While one can hardly imagine the Pakistani government responding to Norwegian pressure to stop oppressing Ahmadiyya Muslims, Hindus, women, gays, and so on, Pakistan has not hesitated to complain about developments in Norway that offend its delicate cultural sensibilities. Pictured: The Embassy of Pakistan in Oslo, Norway, photographed on May 2, 2013. (Image source: Sefirmelk/Wikimedia Commons)
There has long been what you might call a “special relationship” between Norway and Pakistan. Although they have since been overtaken statistically by Somalis, Iranians, and Iraqis, Pakistanis used to be the major Muslim immigrant group in Norway. The area around the city of Kharian in the Punjab is even known as “Little Norway” because so many people from this region have settled in Norway. Indeed, many of those folks from Kharian, having made a bundle on Norwegian welfare payments or by driving cabs in Oslo, running kebab joints, or whatever, have built veritable palaces back home. They come complete with servants (or near-slaves), and are the principal residences of some of their wives and children and where they themselves spend months at a time.
So many Norwegian voters have “second homes” of this sort in or around Kharian that Norwegian politicians have actually campaigned there. Muslim children born in Norway are routinely sent back to Kharian and environs to go to school — more specifically, to attend the madrassas, or Koran schools — so that they will not be poisoned by Western values. In recent years, Norwegian Muslim politicians and journalists have proposed that the Norwegian government finance at least one school in Kharian for local children who hold Norwegian passports.
Traffic back and forth between the two countries by people with double residency is heavy: if some day you find yourself at Oslo Airport, you will invariably see at least one long line consisting largely of bearded men, women in hijab, and armies of children, each family accompanied by tons of luggage, who are awaiting the next flight to Islamabad, Karachi, or Lahore.
It would be impossible to measure the amount of Norwegian taxpayer money that has been injected into the Pakistani economy over the years. What is beyond question is that it is a huge sum. You might think that wealth transfers, however substantial, from a European country of six million people to an Asian country of 213 million could hardly make much of a difference. Yet, despite its tiny population, Norway, believe it or not, has a bigger economy than Pakistan — depending on how you measure, it has the world’s approximately 30th highest nominal GDP, more or less, as opposed to Pakistan’s 40th or thereabouts. So all those kroner matter.
For this reason alone, you might expect that Pakistani authorities would treat their Norwegian counterparts with at least a modicum of respect, and that the government in Oslo would wield some kind of clout in Pakistan. On the contrary, this is an instance where the tail often seems to wag the dog. While one can hardly imagine the Pakistani government responding to Norwegian pressure to stop oppressing Ahmadiyya Muslims, Hindus, women, gays, and so on, Pakistan has not hesitated to complain about developments in Norway that offend its delicate cultural sensibilities.
On November 16, a group called Stop the Islamization of Norway (Stopp Islamiseringen av Norge – SIAN) had publicly set fire to a copy of the Koran in a garbage can in the city of Kristiansand. The event was attended by more than thirty police officers, who were under secret orders from the chief of the Norwegian police, Marie Benedicte Bjørnland, to try to prevent the burning before it could take place; in fact SIAN managed to set the book alight and it took a few seconds for the police to put out the flames.
Bjørnland later defended her directive by citing the so-called “racism clause” of Norway’s criminal law, even though, as legal experts pointed out, that clause does not cover such actions, and the blasphemy law that might conceivably have been used to justify Bjørnland’s edict was repealed several years ago. Nonetheless, politicians, commentators, and other public figures directed their criticism not at Bjørnland but at SIAN. On November 23, it was reported that Norway’s Minister of Justice, Jøran Kallmyr, was giving Bjørnland his full support. “Prosecutors,” he explained, “have determined that burning the Koran can become a crime.”
“Can become a crime”? “Become”, let me interject, is my own translation of the relatively rare expression that Kallmyr used, “skli over i.” Although his way of expressing his reasoning is frankly somewhat baffling, he definitely did not say that Koran burning is a crime, but rather that it could somehow become a crime. He makes it sound like some kind of alchemical process.
Another piece of news came out on November 23: it turned out that for the government of Pakistan, even Bjørnland’s plan single-handedly to curb SIAN’s constitutional rights was not good enough. Kjell-Gunnar Eriksen, Norway’s ambassador to Pakistan, according to NRK’s evening news show Dagsrevyen, had been “called on the carpet” because of the Koran burning. Officials at the department of foreign affairs in Islamabad ordered Eriksen to convey to his superiors in Oslo the “deep concern” of the Pakistani government and people over the act of “desecration.” Eriksen, in response, underscored that Norwegian authorities utterly deplore the Koran burning and that the police had put an end to the demonstration. So it was that the representative of a purportedly free country fell all over himself assuring officials of an “Islamic Republic” that, at least when Islam is in the picture, freedom of speech and of assembly in Norway have their limits.
One was reminded immediately of the pusillanimous behavior of Norwegian authorities during the cartoon crisis of 2005-2006. After the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published drawings of Muhammad, sparking violence around the Muslim world and a mass protest by Muslims in the streets of Copenhagen, Denmark’s then-prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen flatly refused to meet with the ambassadors of several Muslim countries who wished to register their outrage, because, he explained, Danes enjoyed freedom of expression and there was therefore nothing to be discussed.
By contrast, in Norway, when Vebjørn Selbekk, the editor of a small Christian newspaper, reprinted the cartoons, Norwegian authorities, from the prime minister on down, could not stop apologizing, and pressured Selbekk so mercilessly to join that he ultimately caved in, begging forgiveness of a roomful of Muslim leaders in a ceremony organized and attended by several of the highest-ranking leaders of the Norwegian government. Once again, alas, it appears that when the exercise of fundamental Norwegian freedoms causes offense, the powers that be in Norway have no hesitation about choosing the wrong side.
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.