I have probably dedicated more time and energy to researching and teaching the topic of Islamophobia than any other academic in Norway, yet I cannot quite recall where and when I first encountered the term. It would be a fair assumption that the first time I came across it was back in 2009 when I hosted a visit from an American academic. I was launching a series of public lectures in anthropology at the then recently established House of Literature in Oslo.
From 2009 to 2014, I invited a number of accomplished international scholars in my own field of anthropology to Oslo to provide them with a platform to discuss their own work and engage with a largely non-specialist audience. The core funding for the series was provided by Norway’s Fritt Ord Foundation, established in 1974 to protect and promote freedom of expression in Norway and internationally. At a time when my own field of study seemed to be retreating in the face of Norway’s neo-liberal marketisation of universities, and engaging with the public on issues of contemporary concern (a process brilliantly described in the case of the UK by Stefan Collini in his book What are Universities for?) was shunned, the series was intended to promote the continued relevance of public anthropology. My main criteria for the scholars I invited, in co-operation with other education institutions and research centres in Norway, were that they had an exceptional academic record, wrote about issues of broad concern and interest in international affairs, and they were willing, able and enthusiastic about engaging with non-specialist audiences. The first guest in my series was Matti Bunzl, at that time a professor at Illinois University at Urbana-Champaign in the USA. Bunzl had published an article, in 2005, in the anthropological journal American Ethnologist on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, that has subsequently become one of the scholarly reference points in the literature on Islamophobia. This article, which had generated a lively, yet respectful debate in the pages of the American Ethnologist, was picked up two years later by Marshall Sahlins, one of the real grand old men of US anthropology, and published as a pamphlet by Prickly Paradigm Press. I had ambitiously booked the largest hall at the House of Literature for Bunzl, but did not quite know what to expect either of him or the audience. Bunzl, whose profound interest in art and literature would a few years later see him become artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival, proved to be a perfect start to the series. A lively, witty, bald and bespectacled gay Jewish man with a large frame in his thirties, who might have come straight out of the sitcom Seinfeld, Matti seemed to relish the opportunity. It was extra touching that he had invited his ageing father, the Austrian scholar and historian John Bunzl, who, I did not know at the time, had also published extensively on Islamophobia in his native German.