The bestselling title ever published on Islam and Muslims in Norway was self-published by a private publisher in 2015. Entitled Islam: The Eleventh Plague in a direct translation of its original Norwegian version, and Islam: Europe Invaded, America Warned in its US edition, it is the work of a self-declared Norwegian secular feminist activist with far-right sympathies, Ms. Hege Storhaug, and has to date sold over fifty thousand copies in Norway. Sales of Storhaug’s book were boosted by lavish mainstream media coverage in Norway, by social media recommendations of the book by Norwegian cabinet ministers from the populist right-wing Progress Party, which has been in power since 2013, and by a group of anonymous Norwegian corporate donors who funded the book’s distribution to all members of the Norwegian Parliament and offered all public libraries free copies. Due to her networks in Norwegian corporate billionaire circles, Storhaug has also managed to have the book translated into Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Polish, Hungarian, and English. Storhaug has since 2001 run the Oslo-based civil society organization Human Rights Service (HRS), which receives 1.5 million Norwegian kroner in annual funding from the Norwegian government through the state budget, and a further 1.5 million in annual funding from private contributors, including some of Norway’s richest men.
In her book, Storhaug declares that “we” in contemporary Europe are in a “civilizational war,” the likes of which “we haven’t seen since the 1930s.” It comes as little surprise that, according to Storhaug, “Islam” is the enemy with which “we” are “at war.” Echoing the conspiratorial “Eurabia”-genre which inspires her work, Storhaug asserts that “Islam has waged war against the West for 1400 years in order to make Westerners vassals under Islam’s imperialist banner.” Storhaug describes Islam as “more dangerous than Nazism,” a “sexual doctrine for maniacs,” and “nothing but a political ideology,” advanced by salafi-jihadist terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al-Qaida who represent “true Islam.”
Norway, with its five million inhabitants, an estimated 4.2 percent of whom are of Muslim background, has seen a renewed focus on hate speech since the white Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik’s terrorist attacks in Oslo and Utøya on July 22, 2011. Beginning in 2012, the Norwegian government has funded international civil society campaigns against hate speech, and Norway’s first specialized Hate Crimes Unit was established by Oslo Police Headquarters at Manglerud in Oslo East in 2013. The establishment of this unit has meant that the number of hate speech prosecutions and convictions under Norwegian General Code Section 185 has significantly increased; that forms of anti-Muslim hate speech, which were rarely if ever prosecuted before, have increasingly become part of Norwegian hate speech jurisprudence; and that there is now a national roll-out of government-supported police and prosecution initiatives in the realm of hate speech regulation.
And yet, any observer of Norwegian hate speech litigation witnesses the sad spectacle of an endless number of defendants from the ranks of the politically and economically marginal sectors of society. The defendants in such cases in Oslo Magistrate’s Court in recent years have included a dysfunctional male loner in his fifties living on social welfare shouting racist abuse against a young hijab-wearer whilst shopping at a local grocery store in Oslo East; an unmarried and unemployed male in his late twenties living at home with his elderly mum in Oslo West and posting racist hate speech against a Norwegian-African television celebrity on her public Facebook pages; and an unemployed couple living on social benefits hurling racist epithets against Norwegian teenagers with minority backgrounds on a public bus. Actors who receive government and corporate support, and who have been far more influential in creating and sustaining a political climate in which 34.9 percent of Norwegians have starkly negative attitudes toward Muslims, and a further 30 percent openly subscribe to the central tenet of the “Eurabia”-genre, namely that Muslims are in Norway and Europe in order to take over Europe in the name of Islam, go completely free.
As Richard Moon contends, the category “religion” does not fit easily into the framework of laws against hate speech. There is, first of all, the perennial question as to what gets defined, recognized, and sanctioned as “religion” in a Western legal context, a fundamental question raised by the scholarship of Talal Asad, Tomoko Masuzawa, and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan. Though nowhere stated explicitly, the Norwegian state does for all practical purposes see religion as having quintessentially to do with shared rituals, faith, and practices.
Norwegian hate speech regulations in existence since 1970 make a general distinction between attacks on a religious group or religious individuals (which may amount to hate speech) and attacks on groups or individuals’ religious beliefs (which no matter how harsh or intemperate, are generally permitted). Norway is not an exceptional case: international and national laws and regulations on hate speech generally make this distinction.
The Norwegian Supreme Court affirmed this distinction in the 1981 Vivi Krogh case. The case concerned a well-known far-right Norwegian who, in reaction to the influx of Pakistani labor migrants in the 1970s, had distributed some ten thousand stencillated racist leaflets in postboxes in and around the Norwegian capital of Oslo targeting members of the Pakistani immigrant community. The Supreme Court found Krogh guilty of breaching Norwegian hate speech restrictions under Norwegian General Penal Code Section 135(a) (since 2015, Section 185), but noted that the leaflets’ offensive statements concerning Islam constituted speech protected by the Norwegian Constitution’s Section 100 on freedom of expression. Although Norwegian free speech absolutists regularly proclaim a proverbial “slippery slope” leading from legal protections against hate speech to legal sanctions against “religious critique,” the fact remains that Norwegian courts have since 1981 consistently adhered to this principle.
Add to this that the Norwegian law against blasphemy, Norwegian General Penal Code Section 142, for all practical purposes a “dead law” (last used in a successful conviction in 1914, and never used to prosecute anyone for anti-Muslim or anti-Jewish speech in Norway), was abolished by parliament in 2015.
In a context of widespread Islamophobia in the West, there is little doubt that many Muslims continue to experience attacks on their beliefs, practices, symbols, and venerated prophets as attacks on themselves. Perhaps an unresolvable dilemma: anyone who has ever studied Islamophobic literature of the kind that Hege Storhaug produces in Norway and Mark Steyn in Canada will know that essentialized and racializing ideas about the “sliding signifier” that Islam has become and its alleged intrinsic and deterministic relation with this or that Muslim are ubiquitous in such literature. In Hege Storhaug’s Norway, representations of Islam and Muslims, and their circulation through mainstream media, have potentially far more pernicious consequences for Muslims who are racialized through these representations than for Muslims who face racist slurs on public transport.
And, yet, it seems doubtful that legal regulations against hate speech can do away with the operative distinctions between attacks against religious groups or individuals and attacks against their beliefs or practices without becoming vulnerable to the “slippery slope.” For it goes without saying that hate speech laws cannot legislate against “offense or hurt feelings.” This is also one of the reasons that European countries and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHtR) have in recent years increasingly turned away from legal acceptance of blasphemy provisions.
Though the very term Islamophobia remains highly contested in Norway, the reluctance to define anti-Muslim speech as a form of hate speech and to include it in the ambit of speech targeted by hate speech legislation has changed following the Breivik attacks. But as Maleiha Malik has shown, legislation against hate speech is not always an efficient way of countering racism and discrimination in mainstream society. In spite of numerous recent convictions in anti-Muslim hate speech cases in Norway, Islamophobic ideas and sentiments are by any measure as mainstream and widespread today as before Breivik. These ideas and sentiments can now also count on the support of more influential backers, from government cabinet ministers to corporate billionaires to local civil society organizations.
A realistic view of existing laws and legal practices reveals that most hate speech regulations entrench the distinction between speech that targets religious persons or groups and speech that targets religious beliefs. They therefore fail to address more systemic racism. From the recent Norwegian hate speech cases I have analyzed, it is also clear that hate speech prosecutions are bound to target the anti-Muslim (and other) hate speech of actors with low socioeconomic status and low levels of education, whose hate speech is but a symptom of the current societal climate, rather than powerful actors who know only too well what kind of anti-Muslim (or other) hate speech they can get away with.
Western states and corporate elites’ support of and funding of Islamophobia in our neoliberal times do ultimately matter more than hate speech and its legal regulation.
Excellent piece by Sindre Bangstad. A brilliant analyst. Reminds me of the case of London Solicitor Farid El Diwany who litigated in Norway in 2001-2007 against the bigotry and Islamophobia of Verdens Gang, Bergens Tidende, Drammens Tidende, Dagbladet and Aftenposten … and ended up with two trumped-up convictions for harassment. The Norwegian bigots hated
his norwayuncovered.com website as he’d named his abusers.