'Ring of Peace': Muslim solidarity with Norway's Jews inspires global solidarity—and controversy
by Ryan Rodrick Beiler
In the face of recent anti-Jewish violence in Europe, including a shooting that killed a volunteer guard at a Denmark synagogue, Muslim youth in Norway decided to take matters into their own hands. They organized a symbolic "Ring of Peace" vigil at an Oslo synagogue to show solidarity with the Jewish community.
According to Mudassar Mehmood, one of the "Ring of Peace" organizers, "We were inspired by the Swedish people coming out to support the mosques in various Swedish cities after the attacks on the mosques there before Christmas. And obviously we have also seen the horrible attacks on the Jewish community in France and Copenhagen."
"Islam teaches us to show love and mercy to other human beings," said fellow organizer Hassan Raja. "We don't want the extremists to hijack our religion, as it stands for peace and not violence. Faith should draw people together rather than divide and create barriers."
Ervin Kohn, president of the Jewish Community in Oslo, initially expressed skepticism. He worried that if fewer than 30 people showed up, it would be counterproductive as an expression of community support. But by the evening of Saturday, February 21, with more than 1,000 supporters of all faiths filling the street in front of Oslo's only functioning synagogue, he was thrilled at the response the event had generated both locally and globally.
"The international attention has been tremendous—from The Washington Post to Cape Town to Russia," said Kohn. "And it's unique that this is a grassroots event, the initiative taken by Muslim youth and no organization behind them, no leaders—just youth."
But while the event was unique in many ways, organizers insisted that the belief motivating them was not an exception to the norm but a natural expression of their Muslim faith.
"Islam plays a vital role in our motivation," said Mehmood. "We believe that Islam's core values are brotherhood, protection of each other, and respect for people of all faiths—or no faith, for that matter. We believe that a small minority has been allowed to define Islam as an intolerant, violent religion. This is something which is totally alien for us as Muslims, and we quite honestly do not understand how they find motivation to promote Islam as something else than a religion which promotes peace and respect for each other."
But an event intended as an expression of interfaith goodwill was not immune to controversy. Reports soon surfaced that one of the youth organizers, Ali Chishti, had made a speech in 2009 that was anti-Semitic, homophobic, and promoted 9/11 conspiracy theories.
In a report by The Times of Israel, fellow organizer Thomas Holgersen Daher Naustdal explained that Chishti's inclusion came because of his intolerant past:
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.
The same report quotes Kohn as saying of Chishti, "He's a role model for other Muslim youth and adults. Such role models are imperative against radicalization."
Though Chishti has repudiated his anti-Semitic views, he remains a vocal supporter of Palestine and critic of the Israeli occupation, a stance shared by several of the other organizers.
"I'm a justice activist," said Morad Jarodi, a fellow organizer. "To support Palestine to be free from occupation and support Jewish minorities is no contradiction."
"Maybe when people see that the same people who have such strong opinions about Israel also support Norwegian Jews, then that will make an impact," said Qeaam Ibn Malik, another of the event's organizers. "More will understand that it is a system that we are fighting, not people of another faith."
Other critics quibbled with the number of Muslims present or whether or not they had literally encircled the synagogue—which is physically connected to adjoining buildings that form a large city block. True, while a smaller number of mainly Muslim supporters had held hands inside police barricades—at the request of synagogue security staff—the far larger multi-ethnic, multi-faith crowd filling the entire street stood as a symbolic expression of solidarity.
That symbolism was further cemented by the fact that, because of Norway's historic anti-Semitism, its total Jewish population today is roughly equal in number to the 1,000-plus supporters who answered the call made by Muslim youth.
"I think all of us Europeans need to recognize the horrible treatment of Jews in our lands. Norway is no exception," said Naustdal in a comment on the "Ring of Peace" Facebook page. "The treason government of [Nazi collaborator Vidkun] Quisling was a horrible stain on our history."
"But to look forward and progress we do need to recognize our past, also the darker segments like the treatment of Jews," Naustdal added. "As Muslims we do also feel the stigma these days, and this is partially why we are hosting this event: to take a strong stance against all types of hatred, violence and particularly in this case anti-Semitism, both within our own ranks and from society as a whole."
The massive amount of media coverage and support on social media seemed to confirm that, despite the accompanying controversy, the "Ring of Peace" had the impact organizers desired.
"I am from the southern United States and am Christian," posted Kristen Danielle Carrier on the event's Facebook page. "In the face of all of the news reports I am reading about ISIS and others, I must say to read of your event was a breath of fresh air. Thank you so much for showing the world that we can all exist as brothers and sisters no matter what faith we follow. God bless you all."
Ryan Rodrick Beiler is a freelance photojournalist who lived Jerusalem and Bethlehem from 2010-2014. He now lives in Oslo, Norway.