HRS International

A course proposal

Many new immigrants bring with them – and live out – a view of children, women, and gays that is irreconcilable with the Norwegian way of life. A few years ago anyone who made such monstrous claims about immigrants was pushed into the closet. Such claims were interpreted as applying to all immigrants, and if one dared to be more specific about whom one was talking about, one was shoved even further back into the closet for having stigmatized certain groups. Some Norwegians still react in such ways, but most of them now realize that undesirable views and practices do cross international boundaries. But the journey from recognizing a problem to finding appropriate solutions can be a long one. So far, the magic formula has been dialogue, which in practice has turned out to be insufficiently effective. The new magic formula is courses. At best, this is the right answer at the wrong time.

Rita Karlsen, HRS

Mother was right, if we are to believe an op-ed by Oslo City Council member Olaf Thommessen (Liberal Party) at Thommessen writes that his mother, Anette Thommessen, founder and general secretary of NOAS [The Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers], suggested in 1990 that immigrants who did not understand Norwegian codes and norms should be required to taken gender courses:

As she said: ”If a Muslim man goes to the beach and sees 200 girls lying there with their breasts pointing to the sky, rape isn’t necessarily so very far off. Women, as he knows them, are covered with veils.” The statement aroused indignation, and immigrant spokespeople served up coarse characterizations like “mentally circumcised” and “racist.” Her – my mother’s – comments followed a wave of rapes committed by men with immigrant backgrounds.

After reading an Aftenposten op-ed by Hanne Kristin Rohde, head of the violence and sex crimes unit of the Oslo Police, Thommessen decided that Mom’s old proposal should be taken out of the drawer.

She [Hanne Kristin Rhode] points out that only 27.8 percent of reported rapes are committed by perpetrators with Norwegian backgrounds. 100 percent of all reported violent rapes are committed by perpetrators with foreign origins. Rohde wants this to be a society that takes more responsibility in these matters. She stresses the importance of dialogue – which the police themselves believe in. But she also calls for additional measures.

Perhaps it’s time to take mother’s old proposal out of the drawer and put it into action. We can very well understand and accept that views of women differ from one culture to another. But we cannot accept the perpetration of assaults on children, women, gays, or others that are based on such views. My mother’s thesis was that “people must learn to live together.”

Thommessen appears to have misread Rhode. For she says that 60.3% of perpetrators are norwegian citizens, and that 27.2% of these have Norwegian backgrounds. This means that only 16.4% of reported rapes are committed by men with Norwegian backgrounds, and that 83.6% of reported rapes in Oslo are committed by men with foreign backgrounds. Still, Thommessen seems to have experienced a moment of unusual insight, for he insists that there are some things that are non-negotiable.

This is what those of us who have come afterwards call integration. But successful integration requires two parties. And we don’t negotiate women’s, children’s, or gay people’s rights in Norway. And anyone who lives here must deal with that – and with its consequences.

To say that Norway will not negotiate women’s, children’s, and gay people’s rights – a matter on which HRS stands with Thommessen 100 percent – is uncomfortably close to the truly sinister concept on the integration front, namely assimilation. HRS has pointed out on several occasions that a well-functioning multi-ethnic and multi-religious society is dependent upon a shared set of core values. We have specified these values, which we have labeled liberal values, as being equal rights, sexual equality, freedom of expression and religious freedom (the last-named being the right to embrace or reject any given religion). From this perspective, the importation of certain values and practices can represent not only a challenge to certain views of women, children, and gays but also a threat to freedom of expression – as seen, for example, in attempts to silence the criticism of religion (witness the demand by the Organization of the Islamic Conference that the UN Human Rights Council recognize the criticism of religion as a violation of human rights) – or to freedom of religion, as exemplified by Islam’s prohibition of apostasy.

When we read that Thommessen thinks courses are the solution, then, the best we can say is that this is the right answer at the wrong time:

( … ) Annette Thommessen believed that Norway was in its puberty when it came to grasping what immigration meant to a society. By this she meant that Norwegians were insufficiently capable of welcoming the indisputable advantages that immigration involves for a society. But she also believed that succeeding at immigration also meant succeeding in maintaining a nation’s own distinctive character – and in Norway’s case this means recognizing that we have come considerably further in regard to acknowledging the fundamental rights of women, gays, and children.

People must learn this when they come to Norway. Therefore Norway in general, and Oslo especially, must offer what my mother called gender courses, and what I will call social instruction. Among the topics covered in such courses must be the way we behave toward the opposite sex – and the fact that short skirts and lightly dressed girls are not an invitation to sex and prostitution. Quite simply, the courses must introduce immigrants to a fundamentally liberal attitude toward life and dress. People must be allowed to wear what they want, whether it is a hijab or short skirts. And we don’t accept physical assaults – and never negotiate these rights.

Mother Thommessen’s course proposal was a good idea in 1990. In 2009, unfortunately, it’s not as good. Why? The answer is simple, though Mother Thommessen’s son seems not to have grasped it. It’s a matter of numbers. Thommessen has previously demonstrated that he doesn’t have a clear picture of the number of immigrants in Norway; recall that in 2007 he guessed that there were about 20,000 immigrants in Oslo (the correct answer at that time was 131,000). For what’s true of dialogue is also true of courses – the more people are involved, the harder they are to carry out. The numbers create another challenge, too, in that people who share a viewpoint find it easy to come together in groups. Many people have testified that it was easier to take part fully in Norwegian society 20 years ago than it is today, not least because there was less group pressure and control back then. Norway’s immigration and integration policy has failed to take this fact sufficiently into consideration. On the contrary, authorities have let themselves be deluded into believing that the passage of time alone will make integration happen – that immigrants will become like the majority population and will adopt its fundamental values.

This doesn’t mean that dialogue efforts and courses are futile in themselves, but that such initiatives must be both goal-oriented and obligatory. And stronger measures are necessary, as well. And this is precisely what many of us have been trying to point out for some time: the longer we wait, the more powerful, and probably also the more uncomfortable, are the measures that will be necessary. In other words, we must demand assimilation into liberal values, and we must identify the existing threats to those values. Unlike Thommessen, moreover, I think that this is a question of what one wears. When little girls are dressed in hijab one must ask oneself: what values does this represent? Nobody has a problem asking such a question in public, after all, if it’s about little girls being dressed in short miniskirts – note, for example, that the stores have withdrawn g-string panties and bras designed for little girls. They haven’t done this because they’re so “responsible,” but because they’ve been subjected to public censure that doesn’t serve their best interests. In Norway we must take a similar approach to values that are irreconcilable with our country’s “distinctive character,” in the hope that those involved will take responsibility. If they don’t, then official action will have to be taken – and from there it’s a short route to prohibitions or edicts, which most of us would likely be unhappy with.

All this also requires us to agree on what the challenges are. Hanne Kristin Rhode has had to tolerate criticism because she called a spade a spade when she said that the only thing that all the violent rapes in Oslo had in common was that the perpetrators had immigrant backgrounds. Rhode established that this is a fact. She won’t venture to say why this is the case; she’ll leave that to the researchers.

But if we’re going to agree on the challenges, we’ll also have to agree about fundamental values. Does Norway have a “distinctive character,” and if so, what aspects of it will we refuse to negotiate about? What we need, perhaps, is not to offer more courses, but, quite simply, to chart a new course.

Translated from the Norwegian by Bruce Bawer