x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Cracks appear in Norway's post-massacre unity as Islam row returns

As Norwegian Left attacks 'people who engage in hateful rhetoric', Right insists on 'the importance of continuing the debate on immigration'.

Police take down the details of a Muslim woman near Oslo station yesterday. Norway's prime minister on Wednesday pledged a security review after a mourning period for at least 76 people killed by a far-right zealot in bombing and shooting attacks. Cathal McNaughton / Reuters
Police take down the details of a Muslim woman near Oslo station yesterday. Norway's prime minister on Wednesday pledged a security review after a mourning period for at least 76 people killed by a far-right zealot in bombing and shooting attacks. Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

OSLO // Norway's facade of unity after the attacks that shook the country last week may only be paper thin. Right-wing activists and left-wing politicians alike say that they have no intention of shelving the debate on Muslim immigration and multiculturalism, the issues that the confessed killer says motivated his attacks.

"The challenges are broad and difficult to solve, but without any real and open debate, parts of Oslo will develop [in]to a city of segregated societies," one author who has been openly critical of Islam in Norway told The National. "Immigration in Norway is not a big problem, not for Sikhs, Buddhists or Jews or whatever religion. But Islam is," he added.

Despite the massive outpouring of national mourning for the 76 or more victims from last Friday's attacks, such views are beginning to reassert themselves, not even a week after the killings in Oslo and at the Labour youth camp on the island of Utoeya. It points at the persistent polarisation of Scandinavian and other European societies over the issue of Islam and immigration, a polarisation that is now also being felt on the right.

"On Facebook, people from the correct left side have started a witch hunt, transforming their humiliation and grief into anger and pointing at all people having been critical to Islam, as enemies of the majority," said the Norwegian author, who did not want to be identified. The backlash against him and some of his fellow critics of Islam has been such, he said, that, "we also feel that we're rejected to join the massive national grief process." He added ominously that this, "could also have big accidental consequences."

Given the extreme right-wing views of the attacker, Anders Behring Breivik, it is not surprising that people who are close to that part of the political spectrum now feel under pressure. But according to one observer of Norwegian internet and social network sites, the critics of Islam are exaggerating the backlash. "They're always paranoid."

Norway's Labour Party, which was mostly the target of Mr Breivik, who objected to its supposed role in facilitating Muslim immigration, has emphasised that this was an assault on the whole country. The party has hesitated to point the finger of blame even at the small extreme right-wing fringe in the country.

But the Labour MP Marit Nybakk on Tuesday struck a more combative note. While listening to a news conference from Labour leaders who largely emphasised their commitment to an open society, she struck back at the extreme right-wing bloggers who may have helped create the climate in which the attacks took place.

"People who engage in hateful rhetoric have to realise that there are other people who may put that into reality," Mrs Nybakk said. She said that the discourse and the use of "nationalist rhetoric and slogans", was something that everybody should examine and be wary of. She hastened to add that, "this did not mean that there should be no debate on immigration and integration". In fact, while deploring some of the anti-immigration rhetoric of the last few years, she said the Labour Party should itself engage more with the debate. "We have to be more open about what integration is, based on democracy and equality."

Despite the image that is sometimes presented of a harmonious Norwegian society, especially in the aftermath of the attacks, the country has not been immune to the kind of heated debates on particularly Muslim integration in society that has rocked other parts of Europe. The conservative Progress Party has booked electoral success partly through its tougher stance on integration.

Anders Ravik Jupskas, a political scientist at the university of Oslo, who specialises in the extreme right, said the party passed the electoral threshold for the first time in 1987 after it started deploying anti-immigrant rhetoric.

It is now the second-largest party in parliament, behind Labour and two years ago its leader, Siv Jensen, started talking about "the silent Islamisation" of Norway, Mr Jupskas said. "In general it seems to be the case that every time that immigration comes on the agenda, the Progress Party profits from it."

For a long time, the party was even deemed attractive by Mr Breivik, the self-confessed attacker, but he lost faith in its commitment to the right-wing cause and gave up his membership in 2004.

Morten Hoglund, a Progress Party MP, said: "We have a big fundamental difference with Breivik. And he, in the end, attacked our party as being the same as all the rest. That's why he left the party and gave us up. And I'm quite happy, he saw that correctly."

Mr Hoglund and other politicians from the Progress Party reject criticism of the role they may have played in polarising the debate. "Handling all these issues in a good manner is not easy, and I'm not saying mistakes have not been made. But it is one thing to have this debate in our country, which is necessary, or to become obsessed."

He said that as far as the leadership of the party was concerned, they had nothing to apologise for. Ordinary members who had overstepped the bounds in recent years had all been reprimanded, he said. But he also pointed out the importance of continuing the debate on immigration.

"I think some may say stop discussing this but the majority of the population will still agree that all topics, including this, will be discussed."