Here's another Arabic word that both you and I would prefer not to have to know but probably should: mutaween. It means “religious police” or “morality police.” In Saudi Arabia it's an officially constituted entity whose officers are fully empowered to arrest and punish anyone who violates sharia law – which, of course, can mean anything from committing various sexual acts to being caught taking a sip of water during Ramadan. The Saudi morality police made international headlines in March 2002 when they physically prevented dozens of girls from escaping a burning school in Mecca because they weren't properly covered.
After that horrific incident, which resulted in fifteen deaths, people around the world congratulated themselves on not living in such a backward culture. And yet the Islamic morality police, far from being confined to Saudi Arabia – or even to the Muslim world – are an increasing presence in Europe and elsewhere.
To be sure, Islam's moral cops in the Western world aren't officially sanctioned. They aren't even necessarily an organized force; many, if not most, of them are self-appointed monitors of public morality. And compared to their counterparts in Saudi Arabia, and Iran, and the Gaza Strip, they're amateurs. But hey, you've got to start somewhere. Given time, and given enough leash by the real police and others in positions of public trust who prefer to look away from this deplorable state of affairs, these amateurs will increasingly resemble their Saudi models. In the meantime, they already wield real power. Authentic refugees from the Muslim world – non-Muslims or secular Muslims who fled to the West precisely to avoid such surveillance and control – are very aware of that power. So are an increasing number of natives of Western countries who live in largely Muslim neighborhoods – and who are increasingly being reminded that their ways of life conspicuously violate sharia strictures.
Consider the situation in Oslo, where things are bad, though not quite as severe (yet) as in many other European cities. Zahid Ali, an actor and stand-up comic, recalled in a 2010 interview that he'd been living with Oslo's morality police for twenty years, ever since his early teens. “If he smoked on the street in Oslo,” reported NRK, “his mother, father, uncles, and aunts know about it before he got home” – because the news had been passed to them via Pakistani cab, bus, and tram drivers, a class of people whom Ali described as the “largest intelligence service” in Norway. Ali, now a familiar face on Norwegian television, said that members of the morality police in the heavily Muslim neighborhood of Grønland now routinely stopped him on the street to tell him: “I don't like what you're doing! I hate you! I'm going to kill you!” The threats, which he said had grown steadily worse over the previous five or six years, were usually delivered in Punjabi, and when Ali replied in Norwegian, his tormentors grew even angrier. (“If I answer in their language,” he explained, it means that “I've accepted their culture, accepted that they're right.”) Ali said he took the threats seriously enough to avoid Grønland whenever possible.
It was also in 2010 that thirty gays held a group walk across Grønland in defiance of the burgeoning presence of morality police there. One of the participants told a reporter that several of his gay friends who lived in Grønland had been “knocked down right outside their homes” by the enforcers of sharia. The point of the walk was to demonstrate that “many different people with various religions and sexual orientations can live together.” Alas, it takes more than a single stroll through Muslim streets to crush the morality cops' power. In a June 2012 article, Somali-Norwegian writer Amal Aden reported that the cops had in fact spread beyond the capital to other Norwegian cities, including Kristiansand. And last October, Erik Torset, a gay man, and Jean Jacobsen, a transsexual, both of whom live in the heavily Islamic Oslo neighborhood of Tøyen, complained that Muslims who used to just taunt them and their friends were now attacking them physically. Muslims had thrown stones at Jacobsen; Torset, for his part, had ended up on crutches after a shop sign was torn loose and flung at his legs. Everyone in Oslo knows that the city's Muslim neighborhoods are dicey territory for infidels, especially gays, but the head of Norway's gay-rights organization told Aftenposten that (surprise!) he had no reason to believe that gay-bashings occur more frequently in Muslim areas than in other parts of town. Jacobsen, however, can't afford to stick her head in the sand: she said she was considering moving out of Tøyen. This is how a neighborhood becomes a Muslim enclave, a no-go zone, a sharia realm – one assault, and one move, at a time.
In last Friday's Aftenposten, the subject of the morality police surfaced yet again. This time we were introduced to Erfan Tarin and Bahar Shekari, a non-religious Kurdish couple from Iran who endure daily harassment at the hands of their Muslim neighbors. One day, Shekari was out shopping when an elderly woman in hijab spit on her, saying: “What kind of clothes are those? We're Muslims. You can't go around dressed like that!” Another day Shekari was at a playground with her daughters, aged two and three, who were in summer dresses, when another old bat came over and explained that the girls should be covered. “Every time I go to the mall I just look down at the ground and walk very fast,” Shekari told Aftenposten. “I don't feel safe there.” The couple moved recently from Tøyen to another Oslo neighborhood, Furuset, hoping things would get better, but instead they just got worse. Now they're considering leaving the city entirely.
Norwegian newspaper articles on this topic are, needless to say, never complete without a comment or two from folks in authority eager to make light of the problem. Anne Myhrvold, principal of one of Oslo's growing number of majority-Muslim schools (fewer than 4% of the kids have Norwegian as a mother tongue), said she'd heard about students being criticized for not wearing hijab, but she took the line that this is no different than being called fat or whatever. Lena Larsen, a convert to Islam who used to head the Islamic Council of Norway and is now at the University of Oslo (where else?), also dismissed the situation, insisting that it goes both ways – non-Muslims, after all, often cast suspicious looks at veiled women. (The difference, naturally, is that I have yet to hear of non-Muslims throwing rocks or shop signs at captives of hijab.)
Larsen isn't alone in drawing a moral equivalence between Muslim morality police and non-Muslims who chafe at the sight of garments that betoken subservience. A couple of years back, Norwegian anthropologist Lorenz Khazaleh responded on his blog to some of the above-cited news stories. Contending that “it's wrong to link social control and harassment to 'foreign cultures' or 'Muslims'” – and especially wrong to paint a picture in which white Norwegians (Allah forbid) occupy the moral high ground – Khazaleh underscored the fact that “social control exists in every society.” In Norway's small towns, for instance, “networks of old women” keep an eye on how local girls dress and behave. Then there's the “white feminists who criticize Muslim girls' dress code.” (Hmm...which feminists would those be?) Khazaleh seconded an inane observation by writer Erling Lae, who complained that since Norwegian pastors aren't held responsible for their parishioners' foolishness, why should imams be? And Khazaleh congratulated a noted sociologist for “remind[ing] us that the morality police have their good side” – for example, Christie argued, it's good for an adult to stop a child he doesn't know from crossing at a red light. (As if this be compared to threatening a comedian with death!)
The other day, noting Aftenposten's renewed attention to the morality police, Hege Storhaug of Human Rights Service pointed out that that newspaper's editors have consistently rejected, and even mocked, her own organization's efforts to persuade the government to address this grim challenge in a constructive, assertive way. There's no surprise in that contradiction. The fact is that morality-police stories make such good copy that your average Norwegian newspaper editor can't bring himself not to run them – but, at the same time, his own cultural-elite politics, his reflexive need to stand with Islam against the odious “Islam-haters,” compels him to oppose any serious attempt to put a stop to this supreme example of creeping sharia.
And so the problem worsens by the year, and the media continue to exploit it to sell papers – even as they routinely ridicule and demonize those who actually want to do something about it. It doesn't take a genius to see where all this will lead in the long run; on the contrary, it takes a fool to not see it – or to refuse to. Unfortunately, the fate of Norway – and of most of its Western European neighbors – is, at present, to a dispiriting extent, in the hands of fools of the first water.
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