or more police officers who were on hand at the event, which was organized by a group called Stop the Islamization of Norway (Stopp Islamiseringen av Norge – SIAN) were under secret orders from the chief of the Norwegian police, Benedicte Bjørnland, not just to douse any flaming Koran but to keep SIAN members from setting fire to a copy of the Muslim holy book in the first place. Bjørnland had maintained that the so-called "racism clause" of Norway's criminal law gave her the power to issue such orders, while the Minister of Justice, Jøran Kallmyr, made the puzzling comment that while burning the Koran was legal, it could "become" a crime, a statement that made no more sense in Norwegian than it does in English.
To be sure, Bjørnland and Kallmyr, when confronted on a TV debate program on November 25 by politicians of the left and right as well as by a jurist, pulled back on their claims and acknowledged the primacy of free expression – although Bjørnland, apparently unable to shake off the idea that the intactness of any given copy of the Koran should be more sacred than free speech, clung to her line that the situation was "complicated."
Nonetheless, the case seemed to be closed. Alas, not for long. Afterwards, Deputy Foreign Minister Jens Frølich Holte felt obliged to weigh in. He wrote an op-ed in which he condemned SIAN's Koran-burning in the name of the Norwegian government and explained that whereas Norwegians do indeed have the right to say what they wish, their government also has the right to condemn what they say. The question Holte did not address in his op-ed was this: why, in a country with more than its share of newspaper op-ed pages, online news and opinion websites, and news discussion programs on TV and radio, does the government only feel obliged to refute publicly a private citizen's point of view when that point of view concerns the topic of just one religion?
Nor was that the end of the matter. On December 4, it was reported that the Norwegian police, despite Bjørnland's and Kallmyr's sort-of-admission that the "racism clause" did not empower them to put out a copy of the Koran that had been set aflame by an activist -- now planned, after all, to begin an "investigation" of SIAN leader Lars Thorsen the following week for violating that very statute. How did this turnaround come to take place? Well, you see, the Islamic Council of Agder (Kristiansand is located in the county of West Agder) filed charges against Thorsen, arguing that his burning of the Koran was in fact a violation of the "racism clause" because it amounted to a "hateful utterance" about Islam. Under that clause, if a court agrees with the Islamic Council, Thorsen can face up to three years in prison.
On the heels of this remarkable news came the announcement that three Norwegian Muslim organizations, in response to SIAN's Koran burning, planned to hand out 10,000 copies of the Koran to Norwegians at stands in Oslo and, perhaps, Bergen. The idea, said Hamza Ansari, a member of the board of one of those organizations, the Oslo mosque Minhaj-ul-Quran, was to "demystify" the holy book. Another one of the organizations, the Islamic Literary Association, added that "the Koran teaches us to show love." Which Koran, one wondered, were they talking about? Surely not the one I have read, which is full of injunctions to kill Jews and other infidels, among many other horrific mandates. Indeed, it turned out that the "Koran" in question is a 2013 translation into Norwegian that "contains explanations" intended to clarify the seventh-century text for twenty-first-century readers.
In fact, a Norwegian-language "Koran" is available online, and it appears to be the same translation that these Muslim organizations plan to distribute. When I first glanced through this Norwegian Koran, seeking out some of the more notoriously incendiary passages, I was confused by the fact that the verses are numbered differently than in other versions of the Koran, and, not finding those incendiary passages where I expected to, concluded that they had been dropped down the memory hole. In fact, after the original version of this piece appeared, I discovered that those incendiary passages were included in the Norwegian edition of the Koran, in reasonably honest translations.
In my original conclusion to this piece, I expressed the hope that non-Muslims who were being handed copies of the Norwegian Koran in Oslo and, perhaps, also in Bergen would find out "that the book they are being handed is not really the Koran at all." Since the translation in question apparently the one available online, I can only conclude by wondering what those Muslim groups who are eager to show that their holy book preaches love expect Christian and Jewish readers to make of passages like this, which appears in most Korans as 5:51 and in the Norwegian Koran as 5:52:
O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.
Or this, which is usually 2:88 and which in the Norwegian Koran is 2:89:
And they [the Jews] say: Our hearts are covered. Nay, Allah has cursed them on account of their unbelief; so little it is that they believe.
Or this, usually 3:12, and 3:13 in the Norwegian:
Say to those who disbelieve, "You will be overcome and gathered together to Hell, and wretched is the resting place."
These sentiments are repeated frequently in the Koran, however you number the passages, and their message can hardly be explained away or rendered less scathing by slick contextualization, let alone be viewed as preaching a message of love. If this is indeed the version of the Koran that those Muslim groups plan to distribute on the streets of Oslo, then I can only hope that they are handed to people of influence who are previously unfamiliar with the Koran, and that those people read them cover to cover. Perhaps then, when they see Islam for what it really is, they will wake up and smell the coffee.
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.