Norway’s largest Muslim organization has declared that it’s withdrawing its membership in the country’s Islamic council (Islamsk Råd Norge, IRN). The five largest members of IRN gathered for what newspaper VG called a crisis meeting Tuesday night, after IRN controversially hired a new colleague who wears a face-covering niqab to help handle communications.
The Islamic Fellowship Bosnia and Hercegovina has nearly 10,000 members in Norway, including many Bosnians who came to Norway as refugees from the war in the Balkans. It called the hiring of their own fellow Bosnian Leyla Hasic “unacceptable” because of her insistence on wearing a niqab that covers her entire body and face except for her eyes.
“The Islamic Council can carry on without The Islamic Fellowship Bosnia-Hercegovina on board!” wrote Senaid Kobilica, its chief imam, in a statement published on social media. Kobilica, who led the Islamic Council himself until 2013, confirmed to VG that his organization no longer wants to be a member.
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The Bosnian- and other large Muslim organizations at Tuesday night’s meeting also issued a joint statement in which they expressed “deep concern” over recent developments within the council.
“Given the situation that has developed over the past year, we are worried that IRN does not in fact play the role the organization is meant to,” the group wrote. Their statement was signed by The Islamic Federation (Det Islamske Forbundet Rabita), Central Jamaat-e Ahl-e Sunnat Norway (CJAS), the Islamic Cultural Centre Norway (ICC), The Albanian Islamic Cultural Center (Albansk Islamsk Kultursenter), The Islamic Information Association (Den Islamske Informasjonsforeningen, DIIF) and Det Islamske fellesskap Bosnia og Herzegovina.
“IRN seems to have ignored its assignment in Norwegian society, at a time when dialogue is more important than ever,” the statement continued. “This is a disturbing development and does not serve Norwegian Muslims’ interests in the society.”
Basim Ghozlan of The Islamic Federation, which operates the Rabita mosque in Oslo, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Wednesday that it was also considering leaving the Islamic Council. “We haven’t decided yet, but the thought of withdrawing our membership is also there,” said Ghozlan, leader of the federation that has around 3,000 members in Norway.
They’re in an uproar after the Islamic Council hired Hasic, who has been an outspoken defender of the niqab, for a new job aimed at strengthening the council’s communications work. The position is believed to be at least partially funded by a new government grant that was meant to help the council improve its outreach and dialogue work.
Critics, including several elected officials, called the hiring a “provocation” and claimed it undermines the council’s mission to “build bridges and dialogue” between Norway’s Muslim community and the country’s otherwise open society. Government Minister Linda Hofstad Helleland believes the niqab, which she called “very foreign,” inhibits communication instead of enhancing it.
The leader of the Islamic Council, Mehtab Afsar, dismissed the criticism Tuesday evening, suggesting it was out of proportion and misguided. He claimed that Hasic, who earlier has taken part in public debates, would not be involved in “fronting” the organization and would rather be assigned to work with the office.
That has not halted the criticism, with others calling on Wednesday for the government to withdraw its funding for the council. Helleland was also summoning members of the Islamic Council to a meeting to hear IRN’s own evaluation of what she called “the serious situation they have placed themselves in.” Helleland indicated that the state’s funding of the council was also being re-evaluated.