Hundreds of Muslim taxi drivers in Oslo stopped working in the middle of busy periods over the past week, to protest a Norwegian newspaper’s decision to print caricatures of the prophet Mohammed. Now they face having their licenses revoked, but their protests sparked new demonstrations set to continue over the weekend in Oslo. The origin and escalation of the conflict, however, have taken on absurd dimensions.
“There are 150,000 Muslims living in Norway. All of them have been offended,” Aamir Sheikh, a politician for the Conservative Party, told aftenposten.no .
What started out as a taxi-driver protest spread to demonstrations planned both in front of the Norwegian Parliament on Friday afternoon and at the square known as Youngstorget on Saturday. Police, the Islamic Council of Norway and even the US Embassy warned the public to stay away, fearing the demonstrations would turn violent. Disruption of public transport, including bus and tram lines, was also expected.
The first impromptu protest actions occurred late Saturday night, just as bars were closing downtown and party-goers were looking for taxis home. An estimated 1,000 Muslim taxi drivers parked their cars, many of them outside Oslo City Hall, and refused to pick up passengers for several hours. Another work stoppage occurred Monday morning.
The taxi drivers, many of whom have roots in Pakistan, claimed they were protesting newspaper Dagbladet’s front-page publication of a caricature they found offensive. Newspaper Aftenposten also recently printed a caricature of the prophet Mohammed, in connection with news stories about a Danish cartoonist whose life has been threatened over caricatures he has drawn.
Meeting left conflict unresolved
The work stoppages weren’t popular with either taxi customers, Norway’s main taxi association or city officials. The city politician in charge of business matters, Øystein Sjøtveit of the Progress Party, said the protest action violated the terms of the licenses taxi drivers are granted by local authorities.
“If this happens one more time, it’s serious enough that their licenses can be revoked,” Sjøtveit told TV2. He estimated that around 1,000 licenses can be subject to revocation.
Sheikh organized a meeting this week between Dagbladet’s editor, Lars Helle, and Oslo imam Mehboob ur-Rehman. Helle said after the meeting that he thought its “tone was good,” but he refused to apologize for publishing the caricature and ur-Rehman wasn’t satisfied, indicating that more protests could thus be expected.
Organizer with a criminal record
Some organizers used social media to alert followers to a demonstration in front of the Parliament in Oslo on Friday. Emerging as one of the organizers, but refusing to take on any role of responsibility, wasArfan Bhatti, who has a long criminal record but was acquitted of terrorism charges last year. Police were clearly nervous that he was involved, as were several Muslim leaders. Bhatti, once charged with shooting at a synagogue in Oslo and planning attacks on the US and Israeli embassies, claimed he had only peaceful aims for the protest.
Bhatti’s involvement carries a major irony: It was Bhatti himself, reports newspaper Aftenposten , who first tipped Dagbladet that a nasty debate had broken out on, of all places, an online forum hosted by Norway’s intelligence agency PST. That was at the end of January, and PST felt a need to censor hate messages aimed at Jews, gays and Muslims. Bhatti felt he’d been censored as well, and Dagbladet reported his complaints, illustrating its story with the offensive caricature to which the forum had carried a link.
Bhatti then turned around and became one of those involved in the demonstrations now aimed at Dagbladet, which also was subject to an attack by hackers this week. While a vast majority of Muslims also feel offended by Dagbladet’s publication, though, many planned to avoid the protests because Bhatti was involved. As one told newspaper Aftenposten on Friday, “he’s not serious, and not a good role model at all.”