Sara Azmeh Rasmussen

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Sara Azmeh Rasmussen is a Syrian-Norwegian author, freelance writer, lecturer and human rights activist. She was born in 1973 and grew up in Damascus, Syria, in a Sunni Muslim family with deep roots in the capital. In 1995 she immigrated alone to Norway, and in 1997 she was granted political asylum. In her first book, the autobiographical novel, Skyggeferden (The journey of a shadow, ebook: ISBN 9788282820233), she describes the deep impact of such a cultural journey. [1]


Azmeh Rasmussen's journey was not only cultural but also political-ideological and religious. Her conversion from Islam to Christianity took place in Damascus. She was baptized even though she risked her life. A few years later, she left anyway Christianity and became a secular humanist.[1]

Academic background[edit]

Sara Azmeh Rasmussen has studied law at the University of Damascus. She has got Candidatus Magister in International cultural studies, Islam and Arabic Culture, at the University of Oslo. As a master student in the Middle East and North-Africa program, she was connected to center for Holocaust studies in Oslo . She has also taken separate subjects on moral philosophy and gender, University of Oslo.

Fascism and anti-Semitism[edit]

As a young university student, she was a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, SSNP. She used her time on the popular Norwegian radio show "summer P2" to talk about her way in and out of the Fascist Party. Radioprogram Summer at P2

At a lecture she gave at the annual conference for the organization With Israel for Peace (MIFF), she talked about two forms of anti-Semitism in the Middle East, the political (secular) and the religious. She believed that Jews have been demonized in the Arab and Muslim culture, and been sentenced to extermination in both the political and religious apocalypse. Lecture on Arab and Islamic anti-Semitism

On a previous occasion she reacted sharply on a grossly anti-Semitic book that was on sale in the Islamic Association's bookstore. She claimed that its content was just as dehumanizing as Hitler's anti-Semitic propaganda and demanded that the book would be removed from the shelves. Interview

The leader of the Islamic Association answered that the book should be read in the context of the political conflict. In response Azmeh Rasmussen read few lines from the book on live television debate. "All countries shun Jews as the sick shun his illness" was an example. [2] [3]

Freedom of expression[edit]

Sara Azmeh Rasmussen has been involved in the debate around freedom of expression since the controversy in 2006. She participated in a debate that was arranged of Norwegian Cartoonists together with the editor of the Danish Newspaper, Jyllandsposten, Flemming Rose. Her view was that the Norwegian government´s apology to Islamic officials was a short-term solution that is highly problematic. [4]

Periodically, she has also challenged the demands for censorship by drawing cartoons and paintings. During the period of unrest that prevailed in France after the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published prophet drawings, Azmeh Rasmussen expressed its full support for the magazine´ editorial choices. She published her own prophet cartoon with the text: “If you don´t like to be drawn, cover yourself with a veil, prophet!” In the cartoon the Muslim prophet stands beside three women, one of them unveiled and with hairy legs. Since Azmeh Rasmussen did not find a medium in Norway that was willing to publish it, she started a blog where she laid out the artwork and two explaining articles, one in Norwegian and one in Arabic. "I have touched your prophet"

In Norwegian media this was reported without publishing the cartoon. [5]

The cartoon got though attention in French media and was published in L´offisielle and other newspapers and websites. [6] [7]

The day after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, Azmeh Rasmussen hang up copies of her prophet drawing around in Stockholm and wrote the following on her blog "I am Charlie, you will be drawn, prophet!" [8]

She crossed the blasphemy border once again when she painted a version of The Scream, the world-famous painting by Edvard Munch. In this amatory version, God was screaming on a background of Arab flags and a crescent. Two female figures dressed in black veils stand in a static position. In the sea a man wearing red trunks swims on his back. [9]

Azmeh Rasmussen hanged up a hundred copies of “God´s screaming” on both sides of the entrance to the Stockholm big Mosque. [10][11] At the same time, she sent a video letter to the major Islamic centers and universities in the world "God is screaming in the Middle East", in which she called for new interpretations that liberates women from pre-modern patriarchal norms. She described the edict to wear the veil as a misinterpretation of a single verse of the Qur'an. She also criticized marginalizing practices where women have to go through the side doors and pray in the gallery behind the curtains, while men go through the front door and pray in the mosque's large main hall. A letter to Muslim scholars

Despite the fact that Azmeh Rasmussen and the Somali author Ayan Hirsi Ali share the same ideological secular ground, she has criticized sharply Hirsi Ali's views on putting legal limits on European Muslims´ religious life. Azmeh Rasmussen has even organized a night watch outside Oslo´s three biggest mosques in response to a series of scandalizing the Muslim worship houses. Five persons showed up. They formed three groups of two persons in each and stood outside the mosques with candlelight and flowers a whole night. The symbolic action did not get any attention from the media. Azmeh Rasmussen explained in her blog that one should not confuse criticism of religion with hatred towards a religious group. She considered protecting the mosques, not only as physical buildings, but also as symbolic anchors for a social group, as essential in a democracy. [12]

Solo-activism for Muslim women, homosexuals and transpersons´ rights[edit]

Sara Azmeh Rasmussen became well known in Norway when she, on International Women's Day 2009, set fire to a veil. The campaign gained international attention and coverage. The day before, the newspaper Aftenposten published her article "Spread your wings," an open letter to the Muslim woman. During the symbolic action Azmeh Rasmussen was bombarded with snowballs. She held though an appeal under the title "The age of dreams is not over." Soon after burning the Islamic veil, she received death threats and hate E-mails. [13] [14]

On 29 January 2011 she started a one-woman protest outside the building of the Norwegian Islamic Council, an umbrella organization for Muslim communities, and demanded a clear condemnation on the death penalty for homosexuality. [15]

She sat on the sidewalk from morning to evening in minus degrees with a poster. The text: 'Freedom and dignity for gay and transgender people " was written both in Norwegian and Arabic. On the third day she started a hunger strike. [16]

Azmeh Rasmussen was subjected to threats. Large stones were thrown at her during a TV interview on NRK. She got a of food waste and garbage thrown over her head during an interview for the blog Religioner.no [17]

Shortly before Friday prayers, members of the congregation put up roadblocks and signs of falling snow and forced her to move some distance away so she is in no direct contact with the wall of mosque under the prayer. The roof sloped towards the backyard, not the sidewalk where she stood. [18]

On the fifth day was the Secretary General of the Islamic Council, Mehtab Afsar, agreed to have a conversation with her, but not in an office in the same building as the mosque. The conversation took place at a nearby restaurant and the two reached a compromise. [19]

The fight for Muslim gay and transgender people's right to life brought Azmeh Rasmussen to Dublin summer 2011. [20]

After an unsuccessful attempt to convince representatives for LGBT organizations in Scandinavia to send a joint letter to the European Council for Fatwa and Research, Azmeh Rasmussen traveled herself with a letter that she authored to the Council's annual conference. In her letter she called for a theological interpretation that guarantees the right for life and security for gay Muslims. She delivered the letter to the Secretary General of the Council, but was denied access to the Islamic Cultural Center where the conference was held. She responded by sitting outside the main entrance under the whole conference, for 5 days. On a visible spot beside her, she placed a placard with the text: "Homosexuals are not criminals. Put an end to killing of innocents".

After Friday prayers Azmeh Rasmussen was bullied of tens of Muslims, her placard was torn in pieces, a car tried to run her down and she had to call an emergency number.

[21]

It is worth noting that this Human Rights activist has not limited herself to work against homophobia in Muslim culture and religion. She has also in many occasions condemned the homophobic laws in Russia and the orthodox church. During the Olympic Games in Sotji, Russia, she held a protest outside the Russian Embassy in Stockholm. She knitted a scarf in the colours of the rainbow every day between 10-15 am. On a large rainbow flag she had written: "Russia needs freedom, love, and rainbow". On a poster she wrote the famous text: “Keep smiling my friend. I´ll be on your side”. Beside the basket with yarn she placed a traditional matryoshka doll with a little rainbow scarf around the neck. [22] [23]

Free speech award[edit]

In 2012 Sara Azmeh Rasmussen got Free Speech Price, Fritt Ord Award, also known as the Little Nobel Prize in Norway. At the awards ceremony the head of the Free Speech board, George Rieber Mohn, highlighted the winner´s important and constructive role in the public debate in Norway. He stressed that she has strict requirements to be consistent, logical and rational in her public contributions. [24]

Media criticism[edit]

In 2013, Sara Azmeh Rasmussen placed the conditions for freelancers and cultural workers on the agenda in the Norwegian public. She warned of the consequences of concentration trends with few owners controlling the media system. Major cuts in the newspapers editorial sections have taken place to guarantee gain for shareholders.

Azmeh Rasmussen protested against another consequence, what she described as "dumping fees" for highly educated and professional freelancers. She predicted less diversity in the media if the politicians do not take this matter seriously. It would weaken the democratic culture, she argued.

She used herself as an example. She could not afford living by working as a freelancer and was therefore obliged to leave the public debate. She warned that the media and cultural institutions risk losing valuable human resources. She refused also to pay her tax for 2012 unless the politicians put the conditions for freelancers on the agenda [25]

The professional journalist´s magazine suggested grant of state for Sara Azmeh Rasmussen. The magazine's editor, Helge Øgrim, was critical of the Norwegian media's silence and choice to ignore her criticism. Arguing for government scholarship, he wrote: "It would be a failure for Norwegian media and cultural life if we lose her." [26] [27]

Many signed the campaign. Anyhow, Azmeh Rasmussen rejected any grant even before the process had begun in the parliament. The main reason was that she was seeking common solutions to a serious situation in the media industry, not complaining about her own situation.

She conducted a protest outside the public service, NRK-buildings, that lasted for five days without any attention from NRK or the largest media. Azmeh Rasmussen was dressed in rags and had the word "freelancer" written on her chest. She expressed her criticism through a painting where dollar bills were glued on a blue background. the logo for the commercial media group Schibsted, was transformed to a competition horse. NRK was standing outside the scene. An anonymous hand was holding a plackard with the declaration "Be a weathercock" [28]


Few months earlier, Azmeh Rasmussen conducted a protest outside the headquarters of Schibsted with the text: "Freedom of Press in Norway is not for sale on the American Stock Exchange!" [29]

Not getting attention from large media for her media criticism, Sara Azmeh Rasmussen decided to abandon the Norwegian public debate for good in 2014. She accused Norwegian media for double standards and hypocrisy and the political and cultural elite for being too passive. In her last article in Norwegian language, she described her feelings of disappointment when discovering that she had been a part of circus show, not a genuine democratic public debate. [30] [31]

A response to these accusations was published in the professional Journalist magazine. Editors with direct relation to the case described her reaction as too personal and unbalanced. They explained that her media protests did not have any news value for readers/ listeners and viewers. [32]

She applied for Swedish citizenship. [33]

Sara Azmeh Rasmussen has lived in Stockholm since 2008.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Verdier og verdighet (Values and dignity). Thoughts on Humanism