Oslo: 'Morality police' in immigrant neighborhood
Bobby Burner is hungry after work and is chewing a samosa while walking on Grønlandsleiret street. Suddenly two young strangers block his way. Curtly and aggressively they ask: "Don't you know it's Ramadan? You should know better!"
Sosionomen, originally from Iran, might look like a Muslim, but he isn't. During the Muslim fast last fall he was - as so many times before - in the capital's multicultural district where the trendiest cafes are next to the cheapest curry stands.
In Grønland turban-wearing men leave Friday prayers as the young and trendy start the long weekend in town. The city's greatest concentration of khat joints and minarets are here. Burner likes the cultural diversity. But in particular after September 11, 2001 he's noticed a negative development: increased use of social control, hijab and full-body veils. More men with beards.
"To be stopped on the street I see as harassing and threatening. It was worse than being attacked. There's no evidence for this form of harassment," says Burner.
In the fall there were sharp responses when a gay couple who walked hand in hand in Grønland, was attacked and insulted. The man who harassed them said that they were in a Muslim district where 'this sort of thing' is undesirable.
The following debate was mostly about the treatment of visible gays. A direct consequences is that the summer's gay parade moved and will start in Grønland's square.
But there are many others who experience as much strict control when they walk in the exotic street community.
In working on his dialog meetings about integration, Abid Raja got reports from many Muslim girls about how stressful they see Grønland. Some stay away, others adapt and dress in traditional clothing to avoid persecution. Most widespread are the non-verbal harassment of aggressive looks of rebuke, scorn and contempt.
Both Raja and others stress that it only applies to a limited group. But some men act as a religious police for Muslim girls who dress in Western clothing, because they fear that they daughters will do the same.
"Even strange girls they don't know, the men try to control. the control is becoming more widespread, but in Grønland acceptance for it has developed," says Raja.
Somali author Amal Aden thinks it's frightening that social control is becoming much stricter since she moved from Grønland eight years ago. She tells of young girls where men touch their breasts and pinch their bottom, claiming that it's the girls' own fault for not covering themselves.
"This affects women and girls who in the opinion of these men are lightly dressed, almost naked, when they go in jeans and Western clothing."
Last fall Bobby Burner was harassed once when he was eating a fruit while going into a barbershop where he was a regular customer.
He noticed the barber's hostile gave, the other customers who exchanged glances and looked contemptuously at him.
Curtly the barber informed him it was Ramadan, before he turned on the radio with Koran recitations. With quick, angry movements the barber started working on Burner's hair.
"He acted as if I was impure, which he would rather not touch. He wanted to get rid of me as quickly as possible."
Burner thinks we will see more segregation than integration from now on.
"Many of minority background feel pressured by the majority population to develop their own community. Invisible walls are being built between people who create their own society with their own rules. They prefer to interact with each other and have little contact with others," he says.
Fatima Tetouani wants to have the most contacts across the borders. But when she sits at the Evita cafe with a view to the winter-cold Smalgangen street, she's surprised by how segregated her neighborhoods actually is.
When she moved from Morocco to Oslo and her Norwegian husband ten years ago, she expected a Western, open society.
"But Grønland is more Muslim than Morocco," she says and shakes her head.
"I've never seen a burka before I came here. I haven't never before seen ugly looks if I ate or drank a cup of coffee during Ramadan." She nods towards the tables out on the sidewalk.
"I don't care about them and sit visibly out there. but many hide themselves inside and don't dare let anybody see them. They fear the strict [men] with the beard, hijab or burka."
Like in the mosque
Tetouani's son was supposed to start Vahl school, with over 95% foreign language-speaking students. But after a visit she said no. "All the girls were covered, I felt like I was in the mosque. My son will not be harassed because he has a father who eats pork and isn't circumcised."
She's worked in a kindergarten in the area and knows that it happens. A mother from Algeria though she wasn't being heard when she scolded her son for playing with Norwegian children.
"You know they eat pork and will go to hell," Tetouani remembers the mother's admonition.
She sighs. "Tradition and poverty means that they continue to isolate themselves in Norway. The serious thing is that they try to occupy this district."
A girlfriend visited her this summer. Dressed in a short summer dress, her meeting with Grønland was so unpleasant that she will never come back. The girlfriend didn't want to speak to Aftenposten.
"She's afraid. Religion is the most dangerous thing to speak about," explains Tetouani.
Author Walid al-Kubaisi can confirm that it can be dangerous to talk about, and especially to criticize, religion. For years he's been actively participating in the debate about Norwegian Muslims and integration. Now he lies low. Several times he was asked for move from Grønland and was told that "this is our area."
Three young Somalis stopped him outside his apartment, shouted and screamed and threatened to kill him if he didn't stop criticizing Islam.
"Not everybody is willing to say their opinion and pay the price. I don't want any more trouble," he says and thinks it's important for Norwegians to understand what's going on.
"They don't want to meddle in the conflicts of immigrants. But I am concerned. It's not everybody. but those who isolate themselves in this ghetto, are allowed to continue to control others."
At the Ariana grocery story at the corner, Al-Kubaisi speaks with both the former and current owners. They like to talk about conditions in Grønland. They think it's going in the right direction and the integration is steadily getting better. If some feel watched on the streets, they're sorry about it.
"Everybody must choose for themselves. Nobody has a right to meddle in the lives of others," says Imran Bhatti, who himself took it with good humor when he got comments when he smoked during Ramadan.
"Maybe there are some who do these things. But they are individuals. It's absolutely wrong to judge all immigrant when someone does something stupid," he says, while Rahim Hamid nods.
"In my shop absolutely everybody is welcome. Also those who choose to be gay."
One who feels not so welcome and avoids Grønland is "Hassan Ahmed". He lives together with his Norwegian husband.
The news that he's gay spread quickly in the Somali community. Completely strange men surrounded him and shouted "f*cking homo" and "God curse you". He had to give up his evening job in the center of Grønland because he was harassed to the bus every day.
"It's very sad. Such things shouldn't happen in Oslo in 2010. Many who live here should go to school or work. They need information about both gays and Norwegian society. But they aren't integrated," he says and stresses that the harassment affects women with Norwegian lovers just as much.
"I have several (girl) friends who don't dare go here with a short skirt. They are very afraid and don't dare talk to the paper."
Researchers who have followed the immigrant community for several years are aware of the public attempts at social control.
Sociologist Katrine Fangen says that this is a well-known defense strategy, protection against what is seen as the detrimental influence of Western culture.
"It makes some elevate themselves to a morality police to control how a good Muslim should dress. They see their own morality as more worthy that that of others."
Fangen, who now heads a large EU project on integration, says that there are similar experiences in other European countries, such as France and the UK. She thinks one reason that there are more morality guardians and they're stricter might be that there are more and more immigrants coming from war-zones.
"During a war there's often a religious conservatism, which some cling to when they come to Norway."
Social-anthropologist Inger-Lise Lien sees the monitoring as an expression that those who live in the area are beginning to feel secure enough to enforce their own standards and values.
"It's a battle between traditionalist and modern attitudes," says Lien. who says that the intolerant attitudes are on their way in.
"But they come from within. Within the groups we should show tolerance, intolerance is introduced."
A stylish BMW with thumping stereo bass rolls slowly up the street on Michael Hartmann's side. The window on the driver's side slides down. Two young Pakistani men lean towards him and shout "f*cking homo! Your mother is a whore!"
The Bergener is just a block away from home and feels rage boiling. Another scolding from strangers who feel provoked that he is who he is.
He moved to Grønland to experience the cultural diversity and the open big city. After five years the fervent anti-racist is disillusioned. He has become afraid of being beaten up and notes that some would like to get him out of the neighborhood. At home in his apartment, a stone's throw away from Oslo's biggest mosque, he asks himself if this if the thanks he gets for always being involved in the side of immigrants.
"I came here very naive. Now I feel that I've gone several decades back in time when I leave this apartment. After the rest of the Norwegians gradually accepted homosexuality, a minority comes here who themselves demand to be understood and accepted and show such contempt.
But Hartmann refuses to cause them to leave a district which really has everything: We can't give up on multiculturalism. really we should as minorities stand together and help each other."
Senaid Kobilica, head leader for thousands of Muslims in Norway, knows well that some Muslim men act like a morality police in Grønland i Oslo. He says it's completely unacceptable. Conservative politician Afshan Rafiq also knows it happens in Grønland.
Senaid Kobilica is also head imam for Bosnian Muslims in Norway. He says that only the police can exercise control and that only God can decide who's a good Muslim or not.
"Nobody has a right to control others, nobody has a right to harass. Everybody has a right to live and move freely. People can like or not like how others behave or dress, but they don't have a right to act as a morality police," says Kobilica.
Q: What do you think of girls being called whores for going with pants?
A: it's totally not serious and completely unacceptable.
Q: What do you think of somebody who elevate themselves as being better Muslim than others?
A: It's only God who knows who is a good Muslim or not. The last thing we should is to qualify people. It's not allowed to judge others. We don't need this type of behavior. I wonder who gives them the right to act this way."
He thinks it's very important to discuss such issues, and also that the mosques are the right platform.
"We are not the police, but we can talk about this, and with those who do it. They need somebody to talk to them and inform them about the society they live in."
"Apparently there are those who need to adjust their view on the situation."
The imam says that he himself spoke with several people about their attitudes. He has seen that information contributes to changing attitudes.
"why not bring it up in Friday prayers? I myself brought up how Muslims should act and dress."
Kobilica says that in his native land of Bosnia, the Muslim community took up the issue when some youth began to exercise social control in the parks. It was made clear to them that nobody had the right to harass or threats people who acted differently than themselves.
On the rise
Conservative politician Afshan Rafiq says she is aware of what's going on in Grønland and thinks that the 'morality police' are on the rise. She sees the development as a result of minority groups being allowed to isolate themselves without knowing Norwegian norms and rules.
"we've followed a 'sweet-ism' policy where we haven't made demands since the 1970s. Thus a parallel system arose where peple can follow their own norms," says Rafiq, who thinks that both the immigrant community and the inclusion minister Audun Lysbakken should get on track and clean up.
"First, Lysbakken should dare recognize that the problem is there. Then he must dare take a grip and use the channels available to have dialog with these people," says Rafiq.
She proposes a mandatory Norwegian course with social studies for all immigrants as a first step.
According to Rafiq it is first generation immigrants who make up the core of the so-called "morality police".
"They are very concerned about protecting their own traditions and are at a standstill while development has gone ahead in their homeland."
She thinks that many newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees see such great cultural differences that they pull back in fear of the unknown.
"This should be handled from both sides," she concludes.
Experienced Labor politician Khalid Mahmood says that he personally doesn't know of anybody who was harassed publicly in Grønland besides the gay couple this fall. But he thinks that the cases Aftenposten describes are highly deplorable and should be taken seriously.
"Those who act this way misunderstood the Norwegian, urban culture. They should understand that when you live in a big city, there are completely different rules of play than in the rural areas in the homeland," says Mahmood. He thinks it's particularly deplorable that people from ethnic minorities discriminate gays. He remembers that the immigrants themselves fought against discrimination and stigmatization based on skin-color and culture.
"Then we should see that it can backfire like a boomerang is we discriminate gays based on their [sexual] orientation," he says.
He calls on those who belong to the main movements in the immigrant community to address the problem and show responsibility.
"Nobody can operate with their own interpretation of a situation and harass others freely. As the most vulnerable group, it in our interest to stop such a development."
Audun Lysbakken wasn't available for comment yesterday.
Sources: Aftenposten 1, 2 (Norwegian)
* Oslo: Looks Muslim, harassed by Muslim men
* Oslo: 'This is a Muslim district'
* Norway: 'This is Norway'
* Catalonia: Muslim 'Moral police'