Seeking answers on Norway

Tue, Jul 26, 2011, 01:00

AFTER THE horror of Norway’s bombing and shooting atrocities comes the grim realisation of how seriously they were intended by Anders Behring Breivik in his campaign against Islam, multiculturalism and those he believes responsible for bringing them to Norway. His description of the atrocities as a way of “marketing” this extremism helps explain the Norwegian court’s wise decision yesterday not to publicise its hearing and to order that Breivik be held in solitary confinement for eight weeks. These events must be fully explored, but not on the terms dictated by the man responsible for them.

That is fully in the spirit of Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg’s commitment to keep his country’s democratic system open and accessible. His Labour Party was marked out by Breivik as failing to protect Norway from Muslim immigration, for which nearly 70 of its young supporters have paid with their lives. It is a disgusting and mistaken accusation, drawing on the wave of Islamophobe activism and propaganda that has become much more prevalent in Europe over the last decade. Right-wing populist parties have fanned such sentiments, becoming significant political players in Finland, Denmark, Austria, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Hungary and elsewhere on anti-immigrant platforms. The Progress Party in Norway has a similar appeal, with support from one-fifth of the electorate. While such parties have been quick to disavow and denounce Breivik’s terrorism, they do swim in the same ideological sea.

As in other European states, Muslim immigrants have been drawn to Norway by the promise of a better life. Despite Norway’s wealth and extensive welfare systems, adjustment to this new multicultural reality has been difficult for a traditionally homogeneous and rather isolated society. Breivik’s actions play into this frustration. His extrapolation of Muslim colonisation culminating in a takeover of Europe later this century is completely wrong demographically, culturally and socially, not to mention politically or economically.

But it should never be forgotten how easily cultural minorities can be made scapegoats for social problems like unemployment, job insecurity and austerity policies that strike the weaker and poorer most. Right-wing populism helps to coarsen political discourse all around Europe. Multiculturalism has been denounced by Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron this year as a failed policy, even though it is for the most part a false target, given their prior hostility to effective integration programmes. In Denmark and the Netherlands conservative governing parties have restricted immigration and free movement in response to such competitive political pressure.

Social democratic parties like Mr Stoltenberg’s are equally challenged by these populist movements, which appeal to some of their core working class and lower middle class constituencies. The Norwegian atrocities should alert both the centre right and the centre left to the dangers involved in racist stereotyping of cultural and religious minorities.