Breivik’s Norway Attacks: Extremism in a Tolerant Region

By Eben Harrell, Time , Jul 25 2011

In 2005, Norway’s populist, far-right Progress Party ran election-campaign posters that featured a dark-skinned man pointing a gun at the camera and the slogan “The perpetrator is of foreign origin.” Today, these posters carry a terrible irony: Anders Behring Breivik — a tall, blond, blue-eyed farmer not of foreign origin — massacred dozens of Norwegian schoolchildren on Friday, July 22, in what seems to have been a deranged attempt to spark a revolution against the influx of foreigners he felt was diluting Norway’s heritage.

It is dangerous to look for answers in the mind of a madman. It does not necessarily reveal anything useful about a nation if one of its citizens murders under the banner of a particular ideology. But if Breivik’s psychopathy is unique, in Norway and other Nordic countries his political beliefs are surprisingly widespread. It may seem shocking, but Scandinavia — for years a model of tolerance and cooperation and the sponsor of dozens of worthy international conferences and treaties — has become the latest European haven for xenophobic populist thought.

Norway’s Progress Party, of which Breivik is a former member, won more than one-fifth of the national vote in the latest parliamentary election, in 2009. Last year, the Swedish Democrats became the first far-right party to enter the Swedish parliament when it captured nearly 6% of the vote despite a furor that erupted when local candidate Marie-Louise Enderleit posted a comment on Facebook that migrants should be shot in the head, put in a bag and sent back to their home countries. Denmark’s Folkparty, which recently ran an anti-immigrant campaign under the slogan “Give us Denmark back,” secured 14% of the vote in a 2007 election and has since been an influential coalition partner in government. And the True Finns became the third largest party represented in the Finnish Parliament after winning 19% of the vote in elections in April.

“It is the end of an era,” Anders Wildfeldt, lecturer in Nordic politics at the University of Aberdeen, says of the entrance of the far right into the Nordic political mainstream. Citing the success of xenophobic parties in other parts of Europe, Wildfeldt adds, “It’s becoming increasingly inaccurate to discuss Scandinavian exceptionalism.”

Of course, Scandinavia was never immune to extremism, and like other parts of Europe, it has suffered at the hands of Muslim fundamentalists. Last winter, a Swedish Muslim blew himself up in a failed suicide-bombing mission in central Stockholm, and violent protests over the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005 led to dozens of deaths around the world. But recently in Scandinavia, it is the far right that has proved the most dangerous of the radicalist movements. Last fall, following the Swedish elections, a gunman shot at least 15 residents of the city of Malmö, targeting people with dark skin. Bejzat Becirov, 72, the founder and leader of a mosque in Malmö, recently told TIME that the mosque has survived 300 hate attacks, including firebombings — and he blames popular stereotypes of Muslims. When he first issued the call to the faithful 30 years ago, he says, “an imam was associated with a rich sheik. But now they are widely associated with terrorists.” In Norway, Breivik did not target immigrants, but a 1,500-page manifesto attributed to him by the Norwegian media made clear that his actions were motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment.

How did such a shift in the perception of Muslims happen?A common theory to explain the rise of far-right politicians throughout Europe is that they gain support during recessions because they offer a facile scapegoat — immigrants — for job losses and hardship. But in Scandinavia, the data dispute this assumption. Denmark’s Folkparty and Norway’s Progress Party rose to power during the boom years of the mid-2000s, when unemployment hovered around only 5% in both countries. And while Sweden has not escaped the effects of the recession, it has fared comparatively well; in 2010 its GDP grew 4%, more than any other Western OECD-member country. Yet this was the period during which the far-right Swedish Democrats broke through.

A more important political explanation, Wildfeldt and other academics say, is the convergence of major parties around a centrist political agenda, which opens a gap for extreme parties on both the left and the right. Take Sweden’s recently elected Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, for example. He’s a conservative — he spent his first term privatizing companies and working to get Swedes off sick-leave and early-retirement schemes. But he also has vowed to preserve the sacred cows of the Swedish left: the country’s welfare state and high tax burden. With little to distinguish Reinfeldt’s “right-wing” Moderates and the “left-wing” Social Democrats, Wildfeldt says, voters have nowhere to place protest votes other than with extreme parties.

There has also been scrutiny of the sociological upheaval caused by introducing mass numbers of immigrants into Scandinavia’s tightly knit, homogeneous communities. Scandinavian politics has for years been based on an ethic of inclusion and support for the vulnerable. That ethic partly explains why the region has traditionally had such a liberal immigration policy. In the wake of the Iraq war, for instance, Sweden provided homes for half of all refugees in the E.U. Migrants now make up 13% of the Swedish population, while that figure is around 8% in Denmark and Norway and 2% in Finland. More recently, Norway has reportedly taken in 300 refugees from the conflict in Libya, more than any other European country has. But concern over the viability of the welfare state in the face of waves of (usually impoverished) migrants has allowed the far right to claim they are the true defenders of the “Scandinavian model” — they are protecting cradle-to-grave benefits from immigrants who they say are placing the model under unsustainable strain.

The far-right Swedish Democrats’ election campaign last year, for example, included an ad showing women in burqas running past elderly native Swedes to the benefit office. Similarly, Denmark’s Folkparty and the True Finns both want to strengthen, rather than dismantle, benefit structures — but they say the only way to do so is to stop immigration and cut benefits for recent immigrants. Among the far right, says Bjorn Freeland, professor of international migration and ethnic relations at Sweden’s Malmö University, “the liberal tradition of Scandinavia has now swung to the opposite pole, with tolerance and solidarity being nationally defined.”

The success of that message — that Scandinavian countries must stop immigration to save their social-democratic ideal — depends on the assumption that immigrants are burdens on the state. Is that assumption accurate? Has immigration been a scourge? It is true that migrant populations in Scandinavia have higher rates of unemployment, particularly among women, and perpetrate a disproportionately high number of crimes? A 2008 report by the Norwegian government titled How Well Is Integration Working?painted a nuanced picture and found that immigrants’ social mobility and other indicators of integration in Norway improve with time and over generations. For instance, the report found that the proportion of immigrants with a low income falls from nearly 47% of those who have lived in Norway for less than three years to 19% of those who have lived there for 10 years or more.

Even more startling, the report found that “tolerance and goodwill” toward immigrants has actually increased in Norway in recent years. Two-thirds of Norwegians, for example, believe immigrants enrich the cultural life of the country. Yet at the same time, more than half of those polled in 2008 felt the government’s integration policies were working “quite or very badly.” Similarly, a survey conducted last year by the University of Göteborg found that the percentage of Swedes who felt there were “too many foreigners” in the country had dropped to 36%, from 52% in 1993. Race relations seem to be improving, just at the time the far right has broken through.

So why the discrepancy? Kari Helene Partapuoli of the Norwegian Center Against Racism says far-right parties, despite their relatively small representation in government, manage to dictate the national conversation. Recently, a study commissioned by the Norwegian Directory for Integration and Multiculturalism revealed that Norwegian papers used the words Muslim or Islam77,000 times in 2009; by comparison, swine flu — the topic of the major health story of that year — was mentioned 74,000 times. Even in Finland, the country with the smallest number of migrants in the region, Camilla Haavisto, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, recently published a paper noting that “media discussion in 1999–2007 regarding migrants departed always from two points: Whether they were us, or whether they were useful to us. The conversation is void of all references to human rights.”

It’s difficult to know just how much this type of polarization and dehumanization helped Breivik’s thoughts turn to murder. But it seems while there are very few in Scandinavia who would agree with his violent actions, there are a growing number in this traditionally moderate region who would agree with the reasoning behind those actions.

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