Krakow Film Festival 2024

Thorsen against Islam

RIGHTS / Explore the turbulent world of Norway's most prominent anti-Islam activist navigating the thin lines of freedom of expression and hate speech, revealing the complexity of public discourse in today's society in the process.

This is a documentary that can’t help but leave a deep impression. It is about an extremely important issue with enormous relevance in these turbulent times, and on top of this, it is just so well made. It is a masterpiece.

On the surface, it is the story about Lars Thorsen, Norway’s most well-known anti-Islam activist and controversial person. In the first shots, we meet him in his car, crisscrossing the streets to put up flyers on lampposts and other public surfaces in the cityscape. The message is, «Terror is just as Islamic as pedophilia,» and that is what Mr. Thorsen is all about.

Since 2019, he has been the front person of SIAN—Stop Islamization of Norway. The far-right organization has existed since 2000, but under Larsen’s leadership, it has taken a much more activist stance. Among other things, he wants to wake up the Norwegians by staging public Quran burnings, and the two directors have set out to describe how he utilises a series of manipulative methods to reach his goal.

Norwegian Democrazy Bård Kjøge Rønning, Fabien Greenberg
Norwegian Democrazy , a film by Bård Kjøge Rønning, Fabien Greenberg

Freedom of expression

We follow him from one event to the next. Heavy police presence is the general picture, and in most cases, he and a small cohort of loyalists speak and shout to deaf ears. Passersby react with bewilderment, shaking their heads, and suddenly, the situation goes out of hand. On International Women’s Day, they try to stage a provocation. They dress up as Arabs and shout, «Support Islam’s view on women!» No Nazis in our streets shout the bystanders back, and in no time, things heat up. Shortly after, Thorsen and his people are evacuated by police.

He also knows that there is no ban against burning a Quran in public as soon as it does not endanger public order or the safety of citizens.

It is a matter of freedom of speech. As the Norwegian constitution states, you are allowed to say almost whatever you want, and Thorsen knows his way around the law. He also knows that there is no ban against burning a Quran in public as soon as it does not endanger public order or the safety of citizens. That is part of the dilemma of counter-protesters and the small group of anti-racists. They know that Thorsen is thriving on attention and it would be best just to stay away, and on the other hand, something must be done to counter this phenomenon. Citizens interviewed in front of the parliament building in Oslo stress the importance of being able to express their opinions without fear of being arrested. But hate speech… it is a minefield. However, banning certain types of freedom of speech might affect the same rights for others, so it is extremely tricky.

Norwegian Democrazy Bård Kjøge Rønning, Fabien Greenberg
Norwegian Democrazy , a film by Bård Kjøge Rønning, Fabien Greenberg

The surface is peeling off

Part of this documentary’s absolute brilliance is the way the story is told and Thorsen is presented. In the beginning, you get the impression of an easy-going man, and occasionally, he stands out as sympathetic. He seems so normal, and that is an important point.

At one point, a young anti-racist goes to meet Thorsen and his wife/partner in their home. He is welcomed with smiles, and they have a truly civilized conversation despite their vast differences in worldview. If Thorsen were pictured as a raging monster, we would have a black-and-white picture without nuances. It would be easy to judge and discard him, leaving the viewers without answers. But Thorsen is described as a family man who has worked in tax accounting for many years before becoming a full-blown activist, and in this way, you get to understand that hate could arise in any person – and even in you.

Little by little, the nice surface is peeling off. In the beginning, Thorsen is on cordial terms with the police officers who come to control the situation during his events and political stand-offs. But the relationship turns sour.

When they ban him from burning a Quran in front of the Iranian embassy, he explodes with anger. Thorsen claims that he is not protected by the hate speech paragraph, he says in connection with another event. When stating a so-called fact, he could offend somebody and go to prison. Muslims are a protected population.

…you get to understand that hate could arise in any person – and even in you.

This way of thinking is outrageous, but when served in the right way and with a deep knowledge of where the legal limits go, it gets scary. And Thorsen is a bright man with a huge bank of information and statistics collected in his computer through years of consistent and dedicated work. In the end, though, the authorities seem to have the upper hand. Despite a ban from entering the city centre, he gets there and is planning to stage another Quran burning. But while one bystander snatches the book from his hand and runs away, the police officers grab him and lead him to a waiting police van, where they shut the door. The show is over – or is it?

An astonishing piece of cinematographic work on a deeply worrying phenomenon!

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Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Modern Times Review.

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