'We can work it out' sang the Beatles - which expresses the way Norway's Muslim leaders have avoided potential clashes. At Caux, the Initiatives of Change conference centre in Switzerland, Mike Lowe talks with Kebba Secka, President of Norway's Islamic Movement.
In September 2005, when Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten newspaper published 12 offensive cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in the name of ‘free speech’, a series of protests around the world – some of them violent – left more than 100 dead. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen described it as Denmark’s worst international crisis since the Second World War.
In Norway, where the cartoons were first published by a conservative Christian magazine, things went a little differently. After consulting with each other, board members of Norway’s Muslim Council sought a meeting with the magazine’s editor, Vebjørn Selbekk. Selbekk insisted on his right to publish according to his professional judgement. The Muslims responded that freedom must be used with responsibility, that they couldn’t imagine according such disrespect to Jesus – who is also revered as a mighty prophet in Islam. The Muslims reasoned that since the editor was a Christian, he would, on the basis of his faith, understand the ethical principles behind the Muslims’ objections to the cartoons.
The gamble paid off. Selbekk published an apology which was also picked up by the major newspapers. While some complained that freedom of expression was being strangled, Muslims replied that they were giving freedom dignity by not allowing it to be abused. Disagreements remain, but instead of violent confrontation, Norway saw democratic debate.
The groundwork for this mature handling of an explosive issue was done by an older generation of Muslim leaders, including Kebba Secka, a former President of Norway’s Islamic Council. Secka had left his native Gambia in 1973 to study in the UK and later moved to Norway. At the time there were very few Muslims and only about 40 Gambians in Norway. Being an African, rather than his religion, ‘was what people saw and reacted to,’ he recalls. Secka found a job as a minority worker helping to settle refugees and mediating between Norwegian social workers and clients from minority backgrounds. At times imagination was called for – as when he was asked to help with a Vietnamese lady whom nobody could understand. ‘I asked her to write down what she wanted to say... Nobody could understand her pronunciation.’ Secka and other minority workers formed a professional group, meeting once a month, to discuss common problems and support each other.
Out of these meetings came a realization that there was a need to increase the competence of Norway’s social services to deal with minorities. ‘We started to organize six-monthly seminars for all sectors of government, dealing with issues of cultural understanding and the common problems that minorities have, such as ineffective language courses and finding jobs.’ Secka was then offered a contract with Oslo City Council to run training programmes on multicultural issues for all of Oslo’s social workers. ‘The in-service training in multicultural work became very popular and we did a lot of programmes with various other sectors including the police, prisons, politicians, rotary clubs, churches and regional administrations.’
In 1989 Salman Rushdie’s book Satanic Verses was published. It was the first major conflict between Muslims and the wider Norwegian society. There were orderly protests. Some imams made public statements condemning the book as blasphemous, others took legal steps. It was then that Muslims realized they needed to come together. ‘Wider Norwegian society had an awareness of us as one group that we didn’t have ourselves,’ says Secka. As secretary of his mosque, Secka represented his community in negotiations lasting two years, to form Norway’s Islamic Council.
Bringing Muslims together from widely different cultural backgrounds was no mean task. How should power be distributed? What was the role of imams in the Council? What language should they use? ‘We were very insecure with each other,’ says Secka.
When he became President in 1998 he set up a project to work on a difficult issue – deciding the starting date of Ramadan. It took three years to reach agreement. ‘People who feel powerless in the wider society don’t like to surrender the little decisions they can make in their own faith,’ Secka explains.
From very early on the Islamic Council was engaged in formal relations with the Church of Norway, having been approached by the Bishop of Oslo’s special advisor on minority affairs. Secka was the first to lead the dialogue group from the Muslim side. Rather than launching into theological and doctrinal debates, this Muslim-Christian dialogue focussed on getting to know each other, discovering each other’s attitudes to current issues, the family, education and what kind of multifaith, multicultural society they wanted to see.
When in the 1990s Norway’s right-wing Progress Party started attacking Muslims on the basis of what they claimed were Christian values, the Inter-Church Council made a public statement saying that while it could not deny members of the Progress Party calling themselves Christian, their actions were not. Christians should defend vulnerable minorities and help them feel secure, they pointed out.
Since 1996 the Islamic Council has also participated in the Council for Cooperation between Religions and Life-Stances which has taken up issues such as the teaching about religion in the school curriculum, and providing a ‘quiet room’ as part of Oslo’s new airport. To build trust, the group has visited each other’s holy places.
Looking to the future, Secka says that the task is to build institutions that will serve both the Muslim communities and the wider society – particularly by helping second generation Muslims to forge a positive sense of identity. ‘Often the second generation have only a superficial understanding of Norwegian society and even less of their parents’ cultural roots. The task of performing this double education is too great for individual families. We have to come together to help each other; for example, learning to communicate with our children differently to the ways in which we were raised. We were brought up in a normative society. Now we live in a market society where children are taught to negotiate everything. As Muslims we have learned that certain things – such as gender rules within the family – are not up for negotiation.’
Secka serves as a President in the Islamic Movement, which exists primarily to offer religious teaching to help young Muslims work through these issues.
Thanks to the spirit of dialogue which Secka has been part of, he doesn’t see any dynamics in Norway which could give rise to the kind of terrorist acts that have plagued other countries. ‘The humiliation we receive in the press can cause problems,’ he says, ‘but Muslim academics are encouraged to write back challenging erroneous standpoints. The different mosques are aware of these problems and are working to strengthen their own members’ faith. We believe that those who are strong in their own faith are the most able to remain positive in the face of adversity.’