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Norway Integrating Muslims at Glacial Pace

June 28, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

OSLO — On a day when Lena Larsen may slip on a headscarf and walk with humility toward the mosque, her nemesis across town, Shabana Rehman, may strip off her clothes, spray-paint her body and joke about her sex life to a room full of mystified Norwegians.

Both women are Muslim with an edgy sense of humor, but their quests to integrate the Islamic and Norwegian communities are as different as their fashion tastes. Born in Norway and a convert to Islam, Larsen speaks of prayer rituals and the false glamour of sin. Rehman's native land is Pakistan, and she prefers the straightforward talk of a truck driver to shatter taboos and convince Nordic Christians that -- ski-jumping aside -- Muslims are a lot like them.

"I don't take off my clothes and paint the Norwegian flag on my body," Larsen said of Rehman and their public spat over virtue. "I am the antihero because I seem to have given up my 'Norwegianness' to become a Muslim, and Shabana was considered a hero because she came closer to Norwegian ideals. The problem is when she is put up as a model for Muslim youth."

Rehman's retorts are equally scathing. "Lena suggested my stand-up comedy show is more dangerous to Muslims than the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Can you believe that?" she said.

The women exemplify Norway's frustration at building a multicultural society. Internationally known for promoting peace, this nation of 4.5 million people is struggling to integrate about 70,000 Muslims, including political refugees and economic migrants. Similar problems ripple across Scandinavia, where stereotypes and prejudices in Denmark and Sweden contrast with hallmarks of equality and tolerance.

Religious and cultural tensions were underscored last month when an Al Qaeda lieutenant listed Norway among the group's top terrorist targets, which also included the U.S. and Britain. Although Norway has troops in Afghanistan and is investigating a mullah with alleged ties to Osama bin Laden, most Norwegians believe that the terrorist threat was a mistake. But it prompted many to reflect on their relations with Muslims.

"We never succeeded at integration," said Hans Geelmuyden, senior partner in an Oslo management consultant firm. "When you live not far from the North Pole and Santa Claus, it makes you a little naive. We tried to welcome them. We built mosques and hired teachers who spoke Urdu ... but our government policies failed and we created two separate worlds."

Norway's reputation for social harmony is not always deserved, said Shoaib Sultan, a member the Islamic Council in Oslo who moved here from Pakistan when he was a child. "Muslims here do see problems," he said. "An imam is supposed to go out and condemn the Al Qaeda threats, but at the same time he is not believed. Nothing we ever do is good enough. I think now it's more politically acceptable to speak out against Muslims."

Away from the harbor, the sidewalks change under the overpass and into the Gronland neighborhood. Cultures here have not integrated but their divergent images commingle. There are headscarves and saris; the scents of cumin and mangoes. African Muslims wearing prayer caps walk beneath the steeple of a Protestant church. Hassan's Import/Exports sits across from a bingo parlor. And a Pakistani girl skips past a cartoon poster of two Norwegian women having sex.

Around the corner, Tommy Merg sits on a bench in the sun, smoking a cigarette and remembering the days when he played guitar in one of Norway's first rhythm-and-blues bands -- the Sapphires. It was 1965, and a guy from New York City nicknamed "Little Earl" showed up in Oslo with a box of James Brown records. Little Earl was lead vocal, said Merg, and no one seemed to mind that he was black. He fit in; he integrated.

The North Sea oil boom came and the band split. Little Earl opened a coffee shop. Merg became a social worker in Gronland, where a lot of his clients are immigrant Muslims. They haven't integrated, said Merg, adding that, "I've never seen a Muslim on skis. OK, maybe one. I organized school bands for eight years [but] I've only had a total of four Muslims play for me. I don't think the problem of integration is skin color. It's religion."

It is often on the religious plane where the two societies part. In a country where nudity is common on beaches and in saunas, Muslim families have requested that their children not shower with others after gym classes and that their daughters have separate swimming lessons so as not to share the pool with boys. Muslims contend that such measures allow them to adhere to the Koran's teachings on humility; many Norwegians view them as signs of isolation.

Romance, too, is seldom a cross-cultural affair: Between 1996 and 2000, according to the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, only three of 682 Pakistani women married Norwegian men.

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