It was the feel-good story the media was waiting for in this winter of jihadi terrorist attacks and fire-bombed mosques. Last week a small group of Muslim Norwegians proposed a show of solidarity, a “peace circle,” in front of Oslo’s main synagogue.
The event, which was held on Saturday night, made international headlines with variations on the inaccurate “1,000 Muslims form peace ring outside Oslo synagogue.” Days later, two “controversies” are still up for debate in the press: How many Muslims actually took part? And why was a known anti-Semite given the podium?
To address the first question: Clearly, in the images from the event, there were hardly 1,000 people forming a human chain, so how many Muslims actually took part?
The conservative American website Breitbart even published an article Monday headlined “Media hoax: 20 Muslims holding hands become 1,000-strong ‘Ring of Peace’ at Oslo synagogue.”
One of the initiators and organizers of the event said that although the original intention had been to encircle the synagogue, it became clear that it would be an impossible security operation. So, in consultation with the Oslo police and the Jewish community, Thomas Holgersen Daher Naustdal told The Times of Israel Monday, the organizers decided to create “two layers of rings.”
The first layer, said Naustdal — who was born in Norway and converted to Islam in 2005 — consisted of a single file of Muslims holding hands. The second layer was a mix of Muslims, Jews and “ethnic Norwegians.”
Naustdal said he did not know the exact number of Muslims who stood behind the police barrier in the outer ring, but that it was “in the hundreds.”
Ervin Kohn, the president of the 1,400-strong Jewish community, told The Times of Israel Monday, “How do you distinguish between a Muslim and a non-Muslim?”
Should they have had somebody walking around and “counting brown faces? That’s racism,” he said.
The importance of the event for Kohn was that a group of Muslim young adults took the initiative to speak out against anti-Semitism, and decided to “not let the radicals and jihadists take over the agenda.”
The Oslo-based social rights activist Waqas Sarwar, who wrote a well-shared blog post in The Times of Israel — “Why I, a Muslim, am going to a synagogue” — was not one of the event’s organizers.
“There can be many excuses for hating other people — or, in this case, hating Jews — outright hatred or based on political sympathies. But the message was that, no matter what, there is no excuse to target innocent Jewish civilians,” said Sarwar.
So why did the organizers invite a speaker who in 2009 promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and gave a speech titled “Therefore I Hate Jews and Gays.”
The inclusion of Ali Chishti, who distanced himself from his anti-Semitic statements years ago, is a point of pride to organizer Naustdal.
The organizers, said Naustdal, thought it a strength he was there and a speaker because Chishti showed that “it is possible to humble yourself publicly and change your mind.” Chishti began his speech Saturday night with an apology.
‘He’s a role model for other Muslim youth and adults’
“He’s a role model for other Muslim youth and adults,” said Kohn. “Such role models are imperative against radicalization.”
The overarching goals of the event, said Naustdal, were threefold: To show solidarity “with actions, not words” with Norway’s Jews in an era of rising anti-Semitism in Europe; to show the general community that the vast majority of Muslims are not jihadist terrorists; and to “help Muslims to see a bunch of Muslim people standing up for human rights.
“We’re not apologizing for the attacks, but want to share the blows with you and support the Jewish community,” he said.
Naustdal said the organizers wished to emphasize to their own community that “even though you may disagree with Middle East policies, this [terrorist attacks] is not the way to tackle your anger; it has to be done by dialogue.”
Kohn, who said the synagogue is avowedly and publicly Zionist, is also an advocate for interfaith dialogue.
“At the event we didn’t mix politics with the important issue of rising against anti-Semitism. The conflict clouds the eyes of people, and the dialogue,” said Kohn.
For Sarwar, the social rights activist, the event Saturday marked the first time he experienced dialogue on a grassroots level. “The event has proven to people who were skeptical that yes, we can come together, embrace each other and accept each other.”
Naustdal agreed. “When you see each other as human beings, it’s harder to hate the person you know.”