17th of May leader defied critics

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Shoaib Sultan was born in Pakistan but grew up in Oslo and then, from the age of 10, in a small village northeast of the capital, near the border to Hedmark County. Not everyone thought that qualified him to be leader of the organizing committee for 17th of May celebrations in Oslo this year, but Sultan defied his critics and led the parade with Oslo Mayor Fabian Stang on Friday.

Shoaib Sultan didn't let right-wing extremists' threats scare him away from leading Oslo's 17th of May Committee. He received strong support from, among others, fellow politicians on both the right and the left. PHOTO: Miljøpartiet De Grønne

Shoaib Sultan didn’t let right-wing extremists’ threats scare him away from leading Oslo’s 17th of May Committee. He received strong support from, among others, fellow politicians on both the right and the left. PHOTO: Miljøpartiet De Grønne

“We lived in a tiny place called Togstad,” Sultan told newspaper Dagsavisen last week. “My father bought the small local grocery store there.” He thinks that may be why he has a fondness for the folk songs and music of Norwegian artist Øystein Sunde, who comes from the bigger town of Skarnes in Hedmark, not far away.

There were only 10 students in his elementary school class and Sultan was the only Muslim child. His family were the only Muslims in the district at that time. He’d grown up marching every year in Oslo’s 17th of May parade, the largest in the country, so it was a transition to suddenly be part of a tiny parade in the closest village to Togstad, Skogsbygda. “But that was fine,” he said. The important thing was to take part, and be part of Norway’s national day.

Nearly 30 years later, Sultan became a very big part of the Constitution Day festivities in Oslo when the mayor appointed him as leader of the 17th of May Committee. In the intervening years, Sultan had  left Norway to study political science and management at Colorado State University in the US , where he earned both a bachelor’s degree and an MBA. He worked for a while at the university but eventually returned home to Norway, became secretary general of Islamsk Råd Norge (the Islamic Council of Norway) and now works as an adviser for the Antirasistisk Senter (Anti-Racism Center) in Oslo, where he’s responsible for tracking extremist groups. He’s an active commentator and politician in the small, environmentally oriented party MDG (Miljøpartiet De Grønne) which currently has no representation in Parliament but hopes to win some in the upcoming fall elections.

Threatened
It was apparently his time at the Islamic Council that set off reaction among right-wing groups like SIAN (Stop the Islamification of Norway) that would have frightened most people. “When the Oslo City Council and the Conservative Party’s Mayor Fabian Stang let an Islamist with the name of Shoaib Sultan, earlier leader of the Islamic Council, be named leader of this year’s 17th of May Committee it can only have been done as a provocation,” wrote SIAN on its website earlier this year. That led to establishment of a Facebook group called “We who demand Shoaib Sultan’s resignation from the 17th of May Committee in Oslo.” And then things got really ugly: “Sad that we’ll need to carry clubs in the 17th of May parade this year,” wrote one commentator. “A club? Take an Ag3 (automatic weapon),” responded another. “Or a bow and arrow,” continued the threatening assault on Sultan.

When the men behind such comments were tracked down by the established media, they denied they had any plans to attack Sultan in the middle of the children’s parade along Karl Johans Gate. Some later claimed they reacted to what they claimed were his failure to crack down on Muslim extremists during his time at the Islamic Council.  The threats were nonetheless enough to prompt Stang to announce that he and vice-mayor Libe Rieber-Mohn, along with members of the City Council would be marching side by side with Sultan and “back him up” if anything happened.

“That was nice of Fabian,” said Sultan, who appreciated the support but couldn’t quite picture the jovial Oslo mayor as his body guard. Stang was so disturbed by the hateful comments on Facebook that he called Sultan in for a meeting to ask “who are these people writing to you? Where do they come from?” One was from Kristiansand, Sultan told him, to which Stang replied: “Why on earth should I worry about what someone in Kristiansand thinks abut what we’re doing here in Oslo?”

Not surprised
There were no clubs or weapons or bows and arrows during Friday’s parade and the city council and committee members were all smiles as they marched first up to the Royal Palace. One man complained in a letter to the editor of newspaper Aftenposten last week that Sultan had not only failed to react to the Muslim extremists four years ago but also refused to distance himself from the death sentences placed on homosexuals in some Muslim countries. Sultan was undeterred.

“I’m maybe the only person who wasn’t surprised that this got so bad,” he said. “I’m used to it, to an aggressive tone. I don’t like it, but have to live with it.” He told Dagsavisen that “I don’t react very positively when someone tries to threaten me” and he did fire off some commentaries in local media.

Mostly, though, he said he just tried to stay focused on the 17th of May events and efforts so that all of Oslo’s children would “have a fine day. That’s really where the focus should be.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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