Anti-racist unity ebbs as Norway awaits court ruling on Breivik
Cracks appear in sense of national unity that arose after mass killings, with anti-immigrant antipathy re-emerging
For a while it seemed likely that Norway’s fabled open society would emerge intact from the 22 July killings. Yet as the country waits for Friday when an Oslo court passes its verdict on the mass killer Anders Breivik, cracks in the country’s famed culture of tolerance are starting to show.
There is a growing consensus that Norway’s feeling of national unity, symbolised by the huge “rose marches” in which hundreds of thousands marched in defiance after the attacks, has slowly ebbed away as the country becomes divided over the issues of rising immigration and cultural integration.
Some experts believe that anti-immigrant antipathy has now slid back to levels that existed before Breivik, a far-right militant, slaughtered 77 people last year.
Thorbjørn Jagland, the Norwegian chairman of the Nobel peace prize committee, is among those who believe nothing has been learnt in the 13 months since the attacks.
Jagland, a former prime minister of Norway and now general secretary of the Council of Europe, told the Guardian that while the atrocities had dampened the anti-multicultural rhetoric of politicians, the sentiments remained. “I don’t think we have changed much in the past year. People at the political level have been more cautious regarding the debate around integration and Muslims, but if you look at what is going on at the grassroots level it has not changed,” he said.
“Xenophobic tendencies are still there; there is still a lot of hatred against immigrants; fears of multiculturalism remain. Look at debates online, they are still very much what we had before.”
The eastern Oslo district of Grønland is Norway’s most vividly multicultural neighbourhood. Here, among the tandoori takeaways, mosques and Vietnamese supermarkets, is where Norway’s newest arrivals typically end up. Its skyline is dotted with cranes and scaffolding, a visual reminder that Oslo is Europe’s fastest-growing city.
Driving the growth is an influx of foreign workers. Norway’s population rose 1.3% last year, itself one of the highest rates in Europe. Net immigration accounted for 71% of growth.
But in an episode last month that would have been unthinkable during the scenes of national solidarity witnessed immediately after Breivik struck, the arrival of Roma refugees in Norway provoked a hateful backlash.
Death threats surfaced on Norwegian online forums and a Roma camp was attacked with fireworks and stones. Three weeks ago, Siv Jensen, leader of the populist rightwing Progress party, of which Breivik was a former member, demanded that the Roma refugees be deported.
Bente Guro Møller, who founded Oslo’s Intercultural Museum in 1990, believes that after a brief period of enlightenment following the attacks, attitudes to integration have regressed.
“Things have gone back to where they were. When I started out I thought our anti-racist work would be done in 10 years, now we don’t dare set a date.”
Her colleague, Daniella van Dijk-Wennberg, a Dutch immigrant who has lived in Oslo since 1993, said: “There is a lot of unspoken aggression against immigrants. Norway is no different in that respect.
“It changed a lot in the beginning [after the attacks], but the good feeling has worn out.”
She said Oslo remained broadly split into two, the river Akerselva dividing a largely homogeneous population with the city’s multicultural society in the east. Some residents in the west of Oslo, she said, would not cross the Akerselva.
Jagland blames such attitudes on the continued “distortion” of the immigration debate during mainstream political discussions.
He said Norway – which has more than £300bn in reserves from its oil fund – requires large numbers of foreign workers to keep expanding. “It needs to be explained how dependent we are on immigration.”
The memory of the attacks, however, continues to galvanise the younger generation. Breivik killed 69 people during his attack on the Labour party’s youth wing, the AUF, on Utøya island. But his hopes of eradicating the next generation of Labour politicians has spectacularly backfired – instead it has inspired thousands to join up.
Eskil Pedersen, the 29-year-old head of the AUF, said that one “beautiful” byproduct of the horror was seeing how young Norwegians still believed democracy could defeat extremism.
Pedersen, who Breivik has admitted was one of his top targets, but who escaped the island on a ferry during the shootings, said: “We have been travelling around the country and the implication is that politics is cooler, but also more important.” Membership of the AUF has increased during the last year from 9,600 to 14,000.
Some, though, believe the recent success of the anti-immigrant Progress party has countered such enthusiasm. The party suffered significantly after 22 July, yet it has steadily clawed back support. One recent poll suggests the party has more than 22% support among voters.
Yet while the Progress party appears resurgent, Norway’s far-right nexus remains tiny. Tor Bach, of Norway’s far-right monitoring group Vepsen, said the policies of the Progress party meant there was little political oxygen for them to evolve. Riven by factionalism, their numbers are measured in dozens.
Bach said: “Being a rightwing extremist in Norway is a pretty miserable affair. It must be a sad, dull life.
“But as a society it feels very much the same. It hasn’t changed. At one time it felt this would change society forever but what happened was so extreme it feels unreal.”
Kari Helene Partapuoli, of Oslo’s Anti-Racist Centre, believes the attacks should have been a watershed moment in redefining attitudes to immigration and integration.
Yet Norway still does not record hate crimes and, Partapuoli said, the attacks had not led to government schemes to improve cultural awareness. She said: “Hopefully, we would have realised that hatred can inspire actions, but I don’t think we have learnt that lesson.”