Comic in Norway causes stir by hoisting Muslim cleric

Stunt stimulates debate over tolerance in nation

April 30, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PARIS - How much weight does a bearded mullah carry in a freewheeling, liberal society such as Norway's?

The country's well-known Muslim comic, Shabana Rehman, decided to find out Tuesday when she lifted the founder of Iraq's Ansar al-Islam terrorist group off the ground before a startled audience.

"If a small woman like me can lift him up, he can't be dangerous," Rehman said yesterday by telephone from northern Norway.

The cleric, known as Mullah Krekar, did not find the stunt funny. He went up smiling but was sputtering with rage by the time Rehman set him back down.

"I do not have the right to carry her like that, and she has no right to carry or touch me," he exclaimed into a microphone. He vowed to sue and demanded that photographs of the stunt be destroyed. The only photographer in the audience complied.

But the Norwegian television station TV2 broadcast a videotape of the 5-foot-4 Rehman hoisting the portly preacher, her arms around his thighs. The country's news media gave the story ample coverage.

The stunt has resulted in a lively debate about tolerance in one of Europe's most open-minded societies, where moderate Muslims are struggling with their militant counterparts to forge a Norwegian Islamic identity.

Tuesday's incident took place at an Oslo nightclub called Smuget where Krekar was appearing to promote his new memoir, In My Own Words. In the book, he recalls soliciting funds from Osama bin Laden and taking the head of a dead pilot as a trophy.

The mullah, whose family has held refugee status in Norway since the early 1990s, has become a contentious figure in the country, but he has won over many critics in Norway with his jovial, friendly manner.

At the nightclub Tuesday, he took part in a panel discussion on the question "Mullah Krekar - A Threat to State Security?"

At the end of the discussion, Rehman, known for her sendups of conservative Islamic values, arose from the audience and asked Krekar if he would submit to a "fundamentalist test." The mullah agreed but was taken by surprise when the comic suddenly lifted him in the air.

Rehman has lifted hundreds of men in her performances, including several prominent Norwegian personalities. Some found it funny; some were embarrassed.

"The reactions tell us what kind of people we are dealing with," Rehman said.

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