Can We Talk? Somalis in Norway Debate
On November 24, 2018, Karaama-Voice, a nonprofit organization in Oslo, Norway, that works on issues of integration, gender matters and human rights, organized its annual conference for the Somali community. Three pertinent issues included the compatibility—or incompatibility, for that matter—between religion and integration; media coverage of the Somalis—why is it negative and is it true what is being said of the community; and better solutions to address these matters.
Karaama-Voice invited community members, local and national leaders, intellectuals, religious scholars, and guests from Sweden to participate.
The Somalis met separately to discuss these matters among themselves so that they could have ownership of the proceedings and engage with the very issues that affect them as a community. They were divided into three separate groups: the youth, women, and men. Each group met separately for about five hours and then the general conference was held for participation by all.
These separate meetings were planned to encourage open dialogue as experience has taught us that each group may not feel at ease to talk openly and freely with others. For example, the youth may feel uncomfortable talking to adults due to language constraints whereas men and women might be guarded to speak about certain issues. Therefore, the youth met separately and spoke among themselves in languages they felt comfortable with, such as Somali, Norwegian, and English. Women were encouraged to discuss freely in their session to eliminate any reservation they might have in the presence of men.
The issues discussed were: do Somalis acknowledge what has been accused that they are a community lax on integration; is the media coverage of them legitimate or not, and is religion a hinderance to integration?
Negative Media Coverage
For several years, the Somali community in Norway has been under the microscope due to bad media coverage as questions of integration, assimilation, and immigration have become polarizing in many parts of Europe. At the conference, participants were encouraged to debate about the validity of media coverage or the possible impact the press attention may have on the community.
Contrary to popular perception, most Somalis are not a burden to Norway. There are prominent Somali figures in politics, professional jobs, sports, and business. Somehow, that fact of the community as hardworking and productive citizens never seems to be acknowledged in the media.
Participants at the conference voiced their disappointment with the media coverage, and many put the blame on early Somali arrivals for failing to speak up and represent the community judiciously. “They are the ones who are well-integrated, fluent in both Norwegian and Somali,” some argued, “yet, they have not been successful in being good bridge builders.” The silence of this segment of the population, others said, made the newcomers retreat into silence. The fact that the negatives images peddled by the mass media have not been corrected perhaps led to the public in Norway to believe them.
Integration and Religion
To what extent is religion a help or a hinderance to integration?
This was a topic that was hotly debated because there have been insinuations in the media coverage of Somalis that their religion inhibits their integration. On the contrary, the participants at the conference mostly agreed that religion has little or no effect on integration. In fact, they said, that their religion encourages its adherents to seek education, work hard, and be self-sufficient. For instance, the first verse revealed in the Quran says, “Read.” The problem: many Somalis may not know much about their religion and the clerics who are supposed to teach them religious ethics have failed miserably.
While the conference was in session, the leader of Haldoor heard about elections taking place at the Towfiq Mosque in Oslo for its board of directors. This is the largest Somali religious institution that serves its members by providing a place of worship, counseling, and networking. Unfortunately, no woman has ever served on its board. Haldoor leader first sent an official letter to the mosque urging that women be included in the leadership. The letter was followed by a face-to-face meeting with the mosque leaders, who said that women could stand for elections. However, the prevailing culture in the mosque may not be fertile for the election of women at the moment, but hopefully, the next elections might produce a new mosque leadership that is receptive to women leaders. After all, many Islamic centers in Norway for other ethnic groups have women in leadership positions. About 80 percent of the people Towfiq Mosque serves are and youth, yet they are disenfranchised. The mosque should be part of the integration process and qualified, inclusive leadership should be elected to represent the community.
Key Results of the Conference
The November 24 conference was remarkable because it gave members of the community an opportunity to debate, exchange ideas, and refute some of the charges levelled against the community. It was agreed that the community badly needs to have a place to meet regularly to discuss important matters. The reception of the community to the conference was great and, unfortunately, there were many members who came but couldn’t get into the hall due to limited seating.
The discussion was good for the men because some have felt victimized by an inhospitable environment that did not allow them to fulfill their expected roles. Some voiced their grievance of being singled out for discrimination and irrelevance, but there were other men who disagreed vigorously and said the system was not the problem, but those who haven’t maximized their potential as viable citizens. “It is not a black-and-white matter,” one participant argued, “because the problem is in us, not with the system.”
Karaama-Voice explained that integration does not mean assimilation, and that one can integrate while still maintaining one’s identity and religion.
Overall, the conference highlighted the need for educated Somalis to play a bigger role in the community by becoming more involved in the affairs of the community and not staying on the sidelines. It was widely agreed, that the more this group gets active, the better the community progresses.
Published by Wardheer News