The tragedy that unfolded in the Land of the Midnight Sun has shocked those of us who live in Oslo, one of the most peaceful cities of the world. On July 22 Anders Behring Breivik, a 32-year-old Norwegian man, went on a shooting spree at a youth camp of 600 people, on the beautiful island of Utoeya, 19 miles from Oslo. And in the afternoon, a massive bomb blast shook Oslo claiming at least seven lives and injuring hundreds.
Norway’s Black Friday (July 22, 2011) points to the paradox of prosperity. Breivik signifies the growing virulence of poisonous rightwing extremism in Europe.
Oslo is a calm and peaceful city. One can walk anywhere late into the night as if it were daytime, as the sun sets only for a few hours in summer. A city of just 600,000 people, Oslo also boasts one of the best facilities in the world.
The city is usually quiet on a Friday afternoon in July as most people are away on vacation. So, when I heard a huge noise and saw columns of smoke rising from my office window I was taken aback. A few seconds later, we could see ambulances and police cars whiz by as the tragedy of what had happened slowly unfolded before our eyes.
People were covered in blood and we could see fires raging in the 17-storey building that housed the Ministry of Justice, the prime minister’s office and other offices. It defied belief: Oslo was supposed to be one of the safest cities in the world!
The attack on Norway’s political heart and the shoot-out at the Labour Party youth camp are a rude reminder of the presence of rightwing extremist politics in Norway and other Nordic countries. It is reminiscent of the attack by American rightwing militant Timothy McVeigh who detonated a truck bomb at a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people.
Norway gained independence in 1905 when the union with Sweden was dissolved. Norwegians value their distinctive identity, prosperity, peace and open society. Perhaps for this reason, Norwegians rejected membership of the European Economic Community in 1972, and of the European Union in 1994, despite being urged by their governments to vote ‘yes’.
Norway’s distinct brand identity is that of a country of peace and for peace. Norway has been one of the biggest supporters of the United Nations and humanitarian work across the world. It has mediated between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and from 2000 to 2009, tried to play a role in resolving the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Every day, as I walk by the Nobel Peace Institute, I am struck by just how proud Norwegians are of their peace credentials. The country has always been sympathetic towards people and communities at the receiving end of conflict and violence. This explains the relatively large numbers of Tamils from Sri Lanka, and people from Somalia and Sudan, in the heart of Oslo.
In a country of just 49 lakh people, Norway’s per capita income is one of the highest in the world. It is one of the richest countries in the world, with the best record on the human development index. The country’s annual income from oil alone is around US$ 40 billion. And the government’s National Sovereign Fund is expected to be around US$ 570 billion, according to recent estimates. In spite of the economic crisis in the US and Europe, the Norwegian economy has been doing well. Unemployment is just under 3%.
Norway’s social policy is one of the most progressive in the world. Every citizen has the right to quality education and universal quality healthcare. And every working person, including women who work at home as homemakers, is eligible for pension from the age of 67. This is a happy country. One wonders: how can there be discontent in such a society?
From a rather low-profile Nordic country, Norway hit the jackpot with the discovery of oil in the late-1960s and ended up as one of the most prosperous countries in the world. Norway is the fifth largest exporter of oil and third largest exporter of natural gas. And here begins the paradox of prosperity.
With the rise of income levels and relatively small population there has been a marked increase in nationalism. (All small countries have a greater sense of nationalism.) Among a certain section, ultra-nationalism is expressed in different forms ranging from simple social prejudice to various shades of discontent against the ‘other’.
Though neo-Nazi rightwing extremism directed against migrants is more obvious in Sweden and Denmark, there have been indications in Norway too (paradoxically, the most rightwing party in Norway is called the ‘Progressive Party’). Under the surface of a social democratic liberal framework, discontent and unease over the growing influence and economic capacity of migrant communities is discernible.
According to estimates, 61,200 immigrants arrived in Norway in 2007, an increase of 35% over 2006. At the start of 2010, there were 552,313 people in Norway with an immigrant background. Over 10% of people belong to various migrant communities. With facilities available to every citizen, irrespective of race, gender or ethnicity, rightwing politicians view migrants as parasites.
While the first-generation migrants were at the lower end of the professional ladder and informal sectors like cleaning and minding small corner shops, second-generation migrants are educated, smart and compete for jobs with young people. For example, the largest migrant community in Norway is people of Pakistani origin. Most of them migrated here in the late-’60s when it was relatively easy to migrate to Norway. First-generation migrants from Pakistan were low-skilled and worked largely in the informal sector. After a couple of generations, Norwegians of Pakistani origin make up one of the most prosperous migrant communities in the country. Their children compete for professional jobs, indeed many of them are economically successful thanks to a coherent family foundation and network.
In a society that is used to being ‘taken care of’, there is growing irritation about successful second-generation migrants competing for the same economic resources. Also, most migrants in Nordic countries happen to be Muslims from Asia or North Africa, strengthening racial and religious prejudices.
Below the surface of Norway’s progressive left-leaning policies there is also a conservative trend. Norway is the most ‘Christian’ of the Nordic countries. The Lutheran church is primarily supported by the state; pastors draw their salaries from the state budget. Liquor is heavily taxed. There is therefore an underlying tension between the old Christian society and new immigrants with a different sociology, theology, colour and culture. In a country with a relatively small population, these issues become accentuated, particularly when the migrant population constitutes more than 10% of the total population.
It’s only in the last 35 years that Norwegian society jumped from an agricultural-fishing economy to a booming oil economy. The reasons for a national commitment to humanitarian support and peace are largely the result of the relative deprivation that Norwegians had to undergo during World War II and afterwards. There is indeed a significant difference between the generation that grew up in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and the post-’80s generation that grew up in a wealthy Norway. The older generation placed great value on solidarity, left-leaning social democratic policy etc, because people wanted to share wealth. National heroes such as Fridtjof Nansen, a great pioneer of international humanitarian support, he
lped create a social consensus in favour of supporting the needy, poor and marginalised across the world. This social sensibility, influenced by a recent social history, core Christian ethics, a strong labour movement and social democratic politics has shaped the country’s social policies in favour of refugees and migrants.
It has also resulted in a society that places greater emphasis on social values than on opulence and extravagance. This is evident in Norwegian architecture: minimalist, functional, simple, and indicative of a society that considers understatement a core social value.
The economic boom of the last 30 years altered the perspective of the post-’80s generation. Many were born rich. They had access to quality education and healthcare; for higher education everyone is eligible for a loan from the government. Once a young person completes his/her education he/she is expected to get a job. Maternity leave is for a year, with full benefits. Paternity leave is for two months, with full benefits. Every working person who has paid tax is eligible for pension. People are generally happy paying tax as there are tangible benefits for everyone. The increasing visibility of migrant communities in cities like Oslo has created uneasiness about the ‘other’ enjoying the privileges of ‘Norwegian’ wealth and social policy.
The high cost of living and challenge of getting a high-paying job create new frustrations among many young people. So when migrants get top jobs or have a better earning capacity in a relatively homogeneous and less cosmopolitan society, social prejudices began to gain currency. Newspapers in Norway often ‘showcase’ the economic success stories of migrants. There are indeed many rags-to-riches stories among migrants who came to Oslo as pennyless refugees.
Such cumulative images — along with the new wave of neo-Nazism in Europe — can be a poisonous mix. Anders Breivik, it would appear, is a victim and a villain of increasing socio-political prejudices against the ‘other’ — who looks different, eats different and prays different.
Norway has been ruled by a centre-left ‘red-green’ alliance with the socialist and centre parties since October 2005, when a centre-right government was replaced. Labour Party leader Jens Stoltenberg’s coalition narrowly retained its majority in the 2009 election, becoming the first Norwegian government to win a second consecutive term in 16 years. This could also have enraged rightwing extremists.
The government acted with an admirable sense of responsibility and confidence, without over-reacting, after the tragic events. The statement by Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg on the night of the tragedy captured the general mood of the Norwegian people in the hour of national crisis:
“Nobody is going to bomb us into silence; nobody is going to shoot us into silence. Tomorrow we will show the world that the Norwegian democracy grows in strength when it matters. We must never stop standing up for our values. We must show that Norwegian society can stand up to these testing times. We must show humanity, but not naivety.”
(These are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views or positions of any of the organisations with which he is associated)
Infochange News & Features, July 2011