Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Refuse to Shake Hands with a Woman and Get 6,000 Euros

Earlier this month, a 28 year old Muslim from Skåne was awarded just over 6,000 euros by a Swedish judge because he had refused to shake hands with a woman. One can wonder whether the woman maybe should praise herself lucky. After all, she wasn't convicted for racism for the simple fact that she thought she could shake hands with a Muslim man.

More than four years ago, Alen Malik Crnalic entered a course with the Swedish Public Employment Centre (Arbetsförmedlingen, AF) in order to find a job. In May 2006, he was on an interview in Älmhult for a trainee job as a welder, and during that interview, he refused to shake hands with the CEO of the company. The CEO happened to be a woman, and as an active Muslim, Alen Malik Crnalic says he's not allowed to touch women outside his own family. Apparently, he also avoided eye-contact with the CEO during the interview, and rather stared to the ground.

It should probably not come as a surprise that Alen Malik Crnalic didn't get the job. According to the company and the Public Employment Centre, he wasn't qualified for the job. Later he also lost his employment benefits. Alen Malik Crnalic didn't agree with that, and instead appealed the decision to the National Labour Market Board (Arbetsmarknadsstyrelsen, AMS). The Board rejected his appeal, but then it was picked up by the Ombudsman for Discrimination (Diskrimineringsombudsmannen, DO), and brought to court. There, the judge overruled the National Labour Market Board's decision, and awarded the man a 6,000 euro compensation. According to the judge, the claim by the man that he cannot shake hands with a woman because of religious reasons is valid. He should therefore have gotten the job even though he refused to greet the company's CEO, and the Public Employment Centre should not have canceled his unemployment benefits either.

Interviewed by the Swedish public broadcaster SVT, the CEO of the company repeated that the man didn't get the job because he simply wasn't qualified for it. She also added that she felt insulted by the man's behavior, since he shaked hands with everybody else during the interview except her.

The Ombudsman for Discrimination Katri Linna on her side welcomed the court's decision. In a comment, she said that it is unreasonable to cancel somebody's unemployment benefits simply because he refuses to shake hands with a woman in accordance to his religion and beliefs. According to her, Sweden is a multicultural country now, and has to accept that people have different ways to greet other people. One could wonder though what would have happened if the CEO had refused to shake hands with a Muslim job seeker because of her religion or beliefs, or where the discrimination would have been if the CEO had been Muslim and the job seeker a woman. To be honest, I'm not sure whether I should shake hands with Katri Linna if I would ever meet her, because you never know whether maybe it could be insulting to Muslim job seekers in Älmhult…

Somebody who certainly didn't agree with the judge's decision is the liberal conservative politician Bo Frank in Växjö. Asked for his comments, he says the female CEO should feel humiliated – and she does. In Sweden, people greet each other shaking hands, he says, and immigrants who want to live and work in Sweden should do that too. After all, integration is not just something for politicians and Swedes, but for immigrants too. The Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna) should not get a monopoly on what 90% of the Swedish people think, he added, and confirmed that he agreed totally with what Nalin Pekgul from the Social Democratic Women in Sweden (S-kvinnor) had said a day earlier on Swedish public television SVT. His remark that the Sweden Democrats are probably the ones the most happy with the judge's ruling was echoed many places in the press and on the Internet.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Religious Strike in Norway

Last week-end, almost a thousand taxi drivers went on what could be called a religious strike in the Norwegian capital Oslo and neighboring municipality Bærum. Muslim taxi drivers parked their cars both on Friday evening and Monday morning as a protest against Wednesday's front page of the Norwegian tabloid paper Dagbladet. That day, the tabloid ran an article about some of the “dangerous” pages the website of the Norwegian security service PST links to, and illustrated that with a screen shot of a cartoon showing the prophet Muhammad as a pig trampling the Qur'an.

Let's not be naive: the tabloid Dagbladet knew very well that it would create a new controversy when it put the cartoon on its front page. By its very nature, this type of newspaper depends on shocking front pages. Just like its biggest competitor in the market, VG, you can't get Dagbladet delivered to your door every morning, but have to go out and buy it at a shop. Therefore, its front page usually carries a big fat title involving celebrities, sex and violence – if possible, all three of them together – but occasionally, politics or religion will do as well. Apparently, on 3 February, Dagbladet's best shot at getting as many copies as possible sold that day was to put the cartoon, which already caused a stir in the nineties of the previous century, on is front page.

Whether or not the 3 February edition of Dagbladet sold particularly well remains unclear, but it sure got plenty of attention. Attention is seldom a negative thing for a tabloid, but it may well be that Dagbladet got just a little bit more attention than it really wanted. On Friday evening, Muslim taxi drivers parked their cars in protest, and repeated their action once more on Monday morning. Some of the interviewed taxi drivers said they were Norwegian citizens, and therefore deserved respect. They also wanted to show how much power they have in today's society, and that Norway – in particular its capital Oslo – heavily depends on them. This is certainly true when it comes to low status service jobs like e.g. taxi driving and cleaning, where Muslim immigrants are heavily overrepresented. And they illustrated their point very effectively both on Friday and on Monday: both times their actions resulted in long queues near railway stations and other popular taxi stops. If they had involved all Muslim bus, train, subway and tramway drivers too, the Norwegian capital probably would probably have come to a complete standstill.

A question that could be asked is, whether this really was such a smart move by the taxi drivers. Certainly, when asked for their opinion, people in the long taxi queues expressed their sympathy for the taxi drivers, though certainly not all of them. I'm not sure what I would have said to an interviewer with a thousand angry taxi drivers in the background, if I was still planning to take a taxi later on. But during the last years, immigrant taxi drivers in Oslo have been hit by a series of scandals involving drivers running multiple licenses at the same time while still cashing in on welfare benefits. While they work multiple shifts in their taxis, huge luxurious houses – some qualify them as “castles” – were built in their home countries, usually Pakistan. Once they've managed to gather enough money, they leave the country before the Norwegian tax authorities find out what's going on. Needless to say, Norway has missed out on several millions of dollars of tax money money due to this sort of schemes. Remarkably, none of these scandals has ever resulted in a strike or protest whatsoever by immigrant taxi drivers.

Recently, another issue has been added to the controversies surrounding immigrant taxi drivers in Norway. As in many other Western European countries, there has been a lot of discussion in Norwegians press lately about niqabs and burqa appearing in the streets, and in general the control immigrant women from Muslim countries are subject too. As some of the participants in the still ongoing debate pointing out, this “moral policing” is often performed by Muslim taxi drivers, as many of them work during the evenings and nights and effectively can hold an overview over who's doing what where together with whom in their neighborhoods – and in effect the rest of Oslo too. I probably don't have to spell out to the reader exactly what the goal of this “moral policing” is, but it probably suffices to say that the picture drawn of taxi drivers in this controversy again wasn't a very pretty one. At least not as perceived by the vast majority of Norwegians, but this could of course be different in the eyes of the Muslim taxi drivers themselves. Anyway, not so many protests where heard, nor were there reports of strikes against the lack of respect.

I therefore doubt whether the Muslim taxi drivers, and by extension all immigrant taxi drivers, gained so much extra credit by their actions on Friday and Monday. In fact, as Per-Willy Amundsen, MP for the Progress Party (Fremskritsspartiet , Frp), the largest opposition party in the Norwegian parliament, pointed out, the strike was not only unacceptable, but also unconstitutional. Interviewed by commercial broadcaster TV2, he said that Dagbladet had the right to print the cartoon, and that the taxi driver's actions were in effect strikes against the freedom of press and opinion, which are guaranteed by the Norwegian constitution. He remarked that if these strikes should continue, they could have many consequences, e.g. with regards to the taxi licenses. It should be noted that the Progress Party shares power with the Conservative Party (Høyre), the other big opposition party in the Norwegian Parliament, in the municipal council of Oslo.

The religious strike by the taxi drivers wasn't the only protest against Dagbladet's printing of the cartoon. On Wednesday evening, what appears to be Turkish hackers brought down the website of the newspaper in a so-called DDoS attack. Eugene Brandal Laran from Dagbladet reported from his Twitter account that not only Dagbladet, but also its competitor VG, were hit by the attack.

Arfan Qadeer Bhatti, the first person in Norway that was brought to court on the suspicion of terrorism, called for a demonstration in the streets of Oslo for tomorrow, Friday 12 February. According to the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, he had expressed hopes on his Facebook account that the demonstration could remain peaceful. Another person who expressed hopes that the printing of the cartoon would not result into any violence was imam Malana-hafiz Mehboob-ur-Rehman, even tough he feared the worse after an, according to him, “disappointing” meeting with Dagbladet's chief editor Lars Helle about the matter. During that meeting, the chief editor of the newspaper had refused to offer his apologies to the imam.

In these matters, I always find it difficult to know exactly what these men are hoping for and what they are fearing, and whether or not they're trying to sow thoughts in the heads of potential demonstrators. Last year, Oslo saw its most violent demonstration in twenty years when demonstrators smashed windows and damaged other properties in the center of the city as a reaction to Israel's Operation Cast Lead on the Gaza strip. New violence in the streets of the Norwegian capital can therefore not be ruled out. However, we have to assume that the two are honorable man, and that they're sincere in their feelings.

The cartoon that Dagbladet used on its front page resulted in mass demonstrations, the burning of flags, and probably a suicide attack back in 1997, when a Russian immigrant in Israel, the then 28 year old Tatiana Soskin, had put it up all over Hebron. She had to appear in court, and was later sentenced to two years in prison. Lars Helle seemed not to be aware of the fact that it was the very same cartoon that he had put on his front page that caused the mass demonstrations in Hebron in 1997.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

No Western Assault Rapists in Oslo's Streets

The police in the Norwegian capital Oslo revealed yesterday that 2009 set yet another record: compared to 2008, there were twice as many cases of assault rapes. In each and every case, not only in 2008 and 2009 but also in 2007, the offender was a non-Western immigrant. At the same time, in 9 out of 10 cases, the victim was Norwegian, not just by nationality, but also by ethnicity.

— Two men followed me home. When I opened the door to my apartment, they assaulted me, and raped me one after the other, a young woman tells NRK, the Norwegian public broadcast service. She is one of the victims of an assault rape of 2009.

According to the police, not a single one of the offenders had a Western background. Four people have been arrested. In all other cases, the victims reported that the offenders either looked like non-Western immigrants, or they spoke a non-Western language. Not a single case has been connected to a Western man.

Twenty-one cases were reported in 2009, the highest number since police started recording them in 2006. Nine of out ten victims were Norwegian – ethnically Norwegian – both in 2009 (17 out of 21) and 2008 (9 out of 11). Hanne Kristine Rohde, the spokeswoman for the Oslo police, raises the question what sort of view these offenders have on women.

She knows that these statistics are very controversial. Asked whether it isn't stigmatizing for a whole community that the police releases figures like this, she replies that she wants to contribute to a better and safe world. That's why she wants the truth to be told, and hopes that the debate will focus on that, she told NRK.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Can Only White People On The Right Be Racist?

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Gordon BrownLast week, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva attributed the current financial crisis to «white blue-eyed» people at a news conference. Strangely enough, the press hasn't attacked him for making such an overtly racist remark yet, and the British government even tried to play down the incident. The contrast with the reception Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi received when he made a bad joke about the then president-elect Barack Obama is quite striking, and it begs the question whether this is so because Silvio Berlusconi is white, or because he belongs to the right side of the political spectrum.

Let's just go back a few months to recapitulate what it was Silvio Berlusconi said about Barack Obama: he's «young, handsome and even tanned». Notice that he said this in an effort to make Barack Obama a compliment –Silvio Berlusconi is in fact known to take great care of his own tan–, but nevertheless, journalists all over the world were at him because of this racist remark. And it didn't of course help much that he later was quoted saying that the journalist who accused him of racism where «imbeciles».

Now contrast what Silvio Berlusconi said about Barack Obama to what Lula last week said about «white blue-eyed» people being at the cause of the current financial crisis, and not Indians, nor black, nor poor people. British prime minister Gordon Brown reacted to Lula's accusations by saying that the blame for the financial crisis should not be attributed to individuals, but Lula didn't do that either: he attributed the blame expressly to, well, in lack of another word… a race? The British government later topped the silly reaction of Gordon Brown by saying that Lula's words probably weren't intented for the larger public, as if that would make the comment less racist. It doesn't make much sense either, since president Lula was quite happy to elaborate on the subject when asked about it by journalists.

I can't help but imagine the outcry it would have caused if somebody like Silvio Berlusconi would have said something similar to what president Lula said, say, a decade ago, just after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Why this difference in treatment? Is it because Silvio Berlusconi is a European, or because he belongs to the right side of the political spectrum? It just seems to me that some people will always be racist in the eyes of the journalists, no matter what they say or mean, and others never will be, no matter what they say or mean either.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

EU's Window of Opportunity Closed on Iceland?

Jóhanna SigurðardóttirOn Sunday, Iceland's new social-democrat Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was sworn in after eighteen years of conservative government on the island. She is the first female Prime Minister on Iceland, the world's first lesbian government leader and will lead a leftist minority cabinet at least until the elections of 25 April. She announced that a special parliamentary commission will be set up to consider EU membership, with the delivery date for its report set to 15 April, ten days before the next elections. She reassured at the same time that Iceland won't join the union without a referendum first.

It is amazing how the EU has been able to ruin its golden opportunity to let Iceland become a member of the union over the past few weeks. As I reported earlier, before Christmas the island found itself in such a dreadful situation that it probably would have joined the European Union on the spot if it had been offered the euro at the same time. In a video conference, the European Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn even offered a fast-track handling of an Icelandic membership application, but remained rather unclear about when the island would be allowed to adopt the European common currency. It has become clear by now, however, that the European Union will not accept any exceptions to its own rules, and Iceland will have to wait for at least two years after its admission to the EU before it can join the Eurozone, just like any other country, that is, if it is financially stable by then. Of course, this makes EU membership a completely pointless option for Iceland, since the island is desperately looking for a solution to its awful monetary financial situation, and not exactly to, say, such an overpopulation of fish in its coastal waters that it needs Spanish and Portuguese fisherman to come to the rescue immediately. One could say that basically, the European Union is offering Iceland a swimming vest if it first gives up everything it owns and then can prove that it doesn't need the swimming vest in the first place by swimming to the shore on its own for at least a couple of times.

Many of the islanders are therefore realizing that the European Union isn't the solution to their problem, and recent opinion polls suggest that support for EU membership has dropped again to the levels from the times before the current financial crisis hit Iceland. They also indicate more support for the left, which makes Iceland in fact somewhat unique in a European context. The far-left anti-EU Green-Left Movement (Vinstrihreyfingin-grænt framboð) in particular has seen a dramatic uprise in its support among the population, and this is clearly one of the reasons why the party entered the government last week.

But while the EU seems to be doing almost everything wrong to win the minds of the Icelanders, other solutions are being discussed, and some even offered from abroad. One solution would be to tie the Icelandic krone not to the euro, but to the US dollar or the Swiss franc. At best, these two countries would be flattered – at worst, they probably couldn't care less. A more interesting option would be, as proposed by the Green-Left Movement's leader and new Minister of Finance Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, to use the Norwegian krone on Iceland. In fact, Norway's Minister of Communication Liv Signe Navarsete from the Center Party (Senterpartiet, Sp) said in a reaction that she was very positive to the proposal, and added that it's Norway's duty to help Iceland in a difficult situation. In fact, she was quoted saying that «nobody should be forced into the EU and the Eurozone because of economical problems,» but as the Norwegian financial paper Dagens Næringsliv remarked, it was unclear whether her offer was available to countries like the Ukraine, Croatia, Serbia or Turkey too. Norwegian Minister of Finance Kristin Halvorsen, from Green-Left Movement's Norwegian sister-party Socialist Left Party (Sosialistisk Venstreparti, SV), rejected the idea fiercely only one year ago, but seems to have changed her mind now.

Norway's offer for a monetary cooperation between Norway and Iceland is to be taken serious. The advantages for Iceland are clear: this would be an easy way out of the current financial problems for the island without losing its national bank, even though some services would be taken over by Norway's Central Bank. In addition, Iceland would not be forced into the EU. But let's not forget the advantages such a solution would bring to Norway: first of all, it would keep Iceland out of the EU, thus keeping the EEA alive. And it would also strengthen Norway's position in the Arctic and Barents Sea, something not only the EU but also the US, Canada and maybe most of all Russia should worry about.

It's already clear that the coming months and weeks will be deciding not only for the future of Iceland, but also for Norway and the other countries around the Arctic circle. Let's hope the people of Iceland can keep their heads clear and make the right decision when they go to the ballot boxes on 25 April.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Even in Oslo They Use Children as a Human Shield

On Saturday there was yet again a demonstration against Israel's recent actions in the Gaza strip in the streets of Oslo. New this time was that children, wearing shirts drenched in fake blood, were used as a human shield to avoid violence. The attempt was futile though, and riots erupted at the end of the demonstration near the Israeli embassy.

On Thursday there had been another demonstration that resulted in what was later in the Norwegian press described as the worst street fights since the eighties in Norway. Apparently, a lot of demonstrators were provoked by opposition party leader Siv Jensen from the far-right Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp). She had pointed out in an interview on national television that Mads Gilbert, one of two Norwegian doctors helping Palestinians in a hospital in Gaza City and who has been used recently as one of very few sources of news from the Gaza strip, belongs to the Norwegian Maoist party Red (Rødt) and clearly has a political agenda. It is noteworthy that this doctor was not surprised by and even defended the 9/11 attacks because of US policies and the moral right of the suppressed to attack the US, but it should be added that he also regretted the attacks because of all the innocent victims. Nevertheless, pointing out the background of this questionable doctor who has been used as an authoritative source of news from the Gaza strip by virtually all Norwegian media for the last fews weeks was clearly, well, shall we say «disproportionate», and apparently a legitimate reason to throw stones at policemen, set fire to several garbage bins and ruin store windows in the center of Oslo Thursday night.

The Norwegian Palestine Committee didn't want a repeat of Thursday evening's riots, and therefore thought it would be a good idea to have some Palestine children at the front of the demonstration, hoping demonstrators would restrain from any violence. To add a bit of realism to the demonstration, the children wore shirts drenched in fake blood, but it could not be confirmed whether the committee also had considered adding a few adult men in black uniforms carrying some rocket launchers to the group. Anyway, even though there was no violence reported during the actual demonstration, but a group of demonstrators continued to walk to the Israeli embassy, and once again violence broke out in the streets of Oslo.

It's a strange thing, how many of these recent demonstrations for peace in the Middle East have ended in riots, not only in Norway but in the rest of Europe too. Norwegian newspapers noted that almost no ethnic Norwegians could be spotted in Saturday's demonstration, and during Thursday's demonstration two immigrant gangs were notably present among the demonstrators, which in fact was a risk factor for violence and a worry for police in its own right. Some commentators have already suggested that many of the immigrant youths have used the recent events in the Middle East simply as an excuse to attract some media attention again, the suggestion being that they therefore are to be excused and thrown some more money at.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Will Iceland Join the EU in 2009?

European Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn said earlier this month during a videoconference with Reykjavik from Oslo that the European Commission is already mentally preparing for a membership application from Iceland, and that a rapid treatment of the application could not be excluded. He mentioned specifically that the island could become a member of the European Union already before the end of 2009, even before Croatia.

Iceland came in serious financial difficulties this year as a result of the global banking crisis, which made the banking sector on the island collapse completely. One of the side effects of that collapse has been that the Icelandic crown's value has fallen like a brick, hitting a large part of the population, even those who didn't actively participate in the island's banking adventure. It's not uncommon on the island to have the loan for the house or the car in foreign currency, primarily the euro, and some islanders found themselves these last months paying more on interests on their loans than they earn in a month's time. Even those who didn't take loans in foreign currencies were hit by the crisis, because local interest rates went completely through the roof, and fixed interest rates on loans are virtually an unknown concept in the country. As a consequence, several demonstrations took place in the local capital Reykjavik in November and December, some of them even ending in riots, a rarity on the island, even though we're still far away from Greek-anarchic style “demonstrations”. It is worth noting though that some of the demonstrations mobilized as many as several thousands of protesters, a significant number considering there live only 300,000 people on Iceland.

The island is a member of NAtO, EftA, EEA and the Schengen Area, but has so far kept itself outside the European Union. Opinion polls have always shown a large opposition against EU membership, and therefore Iceland is the only Nordic country that hasn't even organized a referendum on EU membership. One of the reasons why Iceland never has wanted to join the EU are the rich fishing grounds around the island, but recently the strong and very expansive banking sector became an argument too. Now that the latter has collapsed completely, the argument has disappeared too, and the EU wind on the island has shifted direction radically. According to the latest opinion polls, there would now be a large majority favoring accession to the EU.

This shift in opinion is the reason why former Icelandic Minister of Foreign Affairs Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson directly asked European Commissioner Olli Rehn during the video conference how soon Iceland could become a member of the EU. The island is in an emergency situation, and therefore needs an emergency solution. The response of Olli Regn was remarkably direct too: according to him, Iceland could count on an express treatment, if it were to apply, and join the Union already during 2009 – and the same applies for Norway too, he added. Other countries, like e.g. Croatia, have to exercise much more patience to become an EU member, and may have to see how Iceland is allowed to take a shortcut right before their nose. Both Iceland and Norway are already members of the EEA, and about three quarters of EU legislation is therefore already in place in the two Nordic countries, Olli Rehn cited as the reason why he thinks an integration into the EU would be so easy to complete.

But is that really the only reason? Obviously, having such a large part of the legislation already in place does play a big role, but the advantages an Icelandic and Norwegian EU membership would bring to the EU probably play an even bigger role. The banking sector on Iceland lays in ruins today and the island is virtually bankrupt, but it's not like the country has become an underdeveloped country, or would become in the near future. Chances are it would become a net payer to the EU within a relatively short period, certainly when compared to countries like, say, Bulgaria, Croatia, or… well, even Spain or Portugal. And by the way, now that we're talking about those two last countries, their governments probably already calculated and checked once again exactly how much cod and other fish their fishermen would be allowed to capture in the Icelandic waters would the island become an EU member. If it were up to them, Iceland could probably join the EU already next week if it's already too late to let it join the Union before the end of this week. Sure enough, the EU might try to sell the story about the express treatment of Iceland's EU membership application as one about mercy and sympathy for the poor island up in the North, but it's better to put not too much faith in it.

In fact, I'd rather like to warn the population and the government on Iceland against rushing into an EU membership to solve a short term problem. Negotiations will show whether Iceland will be allowed at all to join the Eurozone on the same day it joins the European Union. I'm afraid though that in the “best” case, Iceland will be able to trade in its fishing grounds for an immediate introduction of the euro on the island, but in the worst case, it will be confronted with an “armada” of Spanish and Portuguese fisherman catching all the cod in their waters, without even having the right to protest against it, at the same time as it is being denied admission to the Eurozone before the country is financially completely back on its feet. In that case, it will be a very unpleasant awakening from the current Icelandic nightmare in a few months or years from now.

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