UPDATED: A Muslim member of the Norwegian parliament, Abid Raja, was among public figures reacting negatively on Tuesday to news that Norway’s Islamic Council (Islamsk Råd Norge, IRN) has hired a new colleague to handle communications who covers her face and body with a niqab. Only Leyla Hasic’s eyes can be seen by those communicating with her, and Norwegian officials fear that will only emphasize differences between the council and Norway’s open society.
“This is not a good day for Muslims, I think many Muslims will be embarrassed (by an IRN spokesperson wearing a niqab)” wrote Raja, an MP for the Liberal Party, in a message to state broadcaster NRK.
“I am deeply disappointed over IRN,” Raja continued. “This is unwise and undermines the confidence Muslims themselves need to build in relation to Norwegian society.”
IRN writes on its own website that its primary goal is to work towards making it easier for Muslims to live in compliance with Islam within Norwegian society, and contribute towards “building up a Norwegian-Muslim identity.” It also aims to promote solidarity among Muslims, where the use of the hijab and niqab is also a matter of dispute.
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Newspaper Klassekampen reported that the appointment of the 32-year-old Hasic was made after the Norwegian government’s ministry of culture granted IRN nearly half-a-million kroner (USD 60,000) to help it strenghten its dialogue with other Norwegians and among Muslims. Now Culture Minister Linda Hofstad Helleland of the Conservative Party fears IRN will instead contribute to increase distance and differences.
“Islamsk Råd Norge has stated itself that it has a goal of building bridges and being dialogue partners,” Helleland wrote on her own Facebook page Tuesday. “The organization was supposed to create mutual understanding and respect for Muslims and non-Muslims in Norway. When Islamsk Råd allows employees to use a niqab, it can get in the way of those good goals. It will create greater distance and less understanding.”
Helleland noted that “in Norway, clothing that covers the entire face and body is foreign for most of us. I live in one of Norway’s most multi-religious communities (Drammen) but I have never seen, not there nor elsewhere in Norway, women wearing a niqab. We are an open society. We see each other. We respect each other. That should continue.”
Hasic has earlier been a strong defender of clothing that covers the entire face and body, saying that wearing a niqab allows her to “feel free.” Now she’ll reportedly be in charge of communications work and information technology for IRN, although there was no mention of her or her new position on IRN’s own, newly redesigned website on Tuesday afternoon.
IRN’s secretary general, Mehtab Afsar, told NRK late Tuesday afternoon that Hasic will not be “fronting” the council nor will she be taking part in the “bridge-building and dialogue” efforts. “She will carry out various assignments at the office, from document work and communications with members,” he told NRK, suggesting that all the criticism of her appointment was out of proportion. “We have other colleagues to work on bridge-building and we have our own dialogue committee.” He claimed that Hasic was hired on the basis of her qualifications “and not on how she’s dressed, stressing that IRN also must to be accused of discrimination based on religion or gender.
He earlier told Kassekampen that “what a person has in the head is more important that what’s on the head.” Afsar believed that shows that IRN maintains an open view.
Helleland disagreed: “Does IRN think this will make them a better bridge-builder and dialogue partner with other faiths and communities? I think this is extremely unwise and provocative.”
May withdraw state funding
She stressed that her objections are not tied to Hasic’s qualifications for the job. Rather, she said, “the Islamic Council received state funding because I believed they should do a better job as a bridge-builder. ” Asked whether she now may hold back some of the NOK 484,000 granted to the organization, Helleland indicated that was under consideration: “We’ll see. They received money to build bridges, to bring people closer together, not distance them.”
Afsar indicates there’s been a misunderstanding and suggested that a government minister “has a responsibility to be well-informed about an issue before commenting on it.”
News bureau NTB reported that Helleland’s ministry has sent a letter to IRN stressing that its funding was meant “to promote unity among Muslims and a sense of belonging in Norwegian society.” Helleland stressed that “religious freedom is very strong in Norway and it’s difficult for me to express myself about organizations like Islamsk råd, but now I choose to send a clear signal.”
NRK noted that the government has been considering banning use of the niqab in Norwegian schools, colleges and universities. Nearly all the parties in Parliament including Labour, the Socialist Left, the Center Party and Christian Democrats support a ban in public schools, and it may be in place by the end of the year.