Bruce Bawer on debating Islam...
Two debates - one in New York and one in Oslo...
There were five panelists, plus the moderator. The star was Hege Storhaug, information director of Human Rights Service, expert on immigration and integration policy, author of bestselling books about the Islamic oppression of women, and probably Norway’s most notable – and controversial – critic of Islam. The other familiar face on the panel was Lars Gule, a middle-aged man who is a former leader of Human Ethical Society in Norway. The three remaining panelists were younger and unknown to me. Cora Alexa Døving looked as if she was barely into her twenties, but holds the title of senior researcher at the Holocaust Center in Oslo; Majoran Vivekananthan, a 33-year-old born in Sri Lanka, edits a “multicultural newspaper” called Utrop.
The final member of the panel was Linda Alzaghari, who also looked very young but is apparently the “administrative coordinator” of a recently formed “think tank” called Minotenk, founded and run by Norway’s most ambitious and – in my view – dangerous Muslim politician, Abid Q. Raja. Though Alzaghari is a native Norwegian (she certainly looks and sounds like one, with her very long, free-flowing blonde hair), she described herself as a Muslim. She was also terribly distracted and incoherent, and gave the impression that she found the very idea of an Islam-related debate insulting.
All five panelists were asked to give opening statements. It soon became clear that this was a four-against-one scrap. Gule condemned unnamed Islam critics for their “conspiracy theories,” by which he obviously meant their recognition that jihadism – the compulsion to bring the infidel-dominated “House of War” into Islam’s “House of Submission” – is a core doctrine of the faith. Døving defined Islamophobia as an offense that involved “generalization about Islam” – as if it were not legitimate to “generalize” by pointing out that all Muslims are, indeed, obligated to affirm certain eternal “truths” and to obey certain unalterable commands that were (according to Islam) handed down directly from Allah to Muhammed and thereupon set down in the Koran.
Of course, accusing Islam’s critics of “generalizing” is a common, lazy tactic among the defenders of Islam, who like to point out that there are over a billion Muslims who adhere to a variety of schools of law whose understandings of the faith vary considerably. What they leave out is that the variation usually takes the form of disagreeing on such details as which kind of capital punishment an individual should be sentenced to for being homosexual. (After the debate, I googled Døving and found that she had actually had the nerve, three years ago, to accuse Sara Azmeh Rasmussen, an extraordinary brave young woman who was the first Muslim lesbian to come out of the closet in Norway, of exhibiting a “generalization problem” in her criticisms of a religion a great many of whose adherents would like to see her dead.)
Nor did Vivekananthan and Alzaghari have anything more substantial to offer. For example, Alzaghari, who was apparently too tired, bored, or hostile to the entire enterprise to even muster up a coherent sentence, tossed out a few vague words about how she experiences a “constant negative focus” on Islam that leads to a “polarized” situation in society. (She sounded like a stage actress who has been performing for so long in a bad, unconvincing play that she can no longer bring herself to recite her lines with any conviction.)
Four of the five panelists, then, barely rose above name-calling. Conspiracist! Generalizer! Polarizer! Only Hege Storhaug, when her turn came, got down to brass tacks, pointing out that the label Islamophobe had first appeared, years ago, in the glossary of Islamists, who pasted it onto feminist Kate Millett when she dared to bring up the question of Islam’s oppression of women, and onto Salman Rushdie when he wrote a certain book the reaction to which forced him to spend the next several years in hiding.
Unsurprisingly, virtually the entire audience turned out to be solidly against Storhaug and on the side of her four co-panelists. Everything she said, no matter how factual and cogent, met with tepid applause, silence, or grumbling sounds of disapproval. Almost everything any of the other four said, however inane and platitudinous, was greeted with lusty enthusiasm.
As the debate moved on, the participants were invited to expand on their remarks and ask one another questions. Døving defended the equation of Islam criticism to racism on the grounds that Islam, like skin color, is an inborn, unalterable aspect of identity – an essential, defining characteristic that is impossible to change. Inborn? Unalterable? Impossible to change? Yes, leaving Islam is punishable by death, but somehow one doubted that that this was what Døving meant. She seemed genuinely unaware that some people in this world do switch religions and that there is an immense difference between having a certain skin color and subscribing to a certain ideology.
Storhaug, reacting to Døving’s astonishing obtuseness on this score, brought up the word ideology – whereupon Alzaghari declared her dislike for that word. She didn’t make any effort to justify her dislike for it – no, she just didn’t like it. Vivekananthan, for his part, didn’t like another term – “moral police,” which some Norwegian media have employed to describe the Taliban-like thugs who prowl Oslo’s Muslim community seeking to intimidate those who show signs of deviating from orthodoxy. Vivekananthan didn’t express disapproval of the moral police themselves – he just didn’t like the media’s use of the term “moral police.”
And so it went. Nobody but Storhaug had anything resembling a substantial argument to offer. And when she did start to provide solid facts or statistics that supported her position, the moderator cut her off. Storhaug protested, but to no avail. Meanwhile the moderator allowed other panelists to engage freely in character assassination and to wander off for minutes at a time on absurd tangents, whining in familiar victim-group mode about alleged anti-Muslim discrimination for which they had absolutely no evidence.