A recent survey has indicated that Norwegian teachers are increasingly wary of subjects deemed controversial, such as the notorious Muhammad cartoons and free speech.
Almost half of all the surveyed teachers in Norway found it demanding to teach students about topics that may be offensive. Among others, one in three is afraid to show caricatures of Islamic Prophet Muhammad during classes, admittedly for fear of the consequences.
Others cited reasons such as respect for Islam and minorities, the desire not to offend and being unsure that the school leadership would support them.
At the same time, one in four said that they have conscientiously avoided raising hot-button issues during classes because they were worried about offending some of the students. Topics typically found offensive included religion, sexuality, suicide, and Islam.
All in all, over 230 Norwegian teachers participated in the survey, 70 percent of them women.
“Several teachers at my school have previously shown caricatures during classes. None of us want to do that now”, professor Kjersti Marie Heldaas at Nøtterøy upper secondary school explained to the trade magazine Utdanningsnytt.
“It’s serious that it’s like that. At the same time, it is not surprising,” leader of the Education Association Steffen Handal said, referring to the beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty who was killed in mid-October after showing cartoons of Prophet Muhammad while teaching the freedom of expression. The incident shook teachers all over Europe, including Norway. “Still, it is thought-provoking that so many are afraid of possible consequences,” he added.
Ingunn Folgerø, the head of the Teachers' Ethics Council, admitted that this poses a dilemma for teachers, because many in the profession are scared. She argued that this is a “very unfortunate development” that teachers are afraid of consequences if they show the controversial caricatures in teaching.
“Freedom of expression is a fundamental foundation of democracy and is very strong,” Folgerø said. At the same time she urged fellow teachers to “reflect on professionalism, promote tolerance and understanding and abstain from what she called “unnecessary activism”.
Europe has seen a number of attacks related to or justified by what is seen as the humiliation of Prophet Muhammad, the central figure in Islam. For instance, Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly adhering to the non-conformist left, has been the target of three terrorist attacks (in 2011, 2015 and 2020) all of which are presumed to have been in response to the Muhammad cartoons. Muhammad cartoons by Swedish artist Lars Vilks have led to several unsuccessful assassination attempts, prompting the artist to go into hiding and engage clockwork police protection.