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Hijab debate lifts veil on limits of Norway's tolerance

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

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INFLAMED: A Muslim woman in Oslo burned a on International Women's Day to protest the garment's symbolism.

AFP/Newscom/FILE

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Norway's biggest headache right now is not the financial crisis. Rather, the predominantly Christian nation is plagued by a religious dilemma over the right of a Muslim woman to wear a as part of her police uniform.

As the controversy has escalated, the country has seen the physical collapse of the justice minister, the public burning of a , and a substantial rise in the popularity of Norway's anti-immigrant opposition party just six months before general elections.

This is odd for a country known for religious tolerance, generous international development aid, and peace efforts worldwide. But the controversy highlights the latent fears of a nonpluralistic society, where 91 percent belong to the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Norway.

The dilemma began last fall when a Norwegian Muslim woman petitioned for permission to wear her , the traditional head covering for Muslim women, as part of her police uniform. Norway's justice ministry originally decided in February to allow it, but revoked the permission a few weeks later after loud criticism from the police union, which argued it breached the neutrality of the uniform.

"A change of uniform regulations, with an allowance for covering hair, has never been a goal in itself. It has always been thought of as a possible means to increase the recruitment of police from minority groups in society," said Justice Minister Knut Storberget, in defense of his decision to revoke the initial permission.

Amid the heightened media attention and political backlash from his flip-flopping, the minister collapsed and subsequently announced a two-week sick leave, which was then extended.

The debacle comes on the back of the minister's other religious-related political defeat over a now-defunct blasphemy law. Mr. Storberget initially tried to replace the law with a new paragraph that would have protected individuals from defamatory religious statements. But after much political opposition, the law was repealed and no paragraph introduced.

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