Last week-end, almost a thousand taxi drivers in the Norwegian capital Oslo and neighboring municipality Bærum went on what could be called a religious strike. Both on Friday evening and Monday morning, Muslim taxi drivers refused to drive in 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 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 refused to drive their cars in protest; they repeated their action once more on Monday morning. Some of the interviewed taxi drivers said they are Norwegian citizens, and therefore deserve 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 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, many people in the long taxi queues expressed their sympathy for the taxi drivers, though not all of them did. 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, they are able to build huge luxurious houses – some qualify them as “castles” – 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 the oppression of women in Muslim societies, including in Western countries. 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 can effectively supervise 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 were to 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 who was brought to court on the suspicion of terrorism, called for a demonstration in the streets of Oslo for today, Friday 12 February. According to the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, he 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.