Herring and Class Struggle

Capitalism came late to Iceland. At the end of the 19th century this large, wind-swept, thinly populated island was made up of small towns, farms and seasonal fishing stations. Then European capitalists saw another Klondike in the herring-rich waters of the north Atlantic..

Friday 13 April 2018

Iceland, circumcision and the evolution of racism

The bill that proposes to ban male circumcision in Iceland is a racist attack on Jews and Muslims and needs to be understood in the wider development of racism across Europe. It is also part of the “rise of racist discourse” in Iceland, criticised by the United Nations last year.

Progressive Party MP Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir, who headed up the bill claimed the bill is intended to protect children and has nothing to do with religion. There has also been a lot of talk about mutilation as though female genital mutilation (FGM) and male circumcision are in anyway similar. Since the bill was laid before the Icelandic parliament in January this year, 400 doctors in Iceland have signed a statement supporting the proposed ban and according to one poll 50 percent of people in Iceland support it.

Male circumcision has nothing to do with the horrors of Female Genital Mutilation. For Jews and Muslims it is a practice integral to their faith and identity and every year millions of boys around the world are circumcised without it causing health problems. If the bill is passed it will become a crime to circumcise a boy under 18 years old for religious reasons with a maximum of six years in jail.

Politicians and people with power or influence in the country are using racism to protect and enhance their position and have been doing so for at least the last five years.

Cultural centre

Back in the summer of 2013, Reykjavik City Council promised to provide a plot of land for Muslims in Iceland to build a cultural centre with space to hold prayers, provide education and foster community support. The land was to be free but the community itself would have to raise money for the building.

Four days later, Reykjavik’s former mayor Ólafur F. Magnússon wrote an opinion piece in Morgunblaðið newspaper equating Islam with terrorism. He urged Icelanders to oppose the mosque that would threaten, “Our national culture and security”. The Progressive Party wasn’t likely to win seats in the City elections at the time, but the Party’s leader, Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir also criticised the City Council’s plan and her Party’s Facebook page became a focus for opposition to a mosque and race hate.

The Party then won two seats on the city council in the elections. Its Chair, the then Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, kept quiet even though one of Party’s deputy MPs, Þorsteinn Magnússon, resigned because he and Sveinbjörg Birna appeared happy to use racism to gain votes.

Racist attack

Later that year racists left a nasty pile of severed pigs heads and torn pages of the Muslim holy book, The Koran daubed with red paint at the site of the proposed mosque. Óskar Bjarnason who was photographed and interviewed by Icelandic newspaper Visir admitted that he and about 20 other people had done this to stop the mosque. He added that next time they would use blood not paint. Despite this admission and the obvious threat of violence, shamefully Benedikt Lund of Reykjavik City Police said there was no evidence to investigate the hate crime because the City Council had cleaned the heads away.

We have seen this process of developing racism and Islamophobia all over Europe since the financial crash in 2008 and we know where it leads. There are far-right and fascist members of parliament in Greece, France, Hungary and last year 94 members of the far-right The Alternative for Germany (AfD) were elected to the German parliament. Of these, “at least half are Nazis or have links to the Nazi scene like the Identitarian Movement.”

Victor Orban has been elected Prime Minister for the third time in Hungary this week with a vicious anti-immigration and Islamophobia campaign. The Nazis in Jobbik came second.

The slogan of anti-fascists across Europe is Never Again because we understand that the Nazis and fascism were not an aberration. And the murderous machine they built that perpetrated the Holocaust was the result of concrete situations and their ideology. We understand that if we don’t fight racism and fascism, it can happen again.

War, poverty and political crises in the Middle East and Africa have driven hundreds of thousands of migrants to search for a better life in Europe. Some people have made it as far as Iceland, in some cases believing that they would face less racism than in Southern Europe or Scandinavia.

Anti-racist activists, advocacy groups and growing public support in 2014 in Iceland supported the refugees and asylum seekers. But then a story broke that linked a prominent asylum seeker to violent crime. Campaigners smelt a rat and after protests and an inquiry we learned that a Minister’s aide confessed to the leak. Reykjavík District Court said that, “ the sole purpose for leaking the memo was ‘to impugn the reputation’ of the asylum seekers in the face of growing public protest over their treatment.”

Since then websites set up to support Syrians refugees have been inundated with race hate. Just the month before 70 asylum seekers were deported last year, the national broadcaster RÚV reported that conditions in the Víðines asylum centre as dirty and damp with too little food that was barely-heated. To reach the Immigration Service in Reykjavik the refugees have to walk for almost an hour to the nearest bus stop. And all this despite articles saying Iceland needs more immigrants.

But refugees resettled in small towns have been welcomed with overwhelming solidarity and ordinary Icelanders have tried to protect immigrants from the abuses of the state, including dawn raids and people being dragged out of churches. 

A victory

Today they have scored a victory. Protests saved an Afghan father Abrahim and his 11 year old daughter Haniye from deportation and today the little family were finally granted asylum.

This shows strong campaigns can push back racism in Iceland but there also needs to be more understanding of anti-Semitism and its effects, including this bill to ban circumcision. It is great to see Iceland’s Catholic Bishop speak up to defend Jews and Muslims but the greatest social weight in Iceland is its trade unions and its time they stood up to this bigotry.