NEWS ANALYSIS: There’s been a rash of trials in Norway lately involving alleged terrorist activity, support for terrorists or threats from Islamic extremists. Running through most of them is the conflict between provocative rhetoric and Norwegians’ much-cherished right to freedom of expression. Some now think the courts’ interpretation of the latter has gone too far.
One of the frequent faces in court this week was a young Islamic extremist who seems to thrive on provocation and public attention. He’s been charged with encouraging terror and threatening court officials, Jews and journalists. “There is no doubt that his expressions are an attack on democratic values,” wrote commentator Joacim Lund in Norway’s largest newspaper, Aftenposten, this week. And then came Lund’s proverbial questions: “What do we really have to tolerate in the name of freedom of expression? When can it be time to pound our fists on the table and say that ‘enough’s enough?'”
Limits can be placed
As journalists studying in the US are taught, freedom of speech does not extend to someone yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is none. Lund pointed out that Norwegians often speak about freedom of expression as an absolute right, but such freedom doesn’t always extend to them either. Like in most other countries, Norway has put limits on freedom of expression in the law. Threats, for example, are not allowed, and that’s why the young Islamist was sentenced to jail on those charges, if only for 60 days.
Extremists like him can come in many forms, though, whether they’re Christian fundamentalists, neo-Nazis or Islamists, and most have learned how to formulate their threats so that they can get away with them. They’re also learning how to praise and thus promote terrorism and get away with that, too. Even though the young leader of an extremist Islamic group in Norway who was on trial again this week had hailed the terrorist attack on Statoil’s gas plant in Algeria, the bomb attack at the Boston Marathon, the hatcheting of a British soldier and the attack on a shopping center in Kenya (in which a Norwegian was among the terrorists and also killed), the court ruled that was within the law and the defendant’s attorney was predictably delighted. He called the appeals court’s evaluation of his client’s “unpopular” opinions a sign of “strength in a democracy and for the rule of law that we shall and must protect.”
Courts ‘out of touch’
Aftenposten reported that the Norwegian people don’t seem to agree. Researchers at the University of Bergen, Lund wrote, have conducted a survey to chart public opinion of what must be tolerated in the name of freedom of expression. It does not include the sorts of remarks regularly spewed out by 29-year-old Ubaydullah Hussain.
The university’s survey determined that a majority believe that a Muslim congregations should have the same democratic rights as all others. Extremist organizations like Hussain’s Profetens Ummah, the anti-immigration organization Pegida or the anti-Islam group SIAM, however, should be limited in what they can express.
Elisabeth Ivarsflaten, an assistant professor at the University of Bergen, said the survey’s findings clearly show that most Norwegians want to rein in organizations that don’t clearly respect democratic principles, non-violence and core human rights against discrimination. In the Hussain case, the public backed his prosecution, and not, ultimately, the ruling by the court.
Lund acknowledged that the voice of the people is not always best-suited to rule on such a case. “But sometimes the courts are so out of touch with the will of the people that it defies our sense of justice being served,” Lund wrote. “Like in this case.” With prosecutors pondering an appeal of Hussain’s acquittal to the Supreme Court, Lund mused whether Norway’s highest court will prove itself to be more in touch with the people, “and rule that enough’s enough.”