On July 22 Norway was hit by a terrorist attack against the Government and the Labor Party’s youth camp. While the perpetrator’s actions are unprecedented in Norwegian history, the ideology that he sought to promote is one that has gained popularity over the past ten years.
By Mikkel Berg-Nordlie
As the psychological shockwave of the attack spread throughout the Norwegian public, it was notable how commentators and politicians were encouraging the public to stay calm, rather than stooping to jingoism and promises of revenge. As we now know, the days that followed were to continue in this pattern. It was demonstrated, among other things through the massive ‘Rose Marches’ that were held throughout the country some days later, that it is possible to react against terrorism in a decent manner.
There were, however, some people in Norway who in those early hours displayed no such decency.
A Militant Minority’s Counter-Reaction
These were the ones who saw the assumed “Islamist terror attack” as a confirmation of long-held beliefs, and were not slow to target Norway’s Moslems and Leftists in the midst of the turmoil.
A local mayoral candidate for the right-wing Progress Party used the opportunity to call for people to vote for him instead of “naïve” left-wingers (NRK.no 01.08.2011). On the Facebook wall of Per-Willy Amundsen, the party’s spokesman for immigration issues, certain of his supporters expressed hopes that “the dead are pro-immigration socialists” or “the Prime Minister himself” (Dagsavisen.no 22.07). These statements caused an outrage among other people writing on the same FB wall, and Amundsen himself shut the debate down not long after.
In more extreme corners of the Internet, however, such sentiments were not censored. At the right-wing website Gates of Vienna, the widely read Norwegian blogger known as ‘Fjordman’ dismissed the government under attack as “the most dhimmi appeasing of all Western governments (…) suicidal and cowardly”, and the youth organization whose members were being massacred was brushed off as “an anti-Israeli, pro-Palestine crowd of young Socialists”. Dhimmi is a catchword in anti-Moslem circles, implying non-Moslems who are considered subservient to the Islamic ‘invaders’.
Header and typical sidebar ads from ‘the Gates of Vienna’ (Screencap montage).
Others manifested their hate on the streets rather than on the Web. There were inhabitants of Oslo who experienced 22.7.11 as a difficult day to be a person of ‘Moslem appearance’ – that is to say, being dressed in traditional Moslem garb, or simply being a dark-skinned person. The newspaper Dagsavisen reported that several people experienced harassment, one man for example being forced out of a subway train by angry co-passengers (Dagsavisen.no 25.07.2011).
As it were, the terrorist attack turned out to be connected not to Islamism, but to the mindset manifested precisely by this aggressive, xenophobic crowd.
A Right-Wing Terrorists’ Text Compendium
In the perpetrator’s so-called manifesto, the impending massacres are referred to as its “marketing operation”, an idea both betraying a chilling disregard for human life and an extremely inflated self-image: the ideas promoted in this book did not need publicity – we have heard it all before.
In fact, the book is to a large degree copied from other people’s work – making it more of a text compendium than a ‘manifesto’. Several parts are cut-and-pasted from texts written by the above mentioned Fjordman – whom the terrorist identifies as his “favorite author”. Even the title of the ‘manifesto’ is a nod to an old blog post written by Fjordman – Native Revolt: A European Declaration of Independence, in which the blogger accuses “Muslim states” of deliberately colonizing Europe with the aid of traitors who are trying to dismantle “European culture” by preaching “Multiculturalism”. Fjordman urges his readers to “take the appropriate measures to protect our own security and ensure our national survival”.
This is the ideological milieu from which the terrorism sprang. It was an action based on the conviction that ‘the West’ is experiencing a genuine, although hidden, war – complete with aggressors (Moslems), traitors (the ‘Marxists’, the ‘Multiculturalists’, i.e. the political Left and Liberals), allies (Israel) and heroes (‘Us’ – the ‘Crusaders’ who would protect Christian Europe).
Symbols and rhetoric related to the Crusades are often applied in militant anti-Moslem discourse (Image: Wikimedia Commons).
The belief that it is necessary to kill innocents for one’s political beliefs – what makes a terrorist – is rather unheard of in Norway. The discourse that the terrorist sought to promote through his actions, however, has become increasingly common during the last decade. Rather than being a fringe phenomenon on the darkest corners of the Internet; enemy-imaging of ‘alien cultures’ and accusations of the Left for ‘betraying our culture’ have gradually grown to become an expected part of the Norwegian public debate on minorities. This discursive position has even been allowed to take over certain newspapers’ web debates, establishing a discursive ‘bubble’ in which extreme xenophobes confirm each others’ attitudes and egg each other on.
The Slippery Slope between Islamophobia and Racism
Notable in modern xenophobic discourse is the emphasis on culture rather than race. Speakers often uphold that they are not racist, but instead claim that the ‘others’ collectively possess certain cultural traits that are incompatible with ‘our’ way of life.
Culture-based xenophobia goes beyond merely stating that culture conflicts exist and are a source of social problems: it describes entire social groups as collective carriers of ‘harmful culture’, and assumes that the groups’ members have no intention of integrating into ‘our’ society, or even co-existing peacefully with ‘us’. On the contrary, conspiracy theories are often invoked that point towards the group’s eventual takeover and subjugation/assimilation of ‘us’.
The ‘counter-Jihadist’ movement, to which the terrorist belonged, is a good example of xenophobia based on culture (in this case religion) rather than race. Indeed, Western anti-Moslem activists often claim to loathe Nazism (with which they frequently compare Islam) and display support for Israel; and among their quoted authors you may find people of non-European heritage such as the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali . Race is not identified as the problem, but the religion Islam – or “ideology” of Islam as it is frequently called .
While islamophobia may distance itself from racism, these mindsets are not necessarily all that much different in effect: the ‘counter-Jihadist’ discourse collectively assigns as enemies all those who have any kind of identity-based or belief-based positive relationship to Islam. Arguably, the spirit of racism survives in the mere fact that people are judged based on the group to which they belong – it disregards all individual opinions and actions displayed by people of Moslem background, except the outright denouncing of Islam.
The aggressive reactions against assumed Moslems seen in the early hours of the terrorist attack also show the degree to which such culture-based xenophobia may form the basis for aggressive behavior against individuals precisely on the basis of their appearance – which completes the circle back to old-fashioned racism.
Another revealing example of the unclear boundaries between ‘counter-Jihadists’ and blatant racists was presented to us at Gates of Vienna on the day of the attack: when one reader ridiculed the fact that a man of “Arab” appearance was referred to on TV as a “Norwegian eyewitness”, the ideologue Fjordman answered
In Oslo they do [look like Arabs]. Arabs, Kurds, Pakistanis, Somalis, you name it. Anything and everything is fine as long as they rape the natives and destroy the country, which they do(cf. Øyvind Strømmen: Betraktningar; VG.no 05.08.2011) …
Overtly race-based xenophobia is only demonstrated by fringe groups in contemporary Western Europe. It would appear, though, that the more popular culture-based xenophobia shares many of its basic traits (Image: Wikimedia Commons ).
‘Cultural Betrayal’ and War Rhetoric
The discourse of culture-based xenophobia has been particularly prevalent in the debate on Moslems, but is not exclusive to it. The same kind of discourse has been frequently represented also when the subject of immigration in general comes up: the framing of contemporary Norway as locked in clash between mutually incompatible cultures, where the Left has betrayed their own and hides the situation under the rhetorical cover of ‘multiculturalism’.
The following example is not taken from any blog-written manifesto published on a website for ‘true believers’, but from a reader’s letter in a major Norwegian daily, authored by the leader of the Progress Party’s Oslo section, Christian Tybring-Gjedde,
What is wrong with Norwegian culture that makes the Labor Party want to replace it with multiculturalism? (…) Will we help the Labor Party replace Norwegian culture with ‘multiculture’? Never! Will we contribute to this cultural betrayal? Not even if warnings are put up saying ‘Shot will be the one who…’ Never! (Andersen & Tybring-Gjedde in Aftenposten.no 27.08.2010)
The phrase “Shot will be the one who…” invokes the efforts of the Quisling regime and Nazi occupation force to quell Norwegian resistance during WWII. Armed struggles of the past are often referred to in order to drive home the seriousness of the threat from ‘multiculturalism’ and immigration. While the Crusades are often the symbol of choice in international forums such as Gates of Vienna, Norwegian right-wing discourse often invokes World War Two, the most recent invasion in Norwegian history.
Another example of such war rhetoric, which also builds on comparisons between Nazism and Islam, can be found in this lecture by the same Tybring-Gjedde – given to ‘Friends of Document.no’, a group based around a right-wing online forum:
Different governments have done their best to undermine our cultural heritage (…) You’re talking about the 1930s, but I think it’s worse today. Back then, you faced an ideology you could crush. You’ll find it harder to crush a religion. (…) It’s going to cost us something to deal with that problem. It is not a comforting thought, neither for our children nor grandchildren, the battle that may come in Europe. But we must be aware of it, and we cannot yield (…)(VG.no 11.08.11; YouTube).
Christian Tybring-Gjedde holding the lecture for ‘Friends of Document.no’ (Screencap from YouTube).
Indigenous Politics and Ethnic Enemy-Imaging
Ethnic enemy imaging in Norway has not been limited to newly arrived peoples. In connection with conflicts over the indigenous rights of the northern Sámi minority, one has also on occassion seen some speakers apply the same discursive formula of ‘hostile group’ and ‘leftist traitors’ vs. ‘Us (real Norwegians)’. Such as this anonymous debater on the online forum of a major North Norwegian newspaper:
The Sámi remind me of cuckoos, that kick out the eggs of other birds and put their false eggs in the nest (…) The Sámi together with Arild Hausberg [the Labor Party mayor of Tromsø, North Norway’s largest city] are now attempting to make us Norwegians so pissed off at the Sámi demands that we move southwards… (iTromsø.no a, b; cf. Galdu.org)
Other debaters on the same forum accuse “the socialists” of discriminating against ethnic Norwegians by yielding to the “greedy” Sámi, or describe the implementation of bilingual Norwegian and Sámi road signs in Tromsø as a “dictatorship of the minority”. On the whole, web debates on Sámi issues are just as prone to degenerate into xenophobia as debates on Islam or immigration. For this reason, Norwegian Public Broadcasting’s websites in 2009 saw it as necessary to temporarily close the possibility for readers to comment on articles concerning the Sámi (NRK.no 18.10.2009).
In one of the more extreme cases, a Socialist Left Party politician of Sámi ethnicity received an anonymous letter that referred to her as a “Lapp bitch”, claimed that her people were trying to turn the northernmost parts of Norway into a “Scandinavian Kosovo”, and stated that the Sámi should be sterilized (Finnmarken.no 03.03.2008) .
An activist in the anti-Sámi rights’ organization Ethnic Democratic Equality earlier in 2011 launched a conspiracy theory about a planned, hostile takeover: she stated that the Sámi had been plotting to take over northern Scandinavia since 1945, and had been in secret negotiations with the Government during the last decades. She stated that she feared an eventual “ethnic cleansing” of non-Sámi in the north (NRK.no 02.03.2011). This is strikingly similar to the ‘Eurabia’ conspiracy theory, a favorite of the ‘counter-Jihadist’ movement, in which European authorities are accused of having “surrendered” to the Islamic world in 1974/75 , following which they have implemented ‘Arabification’ of Europe.
A version of the ‘future flag of Eurabia’ invented by counter-Jihad activists.
In sum, the debate on Norway’s indigenous minority has been heavily contaminated by xenophobic discourse, complete with accusations against the Left and conspiracy theories, and occasionally sliding back into old-fashioned race-based xenophobia. The normalization of this discourse becomes apparent when we note that in the debate that followed the Ethnic Democratic Equality conspiracy theory , several politicians representing the Progress Party, which is one of Norway’s most popular parties, jumped on the bandwagon – most notably the above mentioned immigration spokesman P. W. Amundsen, who accused Sámi politicians of plotting an eventual secession from Norway (NRK.no 12.03.2011).
Differing between Criticism and Jingoism
What the statements cited here have in common is that which Stuart Kaufman (2001: 16) refers to as ethnically based hostility. Kaufman treats this as distinct from ‘mere’ nationalism (the desire for ethnically based sovereignty) or even chauvinism (the belief in one’s ethnic group’s superiority). Hostility implies that the other group is seen as an enemy, a threat. This kind of rhetoric confounds any attempt to solve conflicts through dialogue or compromise, its logical consequence in the final analysis being the victory of one of the parties.
Kaufman (2001: 34-6) argues that the increasing dominance of such discourse may lead to an ‘ethnic security dilemma’, in which inter-ethnic social trust erodes, the degree of fear and animosity reaching a level which may even cause the inter-group relationship to erupt into violence under certain conditions. Vetlesen (2005: 146, 150-2, 157-9, 168-75) also discusses how the notion that some form of “self-defense” is needed against the other group, serves as “ideological preparation” for committing – or at least accepting – atrocities against the group that ‘threatens’ you.
Unlike the cases studied by Kaufman and Vetlesen – the Balkans and Caucasus of the 1990s – Norway does not suffer under the kind of general social and economic upheaval that is associated with the growth of violent political movements. We have, on the contrary, been fortunate enough to not be burdened with major political parties that advocate or approve of the use of violence. Indeed, crossing that rhetorical barrier would have publicly discredited any politician or activist – also prior to 22.7.11. Nevertheless, the Norwegian debate on minorities have gradually accepted more and more extreme xenophobic discourse, and war metaphors have crept into our language, particularly when it comes to Islam.
It is clear that issues associated with the challenges of living in a multicultural society must be debated. There is nothing illegitimate about f.ex. worrying that immigrants are not being well enough socialized into important norms of Norwegian society, or criticizing the model for indigenous representation in Norway. Indeed, few subjects may be considered illegitimate to raise. But there is a chasm between adressing touchy issues in a down-to-earth matter, and using war rhetoric.
It seems a prudent question if it can be considered legitimate points of view that certain minority groups are collectively bent on harming the majority, or that one half of the political spectrum is to be considered ‘traitors of the nation’.
The world has lauded Norway for our peaceful reaction to the terrorist attacks, for the way the public and our politicians have not answered the violence with calls for more violence. Statements and actions made by certain people in those few hours before the background and ideology of the perpetrator became known, and the knowledge that their rhetoric had grown to become rather common discursive currency, show us that things may have been very different.
We must hope that that if the terrorist’s ideology had been islamism; the majority, the commentators and the politicians would not have allowed the militant minority to set the agenda. We must hope that decency would have prevailed, even if the terrorist had not been a Christian Norwegian of non-immigrant background.
However, the degree to which culture-based xenophobic rhetoric had become normalized indicates that it would at the very least not have been difficult for such political actors to use the opportunity to push their agenda.
200.000 people took part in the Rose March in Oslo to commemorate the victims and protest against terrorism. Detail from the square between City Hall and the Nobel Peace Centre (pictured). (Image: Wikimedia Commons).
A Crisis of Discourse
Organizations and individuals that do not promote violence as a political tool can never be held guilty for the violent actions of otherwise ideologically close groups and individuals. That statement is valid when it concerns socialists, islamists and conservatives alike.
It remains a fact, however, that culture-based xenophobic ideas are what fuelled the terrorist of 22.7.11. That fact has been realized by many people in Norway, which is why the country is now undergoing a certain crisis of discourse: issues related to minority groups have long held centre stage of the political debate, and now there is a certain uncertainty concerning how to continue that debate, since the status of a whole genre of language on the phenomenon has been weakened.
It is still an open question what will happen to the debate on immigration in the wake of the attacks.
Some people belonging to the ‘Islam-critical’ wing have stated that they will tone down their rhetoric. As a blogger associated with the right-wing forum Honestthinking.org has said, “we cannot anymore use words that have been abused by a terrorist to massacre teenagers” (Dagbladet.no 05.08.2011). Fjordman has made his identity public and stated that he will seize his activity at least for a while (NRK.no 06.08.2011).
However, according to sociologist Lars Erik Berntzen, other parts of the ‘counter-Jihad’ movement has not toned down the rhetoric (Aftenposten.no 07.09.11); and other specialists on the right-wing movements of Norway such as journalist Øyvind Strømmen and Kari Helene Partapuoli of the Norwegian Centre Against Racism – state that the most extreme movements may in fact be experiencing growth in the wake of the attacks (Aftenposten.no 08.09.2011).
The Right Wing in Turmoil
The Progress Party became a target for particular criticism following the attacks, not just because of the similarity between certain of their politicians’ rhetoric to that of the terrorist, but also because the terrorist had in fact been the Vice Chairman of their party’s Oslo youth group for some time – although notably, he quit the party a few years ago, feeling that it was too moderate for his tastes.
Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, who has earlier frequently applied the term “creeping Islamization” about the situation in Norway, has now signaled the need for certain changes in the party’s rhetoric, and stated that she does not consider it even a remote danger that the country will be “taken over by Moslems” (Aftenposten.no 16.08.11).
Other high-ranking party profiles have made it clear that they are in fact basically positive towards multiculturalism, but see the need for certain common values to be held sacrosanct in Norwegian society , an attitude summed up by Progress Party Member of Parliament Tor Lien:
I don’t give a shit if people go to the Mosque or Church, if they eat fårikål or kebab, as long as there’s a consensus on basic, Liberal ideas like freedom of expression and democracy(Klassekampen.no 16.08.11).
As for the frequently cited Tybring-Gjedde, he now states that he has been too “categorical” in his earlier rhetoric, but underscores that he has not changed his mind about anything (BT.no 02.08; Aftenposten.no 11.08.11). Others, again, are adamant that they will not back down on their rhetoric at all – and some few individuals affiliated with the party has ‘blamed the victim’ by voicing the opinion that the Labor Party was ultimately responsible for the act of terrorism themselves, claiming that the ‘madness’ of the perpetrator was a consequence of Leftist immigration policy (DT.no 15.08.11). Former party leader and mayor candidate in Oslo, Carl I. Hagen, upholds that despite recent events (and available statistics) “almost all terrorists are Moslems ” (NRK.no 15.08).
Siv Jensen (left) and C. I. Hagen (right). (Image: Wikimedia Commons a, b).
Wither the Web Debates?
Norway’s first terrorist attack has also given the media reason to consider if they are facilitating the growth of hate-based discourse, and urged them to reconsider the possibility of commenting anonymously.
One of the more controversial online forums, that of the financial newssite HegnarOnline, has deactivated the possibility for anonymous commenting after someone started a thread in relation to the terror attacks called It is difficult not to be able to express one’s joy today. The newspaper VG has made it compulsory for readers who want to comment on articles to log in through Facebook (E24 a, b). The hope is that by removing anonymity, people will debate sensitive issues in a less militant tone.
It remains to be seen whether other newspapers will follow suit, and indeed whether de-anonymization of the debates will actually help much. One may find that what makes ethnic fears and hatred dominate on the forums is not anonymity, but rather the fact that there are few people who will bother to gainsay someone who debates out from simplistic name-calling – and hence, the forums are left to the xenophobes and conspiracy theorists. Or perhaps, that has changed too, in the wake of 22.7.11?
Is the Discursive Change Short-Term of Long Term?
It is difficult to say how the events of July will change the Norwegian debate on minorities in the long run. As we speak, Norway is just coming down from a discursive state of high alert and political actors are still wary of being associated with the terrorist’s ideology.
When normalcy returns – to the extent that it will – will public debate gradually slide back into the track it had fallen prior to the terrorist attack? Will we again get a public debate in which it is seen as permissible to attack minorities as collectively involved in hostile takeovers, and the Left as willing traitors; where conspiracy theories are supported by prominent politicians and the agents of hate speech are allowed to dominate the forums of important newspapers? If so, we will have failed to take an important lesson from the tragedy that befell us.
Kaufmann, Stuart J. (2001): Modern Hatreds. The symbolic politics of ethnic war.Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press
Vetlesen, Arne (2005): Evil and Human Agency. Understanding Collective Wrongdoing.Cambridge University Press.