Irshad Manji debated Tariq Ramadan for the first time in Oslo on Friday. It turned into a very interesting exchange. Ramadan was from the start exasperated with Manji. And when she asked him what on earth was wrong, he blurted out: Woman!

Freedom of expression and its limits was the topic. Both agreed that there was no need for new laws. But then Ramadan introduced terms like «collective psychology» and «collective decency». Manji shot back: Individuals are inviolable, not cultures. Cultures are manmade, they are constructs. We cannot endow cultures with immunity.

There clearly was a difference of opinon. Whereas Ramadan wants to have a decent dialogue and a modus vivendi based on education and understanding, Manji said: Stop! One cannot exempt culture from criticism. Her thoughts went further: in a global world everything impinges on everything else. What happens in Swat valley will sooner or later impact on us, as we learned so bitterly on 9/11. This insight has deepened over the years, because of 9/11 and globalization. We are all connected, also culturally. We are free to adopt other cultures, to critize them and modify them, and we should. That cultures – or religions – somehow should enjoy priviliges like individuals is ludicrous.

The right not to be offended does not pertain only to muslims. At the Youth Festival organized by the Catholic Church in Australia last year, they asked for and was granted a period of one month that was offense-free. One could end up with a hefty fine for offending Catholics or their faith during this period.

In a world of constant movement this is an anomaly. Manji’s line of thought was logical.

Ramadan argues more in the line of a concordat, a modus vivendi where cultures learn to respect each other. He was provoked by Manji and accused her of being self-centered and of thinking that only she could be the bridge between Muslims and non-Muslims. Ramadan had spoken warmly of «us», meaning «I consider myself a European and a Westerner», but then he criticized Manji for talking to the outside world.

This made Manji respond forcefully: «I thought you just said you were one of us, and now you accuse me of talking as a muslim in an illojal way to the outside world.»

Ramadan said something that made the public laugh, and she commented:

«Now you see its your Western audience, not mine.»

Which was an astute observation. Ramadan has been to Norway many times, and is widely admired by the liberal elite. One of these is his publisher, Anders Heger, who was also the moderator of the debate. Heger is, among other things, the leder of the Norwegian chapter of P.E.N and a commentator in the press. Considering his many roles, there are overlaps and one is not always certain who is speaking. But there is a constant: a leaning toward the soft left of the liberal kind that sympatizes with Ramadan’s endeavour to create a european islam.

Only this time Manji spelt trouble. Manji said that non-Muslims tell her that they are afraid to speak their minds about muslims and islam. They fear being labeled racists, islamophobes etc. Another argument is that the criticism must come from within the community: as an outsider one is not entitled to criticize Islam or Muslims. One must be a representative of the group. This is all hogwash, cried Manji. There are no such borders between people, we are all in it together. But among the liberal elite there is a reluctance to criticize. She mentioned the small group of muslim women in Canada who battled the proposal to introduce arbritration based on sharia in civil matters. Only when a group of non-Muslim women enetered the fray and wrote articles in the newspapers, did the authorities in Ontario react.

This made Ramadan react vehemently. He said her story was all wrong. It did not happen that way. A numer of muslim organizations decided on their own that they were entitled to religious arbitration, but did not see the need for it. They decided to stick to the common law. Ramadan said he was there, he was part of the process. He had discussed it with the judge on a visit to Great Britain six months ago.

Which made Manji retort: «You accuse me of putting myself on a pedestal, but you constantly refer to yourself as being all over the place. Nothing takes place without you, so who are creating myths here?»

The atmosphere grew acrimonious, to the moderator’s chagrin. But there clearly were important disagreements between the two.

Ramadan was outraged that Manji spoke of fear of offending muslims, when exactly the opposite is taking place in Europe. Ramadan’s voice was filled with anger and exasperation: What was once confined to the margins is now to be found within mainstream debate in Europe: accusations against Islam and Muslims. One hears rhetoric that has not been heard since Jews were lampooned in the 30’s, he said. Politicians and others increasingly employ a populistic rethoric. They let go of their emotions and do not use their common sense. A very dangerous game, Ramadan warned.

The debate was left suspended. What started out as an apparent common ground, suddenly grew into very different interpretations of reality, and with it different perceptions of freedom of speech. Ramadan obviously wants decency to reign along communal lines. Manji torpedoed this notion as illusory. To maintain that one’s culture is one piece today is almost a contradiction in terms. We are confronted by different strands of influence all of us, however pure we may see ourselves. The idea of cultural autonomy or purity is an illusion.

Manji also brought forth in Ramadan a streak of anti-feminism. He loves to project himself as a ladies’ man. But when he sensed her independence of mind, he tried to reprimand her. When she refused and shot back, he variously threw tantrums, played the victim and tried to belittle her. He showed himself to be pompous and pampered and with a need to lash out against a woman who dared to speak her mind.

The encounter was part of an international conference called Words of Expression, organized by P.E.N. and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.