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Norway’s Day of Reckoning

When a bomb devastated the government district of Oslo on 22 July 2011, everyone at first assumed it was the work of Islamic terrorists, and immigrants were harassed in the streets (1). But as the news of the massacre on the island of Utøya 50km away broke, there was confusion. Why would Muslim jihadists kill teenagers at a summer camp run by the Workers’ Youth League? When the killer turned out to be Anders Behring Breivik, a former member of the rightwing populist Progress Party and entirely Norwegian — blond, blue-eyed, from a smart district of Oslo — Norway went into shock.

Breivik had acted alone, so the massacre could simply have been regarded as the work of a psychopath. But then he declared that it was a political act to draw attention to the way “cultural Marxists” — all those on the left — were handing Europe over to Muslims. His 1,500-page “manifesto”, published on the internet, covers themes that are not new in the Norwegian political debate.

Cultural conservatism, the defence of Christian values, fear that lax immigration policies will lead to the loss of European identity, Islamophobia wrapped in rhetoric that invokes human rights — these are all close to the positions of the Progress Party. Carl Ivar Hagen, former party leader, declared in 2004 that Islamic fundamentalists, along the same lines as Hitler, had made it clear that their long-term plan was to Islamicise the world. At the 2009 legislative elections, won by the Red-Green Coalition (2), the Progress Party became the second political power in Norway, with 22.9% of the vote (3). During the election campaign, the party’s current leader, Siv Jensen, had talked of the “stealth Islamisation” of Norway. In August 2010 a rising figure in the party, Christian Tybring-Gjedde, accused the Labour Party of “stabbing [Norwegian] culture in the back”. The Progress Party’s immigration spokesperson Twittered: “I fear a new crusade will be necessary.”

Three websites publicise this movement; one, Human Rights Service, is subsidised by the foreign ministry. They are critical of Islam and openly pro-Israel, denouncing anti-Semitism. One of their main contributors, who Breivik says inspired him for a time, is the blogger Fjordman, who remained anonymous for many years but has decided to reveal his identity and deny any links with Breivik. His real name is Peder Jensen and he is a former student of Arabic who works as a nursing assistant, caring for the mentally handicapped. In 2002 he was an observer in Hebron for a human rights organisation defending the Palestinians; since then he has supported Israel.

His views are based on the conspiracy theory set out by Bat Ye’or (pen name of Gisèle Littman Orebi, an Egyptian-born British writer) in her book Eurabia (4): that Europe’s leaders have sided with the Muslims and betrayed their citizens in exchange for a guaranteed supply of oil — a fantasy that dates back to the 1973 oil crisis (5). Bat Ye’or claims that “massive” immigration by populations with a very high birth rate is a sign of this secret pact, and that Europe is, more or less literally, at war. Fjordman and his followers use this kind of rhetoric to incite “active resistance”, referring to the Nazi occupation of Norway. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, a professor of social anthropology specialising in multiculturalism, said: “These people are clearly not classical neo-Nazis who beat up Muslims in the streets. They are not unemployed men left stranded by factory closures. They are lower-middle class people who are well read, even if their reading is very selective” (6).

End of the open door to foreign labour

Does Norway really have an immigration problem? The open-door policy on foreign labour ended in 1975, when Pakistanis had just come on to the labour market. Today, first- and second-generation Pakistanis, the largest immigrant group from outside Europe, account for the majority of Norway’s 90,000 Muslims (86% of Norway’s five million citizens are Lutheran Protestants). Most immigrants since 1975 are from the European Union, Sweden, Poland, France, Germany, and work in industry, or refugees and asylum seekers, who are subject to strict acceptance criteria.

Even if unemployment is higher among immigrants (7.7% compared with a national average of 3.3%; among second-generation immigrants, unemployment is only 1 percentage point higher than the average for all young people) (7), they are relatively well integrated. A survey in 2010 found that 70% of Norwegians “appreciate immigrants’ culture and labour efforts and believe that labour immigration from non-Nordic countries makes a positive contribution to the Norwegian economy” (8).

So Norway seems to have succeeded in creating a multicultural society where integration is not a major problem. Yet Islamophobia is a growing element of the political debate. Norway is rich, thanks to oil and marine resources, and has suffered very little from the global financial crisis or the European debt crisis. A high proportion of the population works (70%). The welfare state is still strong: there have been no drastic cuts in public spending (in spite of a reorganisation that led to the closure of some establishments) and the country still has probably the most generous social policy in the world. For years, Norway has been top of the UN list of the best countries to live in.

Yet it has not been spared by neoliberal policies, championed by the Labour Party. Social and wage inequality has grown sharply over the last 20 years. A report by the leftwing thinktank Manifest states that “since 1990 the income gap between the 1% who earn the most and the national average has grown much faster in Norway than in the UK or the US” (9). The share of gross financial assets (bank deposits, shares) held by the middle classes was halved between 1984 and 2008. The income of the richest rose sharply, while wages fell as a proportion of value added.

It’s against this backdrop that immigration has become a central political issue. The neoliberals, under the influence of the thinktank Civita, financed by employers’ organisations, have done their best to prove that the Nordic welfare state model is no longer viable, although day-to-day reality shows that taxation and productivity growth are more than enough to support the current system. The Progress Party and elements of the Conservative Party have blamed, and continue to blame, immigrants for the supposed breakdown. Last year a government commission on the role of immigrants in the workforce published its report; the right used it to denounce both immigration and the welfare state, declaring that “non-western immigrants are a net … loss”. The conclusions of the report are far from being so clear-cut, but the fact that a Red-Green government appointed a commission of this kind indicates a radical change.

Social inequality masked

Norway’s prosperity — it’s the third richest country per capita in Europe and gross domestic product has risen steadily since 1998, except for a downturn in 2009 (10) — has helped to mask its worsening social inequality. This has allowed the populist right to harness the frustrations of an electorate that feels it has been mistreated — particularly the middle classes, who have been left behind by the richest. Ali Esbati, an Iranian-born Swedish economist and former leader of Sweden’s Young Left Party, currently working for Manifest, said: “When the political debate on social reform, the balance of power on the labour market or how the economy functions is no longer treated as an important axis of practical politics, other axes will come into play, such as cultural conflict.”

According to Eriksen, there is not necessarily a correlation between economic stagnation and the emergence of a populist right wing, but the Islamophobic right in Norway is made up of “people who feel they have been downgraded. They feel their standard of living has stagnated; they feel marginalised and excluded from society. After 22 July, many said out loud that they had not been heard. They consider themselves a key part of the nation, but can no longer identify with it, because another concept of national community has been imposed on Norway — a more cosmopolitan and egalitarian concept, founded on citizenship rather than ethno-national affiliation.”

The populist right plans to make the “popular will” its own — the will, as Esbati put it, of “those who belong to an elite in some domains but cannot bear to see those they despise in the limelight and becoming more visible in society. They hate the labour movement, women’s liberation organisations and cultural and academic figures who argue for a different social order.” Helge Lurås of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs said on Russian television (Russia Today, 22 July) that the multiculturalists were responsible for the Oslo bombing because they had stifled popular will with their policy on immigration.

Yet, according to Esbati, the rightwing upsurge originated outside Scandinavia: “Throughout the western world, over the last few decades, the highly organised forces of capitalism have fought to prevent economic stagnation by means of even greater exploitation, and by attacking former bastions of the labour movement — pension systems, public health services and labour law. The present difficulties present a golden opportunity to exploit fear and divide society on ethnic and religious lines. These themes are recurrent and transnational.”

Remi Nilsen is a journalist and editor of the Norwegian edition of Le Monde diplomatique.

Notes.

(1Dagsavisen, Oslo, 25 July 2011.

(2) A coalition of the Labour Party, the Socialist Left Party (founded in the 1970s to oppose the pro-American policies of the Labour Party) and the Centre Party.

(3) At the last elections, in September 2011, it took only 11.5% of the vote.

(4) Bat Ye’or, Eurabia: the Euro-Arab Axis, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Madison (New Jersey), 2005.

(5) See Andreas Malm, Hatet mot Muslimer (Hatred Towards Muslims), Atlas, Stockholm, 2011.

(6Aftenposten, Oslo, 1 August 2011.

(7) Data from Statistics Norway.

(8) “Immigration and immigrants 2010”, Statistics Norway, Oslo, 2011.

(9) “Det nye Norge: økonomisk maktkonsentrasjon i perioden etter 1990” (The new Norway: concentration of economic power since 1990), Manifest Centre for Social Analysis, Oslo, 2011.

(10) After Liechtenstein and Luxembourg.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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