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Norway searches political soul on immigration after Breivik killings

When Anders Breivik finally put his plan for mass murder into action in Norway last week, it didn’t take long for anyone with whom he had claimed to have a connection or share a political platform to disavow any relationship with him.

When Anders Breivik finally put his plan for mass murder into action in Norway last week, it didn’t take long for anyone with whom he had claimed to have a connection or share a political platform to disavow any relationship with him.

Britain’s radical English Defense League said it had never heard of Breivik, despite Breivik’s claims to the contrary in his now widely distributed, 1500-page manifesto, prompting British Prime Minister David Cameron to call for an investigation into a possible foreign connection in the Norway attacks.

Geert Wilders of the right-wing Dutch Freedom Party tweeted his denunciation of Breivik, while Germany’s Pro-Deutschland group compared Breivik’s motivation with those of the “Islamic assassins” that he had claimed to be targeting.

As far-right parties across Europe have tried to distance themselves from Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing Progress Party, which shares his anti-immigration stance and of which Breivik is a former member, also put out a statement: “The horrible and cowardly attacks we’ve witnessed are contrary to the principles and values underpinning Norwegian society,” party head Siv Jensen said.

Despite their reputation as a non-radical, conservative political party, unlike some of the other fringe groups which disavowed Breivik’s actions, it will be difficult for the Progress Party to remove the taint of their association with the killer, said Yngve Carlsson of the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities . “The Progress Party will see a backlash from voters in the September elections,” he said.

Norway has very little in the way of nationalist and neo-Nazi movements compared to other countries in Europe, and even neighboring Sweden and Denmark, said Magnus Norell, an expert on terrorism at the Swedish Defense Research Agency. “Right wing extremism in Norway is virtually non-existent. If you had asked me where this might have happened a week ago, Norway would have been at the bottom of our list of potential targets, because it just doesn’t exist in Norway,” said Norell.

Nonetheless Norway has long been undergoing a heated discussion of its policy of multiculturalism and the ramifications of mass immigration into the country. The popularity of the Progress Party, which now occupies the second place in the country’s congress, is linked to the rising tide of immigrants in Oslo and a reaction it by many Norwegians.

For Breivik, the group turned out to be too liberal, and ultimately his frustration against the party partially fueled his violent attack against the government district and Utoya, a youth camp that hosted many of the nation’s future political leaders, on Friday.  

Norway’s problems with multiculturalism date back into the 1980s, when refugees and students came in droves to the country in part due to a lax immigration policy. The Muslim population in the country as a whole have grown modestly, making up around three percent of the country’s population. But in Oslo, the number is more than double that and many Muslims are grouped together in poorer districts, which some cite as evidence that the goal of creating a multicultural society in Norway has failed.

“His views concerning immigration and Muslims and the multicultural society, they’re not fringe views. It isn’t that the police were not looking hard enough, it’s simply that his publically stated views were similar to many other people’s,” said Norell.

Others say that Norwegian society’s stance has been creeping to the right since the beginning of the anti-immigration debate in the country, and what were once considered extreme views are now considered mainstream.

“What is scary about this is that if you look past this act of extreme terror and the pain that this man has inflicted on so many lives in Norway, you see that his politics are no longer that extreme for Norway, and that is dangerous,” said Aslak Sira Myhre, a liberal commentator and former politician.

In the east of Oslo yesterday, in the Central Jam-e-Mosque, a memorial service was held for the victims of Breivik’s massacre. Among the panel of speakers was Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stone and Oslo bishop Ole Cristian Maelen Kvarme. The memorial and the government presence was, in part, a way of reconnecting the communities after much of Norway suspected that Muslims stood behind the attacks in the first place, as well as a way to show support for the Muslim communities that Breivik was targeting.

“It was unfortunate to see that reaction [to the terrorist attack],” said the mosque’s imam Najeeb Naz, “but what you see in this mosque tonight is the answer to that problem. Everybody under one roof.”

Myhre said that the tragedy may lead to a severe reduction of anti-immigration rhetoric in Norwegian politics in the short term. “As a society, we have crossed the line,” he said. “Hopefully this tragedy will be useful in that for some time it will become impossible in Norway to use the sort of rhetoric that has become more and more widespread in the past decades.”

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