HRS International

Public service, personal smears

Every country in Europe should have an organization like the small Norwegian think tank Human Rights Service, which for years now has plunged into waters into which the cultural elite fears to dip its toe. Yet because of that elite, and its Islamist allies, HRS is under an attack. We need HRS - because Western European freedom, democracy, and equal rights deserve to live.

By Bruce Bawer

Norway is a small country. It’s the size of California but with a population half that of Los Angeles County. Islam has not progressed as far here as it has in, say, Britain or the Netherlands, but it is an increasingly visible and increasingly aggressive presence in certain cities, especially the capital, Oslo, where in January 2009 Muslim youths held violent riots in the very heart of the city and where a few weeks ago a large Muslim rally was held at which a speaker called for the execution of homosexuals and warned Norway that it risked its own 9/11 by failing insufficiently to respect Muslim sensitivities. Indeed, as Islam’s roots have sunk deeper into the Norwegian soil, and as the children and grandchildren of Muslim immigrants have reached adulthood and manifested a greater religiosity and greater assertiveness, on average, than the original immigrants themselves, Norway has found itself confronted with a host of growing problems of a sort that it has never before encountered and that its politically correct cultural elite has failed to acknowledge honestly and address responsibly. Only a handful of gutsy individuals in positions of power – a professor here, a journalist or two there, and a few politicians, most of whom belong to the “populist” Progress Party – have dared to break with the elite’s see-no-evil response to leading Muslims who have (for example) refused to distance themselves from the provisions of sharia law that call for the death penalty for apostates, rape victims, and gays. On the contrary, these despicable creatures are welcomed as honored guests in the halls of parliament, are hired as columnists by major newspapers, and are invited to give speeches at leading academic institutions. Meanwhile their critics are branded as racists and Islamophobes simply for speaking the truth about what these people believe and what kind of society they seek to create in Norway and elsewhere.

What follows is a story about what happens in such a country to a small foundation run by two brave women who reject official orthodoxy and have devoted their careers to standing up for democracy, sexual equality, and the dignity and individual rights of women and children in the Muslim community.

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In 2002 the late lamented Partisan Review published an article by me entitled “Tolerating Intolerance: The Challenge of Fundamentalist Islam in Western Europe.” It was the very first of many things I would write about Islam, including my books While Europe Slept and Surrender, and as a result of its dispersion on the Internet it came to the attention of many people who would never have seen it in print. One day in my inbox I found an e-mail from one of these people, a woman named Hege Storhaug who had nice things to say about my article and who suggested that we meet. (We both live in Oslo.)

When Hege first contacted me I was already familiar with her name: she had co-authored a newspaper article that had made me aware I was not the only writer in Norway who was concerned about the spread of Islam in Europe. I later learned that Hege had lived for a time in Pakistan and had written a book about women in that country as well as another book about forced marriage among Norwegian Muslims. (In 2006 her book But the Greatest of All Is Freedom: On Immigration and Its Consequences would become a top bestseller in Norway.) In 2001 she and her partner, a researcher named Rita Karlsen, had co-founded a think tank, Human Rights Service, dedicated to increasing knowledge about multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities in Norway and to formulating proposals for the improvement of government policy related to these communities. Over the years, in a series of illuminating in-depth reports based on solid facts, HRS has heightened public awareness of such Muslim-community phenomena as forced marriage, honor killing, female genital mutilation, the abuse of immigration laws, the inequality of divorce rights under Islam (a Muslim man can divorce his wife at will, while under sharia law a wife must submit to a long, expensive process at the end of which she may be denied a divorce), and the “education” of Norwegian Muslim children in primitive schools in Pakistan where they learn only about the Koran. Over the years I have also done a lot of work for HRS – translating two books and sundry materials from Norwegian to English and from Dutch to Norwegian, contributing a column to HRS’s website, rights.no, and, most recently, soliciting and translating articles for the site from writers around the world as well as writing pieces for the site myself.

The importance of this small organization – of which Rita is administrative director and Hege is information officer – can hardly be overstated. Years ago, when the Norwegian media (with very few exceptions) consistently closed their eyes to the problems facing immigrant communities, Hege and Rita had their eyes wide open. Though HRS is not, technically speaking, a service organization, its work has taken Hege and Rita into Muslim homes and into the lives of Muslim women who have undergone terrible abuse at the hands of their families. They have a broad network of Muslim and ex-Muslim contacts. They know what is wrong out there, and why.

From the beginning, HRS has been controversial in a nation in which the public criticism of Islam or of immigrant communities in general was long considered verboten by the left-wing elite. Yet gradually, thanks in large part to HRS’s efforts, discussion of these matters became acceptable, at least in certain media venues; and as these issues came increasingly to the fore, Hege, an eloquent and formidably knowledgeable debater, became an increasing visible presence on TV and radio. And as she grew more prominent, it became clear that while a very large proportion of the Norwegian public greatly respected her (because she told the unvarnished truth about things they had seen and experienced but that they hardly dared speak of themselves), Norway’s left-wing political, media, and academic establishment considered her a threat to its politically correct orthodoxy – and to its power.

Despite its modest size, and the contempt in which it is held by the left-wing establishment, HRS has generated policy proposals that have resulted in major legislation in Norway and, even moreso, in Denmark. In the United States, such an organization would be supported by grants from corporations, foundations, and/or wealthy benefactors. But since it is located in Norway, where pretty much everything is either subsidized or taxed to death by the state, and where, despite a proliferation of oil and shipping millionaires who doubtless sympathize with HRS’s positions, there is virtually no tradition of privately funded institutions of this kind (just as there are no private universities and precious few religious congregations that don’t receive state subsidies), HRS depends on government appropriations for its existence. And the main reason why HRS has managed to secure funding year after year is that it enjoys the strong support of the “populist” and “right-wing” Progress Party, which – though held in as much by contempt by the nation’s cultural elite as is HRS – has in recent years vied with the Labor Party for the title of Norway’s most popular political party, and thus wields a lot of clout when budgets are drawn up. HRS is not affiliated with any party, however, and in fact many Labor politicians, too, have supported proposals formulated by HRS, such as the so-called “24-year rule,” intended to prevent forced international marriages involving spouses under 24 years old.

The fact that HRS enjoys support within the Labor Party, however, only ruffles elite feathers even further. For years, HRS has spoken truths on issues about which the elite has attempted to maintain a decorous public silence. And the elite isn’t alone. Norway’s imams, the army of spokespeople for Norwegian Islamic organizations, and the “moral police” who enforce religious orthodoxy in Muslim neighborhoods also recognize HRS as a threat to their power. Both Norway’s cultural elite and its most influential Muslims, then, have long shared the goal of bringing HRS down. As a result, ever since they founded the organization, Hege and Rita have been the targets of vicious name-calling and mendacious accusations from various quarters. (If you can’t beat them in a fair debate about the facts, then just keep labeling them racists and hurling reckless charges.)

And last summer HRS’s enemies came closer than ever before to bringing it down.

The whole business started with a woman who went by the pseudonym Amal Aden. In the fall of 2008 she published a book entitled See Us: An Expression of Concern by a Young Norwegian-Somali Woman. It received a great deal of media attention: for the first time, a Norwegian-Somali woman was speaking out against the gender inequality, child abuse, and other abhorrent phenomena that were widespread in her community. One day not long after the book came out, I met Hege for coffee. She enthused over Aden’s book. Soon Aden was working with HRS on a project about genital mutilation in the Somali community. But that winter she left HRS, and in the summer of 2009 everything exploded. Aden went to the Communist daily Klassekampen with a series of absurd allegations about HRS – among them that Rita and Hege were paying Muslim girls a thousand kroner apiece to say that they had been genitally mutilated and forced to wear hijab.

Then on July 2 Dagbladet published a new list of accusations by Aden, including the claim that Hege had forced her to drink vodka and eat pork, presumably in order to prove her lack of respect for Islam – and, oh yes, had also compelled her to look at pictures of acts of bestiality. These charges were not only entirely unsubstantiated, they were ridiculous on their face. As it turned out, moreover, Rita had taped conversations with Aden which proved these inane claims to be unfounded. HRS shared these tapes with reporters for Dagbladet. Yet the media continued to spread Aden’s nonsense far and wide as if every last bit of it had been proven to be true. For weeks, as the summer dragged on, almost every day seemed to bring yet another newspaper article recycling the same accusations against HRS and/or adding a newly hatched bit of transparent claptrap courtesy of Aden. For many of us who have some awareness of how the Norwegian Muslim establishment operates, it was hard not to speculate that there was perhaps more to this situation than met the eye.

HRS filed formal complaints against both Dagbladet and Klassekampen with the Norwegian Press Association (PFU), which is empowered to censure media for violating press ethics. The cases were no-brainers: the newspapers in question had repeatedly published as facts things that they knew to be lies. But the PFU, which assigned these cases to its deputy chairman, Hilde Haugsgjerd, who is the current editor-in-chief of Aftenposten (which has also attacked HRS) and the former editor-in-chief of Dagbladet, ended up protecting its own by ruling against HRS. (The most recent of these rulings came down on Wednesday, March 10.) But forget PFU: the more serious challenge took the form of the Directorate of Integration and Diversity (IMDi), the government agency that holds HRS’s pursestrings, administering its allocations on behalf of the rather Orwellian-sounding Ministry of Children, Equality, and Social Inclusion.[1] In February, IMDi issued a bizarre excuse for an annual report: instead of an account of the usual dry financial facts, IMDi published a volume of blatant propaganda entitled “Immigrants in the Norwegian Media: Media-Created Fear of Islam and Invisible Daily Life,” in which a group of writers plainly selected by IMDi for their reliably PC views served up page after page of the same old lockstep twaddle about Islam being unfairly misrepresented in the media and thus misunderstood by the public – a view diametrically at odds, of course, with that of HRS. In an interview with the magazine Journalisten, the director of IMDi even admitted that his organization – whose mandate has nothing to do with instructing the media in how to cover Islam – had its “own agenda” in issuing this report. It also soon emerged that the statistics on which IMDi based its arguments had been cherry-picked and seriously misrepresented. In a gratifying departure from the standard media line, Jon Hustad responded to the IMDi report in the newspaper Dag og Tid by calling for an end to the reign of the “political commissars” who consistently represent Norwegian Muslims as victims of oppression – period.

Needless to say, IMDi’s newly stepped up activism didn’t bode well for HRS’s hopes of renewed government support. One might think that the recordings of Amal Aden, which categorically demonstrated that her charges against Hege and Rita were baseless, might have won HRS at least some measure of grudging respect in the offices of IMDi. But no: on March 6 Aftenposten ran an article based on an IMDi report about the HRS/Aden matter that had been leaked to the newspaper. The thrust of it was that IMDi had totally ignored the contents of HRS’s recordings and instead focused on the act of recording itself. IMDi had brought in two handpicked legal “experts,” who, in a decision that was neatly consistent with IMDi’s own stance, maintained that while such recordings “are not covered by the criminal code,” there are “good reasons to view the recordings as illegal.” But they offered none. Recording an employee in such a manner, one of the “experts” said, was “tasteless and bad manners” – but what did such subjective judgments have to do with the law? “The jurists,” according to Aftenposten, “note that recording employees without their permission must be carefully evaluated” – yet Hege and Rita had plainly evaluated the matter very carefully, and Aden’s own subsequent conduct had demonstrated that their decision to tape her had been right on target. Another legal scholar – a professor of law at the University of Oslo – was quick to challenge the verdict handed down by IMDi’s two “experts,” who had plainly given IMDi exactly what it wanted.

Yesterday (March 11), in yet another front-page piece on HRS, Klassekampen reported that a decision by IMDi about HRS’s future funding would be forthcoming within a week.

Every country in Europe needs an HRS. Yet now its very existence is in serious danger. HRS deserves the moral support of everyone who cares about freedom, and it also deserves the financial support of private individuals, foundations, and corporations that respect its work. For an organization like HRS to have to depend for its existence on outlays from a government apparatus run by socialists many of whom despise everything it stands for and who are plainly out to destroy it is, quite simply, absurd.

[1] The competence of this agency may or may not be reflected in its English-language home page. “IMDi,” it explains, “is the national professional authority for interpreting in the public sector. The Directorate endeavours to improve the quality of interpreting in the public sector.” Which is followed by the words “Read more about interpretes [sic]” and by this sentence: “The table with [sic] employees are [sic] just in norwegian [sic], but should be understandable.”