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Hijab debate lifts veil on limits of Norway's tolerance

A Muslim woman's request to wear a hijab with her police uniform has sparked national controversy.

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"If they continue to spin these irrational fears, I'm afraid it could lead to a lot of commotion," said Thorbjørn Jagland, Norway's parliamentary leader and former Labor prime minister, during a highly-attended religious debate in Oslo this week.

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Some 500 people lined up around the block to hear Mr. Jagland, religious professor Torkel Brekke, the bishop of the Church of Norway, and leader of Norway's Muslim Student Society discuss why religion is suddenly a hot topic.

The panelists discussed the recent media focus surrounding the hijab debate and blasphemy paragraph, the provocation caused by the burning of a hijab on International Women's Day on March 8 by a Norwegian Muslim woman in protest of the garment, and fears among "religious nationalists" and "secular intellectuals" toward Norway's Muslim minority.

"We could very well live with the mosques because they stayed in them. But when this began to affect our cultural values, then it became a conflict, and then it became politicized," Jagland told the crowd. "But Islam is not a threat to Norway."

"I don't see Norway as a tolerant society at all, partly based on these debates and how they react to people coming to Norway," said Professor Brekke, from the University of Oslo. "It's tolerant in that you can practice any religion, but you have large sections of Norwegian society that react strongly to alien cultures."

Immigrants make up 9.7 percent of Norway's 4.8 million inhabitants. Norway has granted permission to about one-fourth of the 328,000 immigrants who arrived from non-Nordic countries between 1990 and 2007 to stay as refugees. The largest immigrant population is Polish, who are traditionally Catholic, followed by Pakistani. Islam accounts for 20 percent of the 9 percent of the population belonging to religious communities outside the Church of Norway.

Sweden has a more liberal policy in accepting refugees than Norway and allows hijabs in its police uniform, as does Britain. France has banned the use of hijabs and other ostensible religious items in its state schools since 2004.

The religious debate has overshadowed the economic one in Norway, which has been relatively shielded from the financial crisis thanks to its vast petroleum resources as the world's third largest gas exporter.

Norway has a large budget surplus to help fund its financial stimulus packages and relatively mild unemployment – 3 percent, compared to 8.1 percent in the US. Moreover, it has invested its oil revenues in a $329 billion Government Pension Fund.