Islamic group fails to resolve conflict

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The embattled leader of the Islamic Council of Norway failed this week to address the concerns of the government minister responsible for the council’s now-disputed government funding. Its board leader, meanwhile, is blaming the media for what he called the “bullying, harassment and discrimination” of the council’s new communications adviser who wears a face- and body-covering niqab.

Islamic Council leader Mehtab Afsar, shown here speaking at a government conference last year, failed to reassure Culture Minister Linda Hofstad Helleland following her concerns about the council’s decision to use state funds earmarked for enhanced communications to hire a woman who wears a niqab. PHOTO: Justis- og beredskaps departementet

“I stressed the need to talk about the council’s role as a dialogue partner and umbrella organization for Muslims in Norway,” Culture Minister Linda Hofstad Helleland told news bureau NTB after meeting with the Islamic Council’s secretary general Mehtab Afsar. “They were only prepared to talk about the niqab, Leyla Hasic (the woman hired who uses a niqab) and her position. I was not very reassured by the meeting.”

Helleland said she raised questions about what strategies the Islamic Council (Islamsk Råd Norge, IRN) has for its role as a dialogue partner and bridge-builder (among Muslims and with Norwegian society). “They answered that they will continue as they have before,” Helleland said. That prompted Helleland to conclude that her ministry must thus proceed with an evaluation of whether the criteria for the nearly NOK 500,000 granted by the state to finance improvements in communication and “bridge-building” have been met.

‘Turbulent’ week
The Islamic Council thus risks losing the money it used to hire Hasic, whose niqab covers everything except her eyes and is not seen as enhancing communication with either other Muslims or non-Muslims. Several members of the Islamic Council and other politicians were as provoked by Afsar’s decision to hire Hasic as Helleland was, but Afsar defends her appointment. “We don’t view Leyla Hasic as an extremist,” he told NTB. He admitted she has “said some stupid things in the past” that others have interpreted as extremist views but stressed that she expressed regret afterwards.

The leader of the Islamic Council’s board, Zaeem Shaukat, sent out a statement on Wednesday claiming that board members now sought to “put a turbulent week behind us.” Shaukat stressed that it was “sad” that a “new employee of IRN has become a victim of bullying, harassment and been publicly discriminated against because of information that was angled in the wrong direction by the media.”

Shaukat thus gave full support to both Afsar and Hasic, adding that the conflict around her niqab had been “an enormous burden” for Hasic “and those closest to her.”

Shaukat also contended that Afsar, who has been harshly criticized by several large Muslim groups that are members of the council, had handled the conflict in “a professional manner” and that “all his comments have been made in cooperation with the board.” Shaukat added that many Norwegian Muslims have shown “much engagement” in the issue, and he thanked them for their support.

He called, however, for the debate on Hasic’s employment to be of a “professional character” and he urged “respect for one another” along along with “restrain from personal attacks. We live in a democratic society where we must respect and accept disagreement.”

Hiring’s legality questioned
The latter continues to rage, with several large members threatening to leave the Islamic Council and form a new, less controversial organization. Newspaper Dagsavisen also reported on Thursday that Hasic’s employment may not even be in accordance with the council’s own guidelines. They call for all new hirings to be approved by the entire council, but Basim Ghozlan, who represents the Islamske Forbundet Rabita, told Dagsavisen it was merely presented for “orientation” and that he didn’t even know who the other job candidates had been. He also raised questions over whether Hasic’s employment was actually approved at the council’s recent annual meeting.

Afsar claims it was, and that Hasic was approved with one dissenting vote. He saw no problem with merely orienting the council members. The council’s lawyer, meanwhile, denies that the government ministry was mislead when the council applied for funding to enhance communications.

The future of the Islamic Council remained in doubt, given all the turbulence and possible funding withdrawal. Norway’s largest newspapers were editorializing against Hasic’s employment, calling it a “serious sign of poor judgment” that “defies the spirit of openness and equality. It was unclear when Helleland’s re-evaluation of the council’s state funding would be concluded.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund