Before 9/11, I hardly knew or saw anyone who wore a hijab or a long beard. Over the past decade, this has changed, partly because many Muslims, young people in particular, do not feel accepted and often find themselves on the periphery of society. We must not let Utøya lead to further division when the opportunity of living togther in Norway is so inspiring.
I will always remember July 22 as one of the worst days of my life. Just like the horrific 9/11 attacks, this day shocked me and will keep reminding me of the murderous intent to kill. For such can be the power of hate.
I am Norwegian. My parents emigrated from Pakistan some forty years back. Their arrival along with other immigrants from Asia and Africa in the sixties and seventies was a seismic shift in the history of Norwegian migration. Although Norwegian migration goes back more than a thousand years, it is often discussed as if its beginning was when the non-western immigration started.
It is often argued that integration was a non-existing problem before the “new” migration. But looking back at the history of immigration to Norway, even European and Nordic migrants with similar culture and heritage struggled to adapt and fit in. Norwegian emigration to the United States shows how integration, despite similarities with host societies, can take many generations.
That differences cause tensions is almost inevitable. As time passed, the cultural differences in Norway became more visible and skepticism coupled with prejudice started to slowly grow. As a family, we experienced some prejudice. I remember being called “Pakkis”, but on the whole it did not affect us that much. In some sense, I felt things were getting better, that people were gradually getting to know each other despite their differences. Problematic issues such as forced marriages and honour killings were gradually and firmly brought into focus. Walls were coming down and young Norwegians with foreign parents were starting to involve themselves and take part in important public discussions. In other words, civic participation was increasing.
The new generation was already a step ahead of their foreign parents, acquiring higher education, working and participating in most fields of society. They even dared to challenge some of the patriarchal and oppressive practices. I belong to the generation who was, and still is, trying to fill the generational and cultural gap. But these signs of movement led me to believe in a promising future, despite the remaining challenges and hurdles..
Then 9/11 happened and changed the world as we knew it. A new era began, fuelled largely by fear and the threat of a “new enemy”. The faith of billions was hijacked by terrorists who placed Islam in such a negative light that Muslims all over the world, especially those living in Europe and the US, deeply felt the stigma. Many Muslims who previously practiced their religion in a relaxed manner now started to either distance themselves or get even closer to this side of their identity which was now under attack. The growing gap between “us” and “them” became even clearer four years later, with the controversy over Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The reactions varied from shock, disappointment, and sadness to pure outrage, resulting in angry threats and violence involving some foreign embassies and citizens in Muslim countries.
The shock, however, was mutual, and Norwegians, as many other Europeans, had difficulties comprehending the strong condemnation of what many thought was within the limits of freedom of speech. It was argued that other religions have been similarly mocked and insulted without such uproar. What one seemed to forget was the bigger picture: the Islamic world was already feeling under attack.
In 1989, Norway experienced something similar with the publishing of Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses and the attempted murder of its chief publisher in Norway, William Nygård. The case was never solved, but many believe that this was linked to Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie and his publishers. After this incident, Muslims experienced increased fear and skepticism.
Before 9/11, I hardly knew or saw anyone who wore a hijab or a long beard. Over the past decade, this has changed. Muslims, and young people in particular, have become more conservative in search of a stronger religious identity. In my opinion, this is partly because many do not feel accepted and often find themselves on the periphery of society. They seek belonging elsewhere. As we have seen, international events have greatly influenced these changes in Norway and Europe.
The at times visible and sometimes loud calls from conservative Muslims have added to the fear of losing values and a way of life which most Norwegians, including myself and other Muslim Norwegians, cherish. A few Islamic extremists in Norway are themselves responsible for fuelling this fear which, in some cases, has become full blown hatred, contributing to the right wing extremists’ combustible agenda of hatred. Both sides are locked in a symbiotic relationship, nurturing each other's brand of hatred while being firmly placed on opposing ends.
What scares me the most is that the man behind the July 22 attacks in Oslo and on Utøya island, sane or insane, is not alone when it comes to his kind of ideology. He shares his beliefs with others and does have followers. This is as alarming, if not more so, as the Islamic fundamentalists who have already ruined a lot for Muslims and unfortunately continue to do so. Quite a few Norwegians believe Islam and Muslims are a threat to Norway. Even some intellectuals and academics share this view. This one-sided negativity combined with some Norwegian Muslims’ desire to carry on victimizing themselves by vocally lashing out their frustrations, is harming others. And none more so than Muslim youth.
I strongly believe gaps can be bridged and matters mended. Fear has to be deconstructed by facts and knowledge. Only constructive and positive thinking can make us overcome difficulties. I am a proud Norwegian Muslim with a rich Pakistani heritage. Norway still is as close to heaven on earth as you can get no matter where you come from, which colour or beliefs you have. We are a young nation in more than one way, and change takes time. We shall overcome!