In 1999, Raja began to appear frequently on Norwegian TV and in the newspaper op-ed pages as a commentator on immigration and integration issue and as a spokesman for the nation's Muslims. As it happens, that was the same year I moved to Norway, so I've followed his entire public career. During those early years, Raja came off as angry and radical. In 2004, while serving as a spokesman for an Oslo mosque called World Islamic Mission, he argued that the Norwegian government should pay to build a school in Pakistan for the children of Pakistani Muslims living in Norway. (Many Muslims in Europe send their kids to schools “back home” to prevent their Westernization.) In 2005, after a Norwegian court found a father and son guilty of forcing a family member to marry, Raja wrote an article for Aftenposten in which he insisted that not all arranged marriages are forced marriages. Some young people, he risibly maintained, “can't manage to find their own spouse,” while some “don't want to find their own spouse” and therefore ask their parents to do the job for them. Yeah, right.
In 2004, after a TV2 discussion program called Holmgang addressed the recent jihadist slaughter in Amsterdam of Islam critic Theo van Gogh, Raja went on the warpath, making several TV appearances in which he charged that the show's host, Oddvar Stenstrøm, had “stigmatized” Muslims. (Stenstrøm reacted angrily to what he described as Raja's “purely personal attacks” and outright lies: “In my nearly forty years as a journalist I've never experienced anything like it.”) Three years later, when Holmgang addressed the question of whether radical Islam represented a threat to Western values (99% of viewers said “yes”), Raja wrote a furious op-ed demanding that Stenstrøm be fired. It's not clear what happened behind the scenes at TV2, but Stenstrøm was gone within a few months.
At some point – I don't remember exactly when – I noticed that Raja had tamed his rhetoric. He was trying to sound reasonable, trying to come off as cool and reasoned. He even made the occasional, very carefully worded criticism of this or that aspect of the Muslim subculture. I didn't believe for a second that he had actually changed his opinion about anything. As far as I was concerned, it was all an act. Raja, I surmised, was cynically modifying his image. The only question was: why? The answer seemed obvious: he wanted to pursue a political career. And he wouldn't be satisfied with just being a member of Parliament, representing a mostly Muslim constituency: if that was all he was after, he wouldn't have to undergo any kind of makeover.
No, this was a guy who was determined to go straight to the top. I had no doubt whatsoever that he could make it. He's articulate and can put on the charm. He has an extremely slick, lawyerly way of fielding ticklish questions – not that the Norwegian media ever ask him ticklish questions. No, they fawn over him and give him protection, the way the U.S. media did with Obama. Given this – and given Raja's high level of name recognition, the rapid rise in Norway's Muslim population, and the number of Norwegian voters who are eager to prove at the ballot box that they're not Islamophobes – he could eventually be a shoo-in. In short, when I looked at the newly made-over Raja, I realized I was looking at the man who someday might well become Norway's first Muslim prime minister.
Indeed, Raja did end up pursuing a political career. He became active in the smallish Venstre (Liberal) Party, which loves two things: the environment and mass Muslim immigration. In 2009 he won an “alternate” seat in Parliament; the next year he founded Minotenk, a think tank devoted to “minority politics.” He said he wanted to be a “bridge-builder.”
Until Obama became president, I was invited every year to the Fourth of July garden party at the residence of the American ambassador to Norway. At one of the last parties I attended, I noticed a familiar figure in the middle of the crowd. It was Raja. He was surrounded by a circle of admirers, holding court, shaking hands, flashing a big smile. Clearly, this was a man on the make, a star on the ascendant.
In 2010, Raja was invited to organize a series of dialogues at Litteraturhuset, one of Oslo's premier cultural venues. Among the people he showcased in front of a huge audience (composed largely of young people) were a radical imam and a former Taliban leader, whom Raja invited so they could explain why they hated Jews and gays. When Labour Party MP Håkon Haugli questioned the value of these events to Raja's face on live national TV, Raja responded with an attack on Haugli that was so heated and so inappropriately personal that he was ordered to leave the studio. Haugli later wrote that while Raja had “made dialogue his trademark,” he was obviously less interested in dialogue than in giving a platform to extremists and thus drawing the media spotlight to himself.
That exchange with Haugli was an exceedingly valuable moment. For once, the Mr. Cool mask fell off and we got a glimpse of the real Raja – an attention-seeking egomaniac who has no respect for secular government and who quickly becomes enraged when challenged.
In 2013 Raja was elected a full-fledged MP. He's now running for re-election. The other day on TV he argued with Migration Minister Sylvi Listhaug (whose praises I sang here recently) about her plan to forbid hijab in grade schools. She sees hijab – quite correctly, of course – as a form of oppression; Raja replies that to call hijab-clad girls oppressed is to “alienate” them. “I'm sorry to say it this way,” Raja told Listhaug, “but you're an object of hate in the immigrant community. How can you change those who don't trust you? Shouldn't you build a bridge to them?” She pointed out – truthfully – that years of dialogue had gotten nowhere. He urged her to reconsider. “Reach out a hand,” he said. “Try that way, Sylvi. I think it works.”
He claims to have embraced Western values wholeheartedly, and suggests that his long-term goal is to persuade his fellow Muslims to join him in doing so. Every time I watch him, all I can think is: I don't buy it. Listhaug has had the audacity to warn that there are “wolves in sheep's clothing” in Norway's Muslim community. I have no doubt whatsoever that Raja is one of them. And I fear that, with the help of the Norwegian media and the rest of the nation's Muslim-happy cultural establishment, he will someday – barring some unforeseeable impediment – become Norway's first Muslim prime minister.