Norway’s state broadcasting company NRK has received more than 3,000 complaints over an upcoming new TV program, tied to the parliamentary election in September, that allows its Muslim anchor to wear her hijab on air. “I see that there are strong and dark forces that don’t want young Muslims to be visible,” claims NRK’s chief, Thor Gjermund Eriksen.
The complaints started pouring in late last week after plans for the new program, meant to help young viewers choose among Norway’s many political parties, began being publicized in local media. The NRK program is hosted by Faten Mahdi Al-Hussaini, a 22-year-old Muslim woman who sprang to national fame in 2014 when she unleashed a fiery appeal against Islamic extremists during a rally in front of Parliament.
Al-Hussaini accused Muslim extremists and terrorists of not following Islam and instead following the devil. She was both hailed for her bravery and hit by death threats for her outspokenness, which has continued after she founded a group called JustUnity, which works to fight against extremism.
She was chosen by NRK to host what’s being called a “mini-documentary” that attempts to decipher the various political parties’ platforms. Al-Hussaini herself is presented as having no idea which party should get her own vote. The program, with four episodes that debuts August 31, will trace her own process of choosing a party, and is thus called Fatima tar valget (Fatima makes a choice).
Prepared for controversy
“It’s been so much fun to show another side of myself than the serious face the public has seen before,” Fatima told newspaper Aftenposten earlier this month, before the complaints to NRK started coming in. She related how the program depicts her as “the Faten my friends know, who poses stupid questions and says things I can regret. At the same time, this is important because there are many young voters who don’t have any idea who they should vote for. I hope to help them by finding out myself.”
Al-Hussaini, born in Oslo to parents from Iraq, was prepared for more criticism from non-Muslims and Muslims alike “because I shake hands with men, because I took on this role, because I wear a hijab, because I have a lot of opinions. I’m ‘too Norwegian’ for the minority milieu and ‘too foreign’ for the Norwegian milieu. I don’t fit in anywhere. I’m caught between two quite diverse cultures, and there are many like me. Is there a political party that can represent me? That’s what I’m trying to find out.”
She also was well aware that she will be the first program leader on NRK to wear a hijab, “so I know there will be some attention paid to that.”
NRK chief: ‘Upset and quite sad’
While Al-Hussaini was clearly prepared for controversy, NRK seems taken aback by it. “I’m both very upset and quite sad,” NRK chief Eriksen told Aftenposten on Monday. “In the past few days we’re received more than 3,000 complaints, and in addition we’ve received email that we almost can’t publish (because of its inflammatory content).”
“And this has been set off because a young, Norwegian, Muslim woman is visible in the public arena,” Eriksen continued. He described the content of many of the complaints as “hateful,” with many accusing NRK bosses of wanting, at the same time they’re allowing a hijab, to remove Christian symbols from the TV screen. They have referred to an issue in 2013 when another NRK anchor wasn’t allowed to wear her cross while reporting the news.
Eriksen thinks the comparison is “absurd,” because news anchors and reporters must be neutral. “This (Al-Hussaini’s program) has nothing to do with the debate over whether news anchors can use a cross, a hijab or a green cap.”
Linda Hofstad Helleland, Norway’s government minister in charge of cultural affairs, also thinks it’s “sad” that so many negative reactions have come in. She has publicly opposed use of the niqab that completely covers Muslim women including their faces, and cut funding for an Islamic group that hired a woman who wears a niqab. Helleland, who represents the Conservative Party, nonetheless decries the reaction against Al-Hussaini’s hijab, as does Arild Grande Labour Party, who suggests the flood of complaints is “organized” because so many have flooded in at the same time.
“I had hoped we’ve come farther, and that there was room (in Norway) for folks with various religious and cultural preferences on TV,” Grande told Aftenposten. The lack of tolerance for Al-Hussaini’s hijab comes just as concerns are rising over right-wing as well as Islamic extremists in Norway.
Al-Hussaini, meanwhile, has said she’s most concerned about integration in Norway, and which political parties can best promote it. “All of them have a ways to go” in tackling the challenges of integration, Al-Hussaini told Aftenposten. As many have noted, not only must immigrants integrate themselves into Norwegian society, the society must accept and integrate immigrants as well. “One of the most important things that can be done is to let the highly educated refugees who come here use their competence, and be a resource instead of a cost factor,” Al-Hussaini said. She’s intent on using her own competence, despite the controversy that involves.