Norway Attacks: How a Once Moderate Region Became a Haven for the Far Right

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Emilio Morenatti / AP

People react at the end of a memorial service at Oslo Cathedral on Sunday, July 24, 2011, in the aftermath of the Friday attacks on Norway's government headquarters and a youth retreat in Oslo

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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 Islam 77,000 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.
With reporting by Behrang Kianzad / Malmö and Copenhagen

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