UPDATED: Norway’s conservative government announced on Monday that it has lost confidence in Norway’s Islamic Council (Islamsk Råd Norge). Conflicts have swirled both internally and around the council, and Culture Minister Linda Helleland said the government’s annual financial grant of NOK 1.3 million (USD 165,000) would not be paid out.
“There is considerable doubt whether the Islamic Council is able to carry out its assignment as a bridge-building organization,” Helleland told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Monday morning. She said there also were concerns over whether the council was contributing to cooperation or strengthening dialog, “for which there is a great need.”
Helleland’s ministry froze funding to the council earlier this year, after it used money budgeted for communication work to hire an administrative assistant who wears a niqab. Helleland and many others including several Muslim leaders objected strongly to the garment that covers everything except the eyes of the woman wearing it, arguing that would not enhance communication in Norway.
The council also has lost five of its largest members including mosques and organizations that expressed concern over the council’s direction. Internal conflicts and debate over the council’s controversial secretary general Mehtab Afsar have been rampant, leading top Muslim politicians in Norway to also criticize the council and Afsar. “The gravestone for the Islamic Council has been ordered,” former Member of Parliament Akhtar Chaudhry told NRK last week, just after the five members withdrew. Chaudhry had lashed out against the council on his personal blog and put most of the blame on Afsar.
So did Abid Raja, a Member of Parliament for the Liberal Party. Raja, also a Muslim, claimed that Afsar can “only thank himself” for the problems the council has been facing. Raja, an attorney by profession, accused Afsar of putting his own interests ahead of those of the council, and thus exhibiting an “extreme arrogance that’s seldom found in Norway.” Raja wrote in a message to NRK that Afsar had “torn down the confidence that the Islamic Council had built up over many years,” through his statements, actions, behaviour and treatment of others, not least the government minister.
‘Sad for Muslims’ in Norway
“It’s sad for Muslims who need a credible and strong council,” Raja stated, “but also sad for a country that previously was well-served by a functioning IRN (Islamsk Råd Norge). Afsar declined to respond to NRK’s calls for comment.
The council is supposed to be an umbrella organization for Muslim groups in Norway, charged with building bridges not only among them but also with other religions, political movements and society in general. The council has instead been plagued by the niqab issue, conflicts around its board of directors, a failed attempt to oust Afsar last year on the grounds it was illegal, and a fraud case against one of the council’s directors.
Several Muslim leaders had supported Helleland’s decision to freeze funding earlier this year. On Monday the leader of the Norwegian council of faiths said it was also reconsidering its cooperation with the council under Afsar. Last week, Norway’s poultry and meat cooperative, Nortura, cancelled its NOK 1 million contract with the council to verify halal products. “It’s important for us that the council has the confidence of authorities and the society at large,” stated Ellen Flø Skaugen of Nortura. “Our impression is that, unfortunately, doubt has been sown around that confidence.”
Afsar has earlier dismissed the criticism against the Islamic Council, and claimed in the niqab case that it would have been discriminatory under Norwegian law if it had not hired the woman it deemed best-qualified for the job, simply because of her religious preference. When four members including the Islamic Fellowship of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Norway and the Islamic Federation withdrew, IRN attempted in a press release on October 2 to downplay their significance and claimed they had posed an “ultimatum” to fire Afsar. The board claimed it couldn’t accept the ultimatum. “We think it’s sad that these members didn’t want to continue in IRN,” stated the press release with no attribution, adding a claim that IRN operated in line with democratic organizational rules.
Helleland stated that her ministry is ultimately responsible that taxpayers’ money is used for its intended purpose. “We don’t think that’s happening now (at the Islamic Council) and therefore want others to carry out this important work,” Helleland said. Raja called on the council’s board to fire Afsar and try to “clean up” itself, “now that it has a knife at its throat.” If that fails, Raja encouraged “everyone who has broken out of the Islamic Council to start a new umbrella organization for Muslim groups.” There was no still no comment from Afsar by midday Monday and reporters met closed doors at Islamic Råd’s office in Oslo’s Grønland district.
Afsar eventually faced reporters who were trying to get his side of the story later in the day, and he told NRK that he thought it was “disappointing” that the ministry of culture “didn’t recognize the work we’re doing.” The council published a new press release on Monday in which it stated that it “did not share” the ministry’s view that there was “considerable doubt” over whether it fulfilled the requirements for state funding. The council claimed it had presented necessary documentation of its work and concrete goals.
Five more Islamic organizations, meanwhile, cancelled their membership from the council on Monday. They claimed they no longer wanted to be represented by a council leadership that was “neither inclusive nor conciliatory.”