Home Articles Norway: The unholy alliance between ‘secular Muslims’ & far-right Islamophobic activists

Norway: The unholy alliance between ‘secular Muslims’ & far-right Islamophobic activists

Hodne & Bayan

By Sindre Bangstad, Researcher, KIFO (Institute For Church, Religion and Worldview Research), Oslo, Norway.

A recent court case relating to anti-discrimination laws in Norway cast new light on the long-standing relationship between self-declared ‘secular Muslims’ and far-right Islamophobic activists in Norway.

Norwegian anti-discrimination laws prohibit discrimination by private enterprises on a number of grounds, including religion and life stance. And so it has come as little of a surprise that Norwegian courts have found a middle-aged hairdresser by the name of Merete Hodne from Bryne in Southwestern Norway guilty of violations of Norwegian General Penal Code § 186 (b) for refusing service to a young customer by the name of Malika Bayan on the grounds that Bayan, a Norwegian convert to Islam and mother of two, was wearing a hijab when entering Hodne’s hairdressing salon in Bryne. Bryne is a relatively small community, and it is clear that Hodne has had significant local support, as well as support from a wide range of far-right and Islamophobic activists throughout Norway. Both have contributed generosly to Hodne’s legal costs, in a case which has now also been appealed to the Norwegian Supreme Court. Less remarked upon in the media coverage of this case has been the role of a number of self-declared ‘secular Muslims’, who have long used their privileged political networks in the present Norwegian government and state bureacracies to advance the case for a national prohibition of the hijab.

In late 2016, I published the first extensive study of the Islamophobic and at times overtly racist rhetoric of the far-right SIAN or Stop The Islamisation of Norway in the Brill journal Journal of Muslims in Europe. http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1163/22117954-12341324

This organization, which between 2008 and 2013 was led by the former newspaper editor and early member of the Norwegian Humanist Association (Humanetisk Forbund, HEF), Mr Arne Tumyr, has since its establishment in 2008 been the strongest anti-Muslim civil society organization in Norway when measured in membership, and has links to similar organizations elsewhere in Europe and the USA. Consisting mainly of elderly white males with and for many years led by a man obsessed with Islam and Muslims, SIAN caught significant media attention in Norway in the context of the aftermath right-wing extremist terrorist Anders Behring Breivik’s terrorist attacks on Government Headquarters and young Norwegian social democrats on the island of Utøya on July 22 2011, in which seventy-seven people, most of them defenseless teenagers, were killed in cold blood. For though SIAN’s Tumyr declared that he and his organization «took exception to Breivik’s acts», Tumyr also asserted to Norwegian mainstream media and in court as a witness for Breivik’s defense in the July 22 trial in Oslo’s Magistrate’s Court in 2012 that he and his organization fully endorsed Breivik’s racist and Islamophobic ideas. In my research on SIAN’s rhetoric on Islam and Muslims, I found a netherworld of common Islamophobic ideas and rhetorical tropes, in which al-Qaida and ISIS are regularly characterized as representing ‘true Islam’, ‘moderate Muslims’ described as an oxymoron or as ‘practising taqiyya’ (here understood not as ‘dissimulation’ as in the Shia Islamic genealogy of the concept, but simply ‘lies and deception’), Muslim males generally cast as vile rapists, and the ‘Eurabia’ conspiracy theories accepted at face value. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09596410.2013.783969?journalCode=cicm20

The hairdresser Mrs Hodne from Bryne is in fact a long-standing member and activist in Tumyr’s SIAN. Her record of online Islamophobia expressed through her own Facebook pages was considerable even before the twenty-four year old Malika Bayan filed charges against her for discrimination. Hodne’s Islamophobia is by no means moderate or rational. She had started out defending her actions by describing the hijab as a «totalitarian symbol» and (as far-right activists have long learned to do) asserting that she had «nothing against ordinary Muslims» in the lower court; in the appeals court, she described the hijab as analogous to an «ISIS flag.» The notion of the modern hijab as a «totalitarian symbol» is in this context a reference to the strongly held conviction in far-right circles in Norway and elsewhere that the modern hijab is expressive of Islamism – and not Islam – and that it was «invented» by Islamists, either in the form of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, or Khomeinists in Iran, in the 1960s and 1970s. Serious academics with detailed knowledge of the modern hijab have of course documented over and over again that these far-right genealogies for the modern hijab are pure fabrications.

Norwegian mainstream media these days express a lot of concern over the peddlers of ‘alternative facts’ in the USA: the fact of the matter is of course that the peddlers of such ‘alternative facts’ in Norway have for quite a long time been garlanded with prizes for their ‘courageous’ use of freedom of expression courtesy of Norwegian liberal media elites, have been granted audiences with cabinet ministers, and privileged access to the most prominent media platforms. It would on balance seem that the peddling of ‘alternative facts’ only become a concern in these circles when its targets are not Muslims.

Enter the volunteer ‘expert witness’ for Hodne’s defense, namely the Iraqi-born popular author and poet Walid al-Kubaisi. As I have documented in my monograph Anders Breivik And The Rise of Islamophobia, it was al-Kubaisi who first introduced the fabricated genealogy for the modern hijab in an op-ed column in Aftenposten (a liberal-conservative Norwegian newspaper) back in 2003. http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/A/bo20841971.html

In this op-ed, al-Kubaisi, pace all available evidence from serious research on this matter, http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/veil-9781859739297/ alleged that the modern hijab was an invention of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt. Consistency is not al-Kubaisi’s forte; opportunism certainly is. And so he has gone from describing himself as an atheist in the early 2000s to a ‘secular Muslim’ at the end of the decade, to a ‘practising Muslim’ in the years after Breivik. He has for a number of years been a board member of the ‘secular Muslim’ organization LIM (Likestilling, Integrering og Mangfold), and is now also central in a Norwegian organization of ex-Muslims. Al-Kubaisi’s links to far-right and Islamophobic activists in Norway go back for decades: a column he penned for the ostensibly leftist newspaper Klassekampen in 2005 was entitled ‘Norway for Norwegians.’ The title is a cue to the Norwegian far-right, whose slogan dating back to the 1980s this is. In his 2005 column, al-Kubaisi glowingly described a personal meeting with the founder members of the far-right organizational precursor to SIAN, namely FOMI.

Norwegian mainstream media’s by and large completely uncritical approach to al-Kubaisi, his networks and activities, also meant that not a single Norwegian newspaper questioned his volunteering to support far-right efforts to undermine Norwegian anti-discrimination laws by calling up Hodne via telephone and offerring to serve as an ‘expert witness’ for her defense in the appeals case. The outcome of this court case of course turns upon the question as to whether Norwegian courts accept the premise that the modern hijab for its wearers is a religious symbol. Were the courts to accept al-Kubaisi’s fabricated genealogies for the modern hijab and reduce it to an essentially ‘political symbol’, the legal protection for Muslim hijab-wearers in Norway under laws relating to anti-discrimination and religious freedom would for all practical purposes disappear. In far-right circles, voices such as those of al-Kubaisi (who has a background in unfinished engineering studies in Baathist Iraq, and has no academic credentials in relevant fields) are particularly cherished, since they come with an aura of ‘authenticity’ as what Hamid Dabashi has insightfully referred to as the ‘native informant.’ In the appeals case before Gulating Lagmansrett in Bergen, al-Kubaisi performed service for the far-right along with one Mona Walters, a Christian convert of Swedish-Somali background, who has long played a similar role in neighboring Sweden. http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1163/22117954-12341327

To the credit of Norwegian courts and the Norwegian legal system, it appears, however, that the appeals court in Bergen was not much taken in by the ‘expert witnesses’, and the fine and criminal conviction of Hodne was upheld against the vote of one lay juror. In the aftermath of the verdict, Hodne posted grossly defamatory remarks about Bayan’s background and private life on her Facebook pages for which Hodne has since been sued; the presiding magistrate in the appeals court received death threats which were also reported to the police; and Bayan, not exactly true to any Islamist inclinations, decided to take off her hijab. True to its rhetorical histrionics, SIAN declared on its website that the verdict in Bayan’s favor meant that «Allah’s soldier had taken over Norwegian courts» [sic].

It is at the time of writing unclear whether the Norwegian Supreme Court will accept the case for adjudication. Should it do so, there is no reason to doubt that the highest court in Norway will uphold Norwegian anti-discrimination laws and find in Bayan’s favor. As for al-Kubaisi, in a subtle messaging aimed at the governing populist right-wing Progress Party’s many sympathizers in far-right circles in Norway, he received a special invitation to the wildly popular Norwegian Minister of Immigration and Integration Mrs Sylvi Listhaug, after his court appearance. There is no reason to doubt that al-Kubaisi and his organization of self-declared ‘secular Muslims’, LIM, will continue its long-standing cross-political efforts at undermining Norwegian anti-discrimination laws in this field, with a national ban on hijab-wearing as the ultimate aim.

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Sindre Bangstad
Sindre Bangstad is a social anthropologist, educated at the University of Bergen, Norway and at Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands . Bangstad has undertaken ethnographic research on Muslims in post-apartheid Cape Town, South Africa, as well as on young Muslims in Oslo, Norway. He is currently an affiliated researcher at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oslo in Norway. A leading researcher on Islamophobia in Norway, Bangstad’s work has featured in The Guardian U.K., OpenDemocracy and on the SSRC blog The Immanent Frame. Bangstad’s monograph Anders Breivik and The Rise of Islamophobia is forthcoming from Zed Books in June 2014. Bangstad has held invited lectures at the Norwegian Academy of Sciences (2012), been a Northern Scholar at the University of Edinburgh in the UK (2011), and has been awarded the Universitetsforlagets Faglitteraere Pris for best academic prose manuscript in Norwegian (2008). In April 2014, Bangstad will hold invited guest lectures at Columbia University, University of Connecticut and Middlebury College in the USA. For more on Bangstad’s publications and record, see: https://uio.academia.edu/SindreBangstad