Breivik and the Norwegian immigration debate

There is a limit to how much you can learn about moderates by looking at extremists. And if you stop noticing the difference altogether, you are well on your way to becoming an extremist. 

A year has passed since the anti-Islamic terrorist Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 people in Oslo and at Utøya on July 22, 2011. Norwegians have spent that year trying to understand who he is, why he did it, and what his actions have to tell us about ourselves.

If you want to understand Norway's self-image as a nation, picture a castle in the upper corner of a turbulent continent, from which good people occasionally emerge to gently guide the less fortunate towards a better way of life, but which itself is protected from all bad things. It's not true, but contains sufficient truth for Norwegians to believe that it is.

Norway is a society where good intentions count for everything, and good results for less. We half-expect, half-demand good intentions from everyone else, and we apply the strictest standards of all to ourselves. Not consistently, of course. Norwegians can be as self-serving as anyone. But when we do hold ourselves to a standard, it's the standard of good intentions. It's like a moral arms race, where the goal is always to have at least twice as good intentions as the nearest competitor.

Breivik punctured this sheltered Norway and rocked its faith in its own good intentions. He bombed the main government buildings in Oslo, (a failure, killing only 8, but which could easily have killed a hundred or more, including government leaders). Then he massacred 69 people, mostly members of the youth wing of the ruling Labor Party, on Utøya island.

And, like a dark parody of Norway's self-important, well-intentioned national character, he says he did it all for a Noble Cause: to save Norway and Europe from a treasonous political elite that uses Muslim immigrants to commit cultural suicide. Here he is - a pioneer and a martyr who sacrifices himself to inspire the masses to action. Over the coming decades, he expects his followers to finish the work he has started. Posterity will thank him.

The psychiatric Breivik

There have been two approaches to understanding Breivik. One is psychiatric, the other political - and both have been equally confused, saying perhaps more about the people who use them than about Breivik himself.

Psychiatrists have confidently delivered a wide range of diagnoses. One report argues that Breivik suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, another that he has narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders. Not at all, speculates yet another psychiatrist: he suffers from a combination of Aspergers and Tourettes. And so on. Some of these psychiatrists have observed Breivik closely, others have only seen him in court during his two month trial this spring, but they all have two things in common: their own conviction, and the difference of their diagnosis from everyone else's.

Unfortunately, it is important to know Breivik's exact mental state. By Norwegian law, if he has a psychotic disorder, such as paranoid schizophrenia, he must be sentenced to psychiatric care, not prison. And this is precisely what some psychiatrists claim. When the court delivers its verdict on August 24, it will have to choose one or the other, treatment or punishment, but we may never know for sure if it was the right choice. There are just too many confident expert opinions to choose from.

The political Breivik

The other approach to understanding Breivik has been political. This is a more popular approach, because politics, unlike psychiatry, is a subject in which everyone feels qualified to have a strong opinion. But the political approach inspires no more confidence than the psychiatric approach.

Let's step back a little, and look at the political landscape of Norway, the landscape Breivik grew up in, and chose to attack, and through which the echoes of his actions now reverberate.

The post-war political landscape in Norway used to look something like this: a social democratic but market-friendly consensus, held together with moderate social pressure by a small political and media elite.

There was never a wide diversity of political beliefs. There was a Good opinion, a consensus opinion, which most people held, and one or more Bad opinions, held by bad people. Recall the high value Norwegians place on good intentions. The dark side of valuing good intentions is that, when somebody disagrees with you, it must be because they themselves have bad intentions, so you can safely dismiss their views.

From time to time over the last half-century, the ‘bad people’ have rallied together to launch an assault on the consensus. Opponents of NATO and nuclear weapons did this in the 1950s and 60s, and caused a leftist wave among intellectuals that influenced Norway for decades. But since the 1980s, the main assault on the consensus has come from the right, particularly from the populist Progress Party.

The main driver of votes to the Progress Party has been immigration. Modern immigration to Norway began in the 1970s, and has gathered speed ever since, mostly in the form of labor immigrants from the EU, and asylum seekers and their families from the non-western world.

The traditional consensus view was that non-western immigration is a way of helping the less fortunate while simultaneously boosting the economy and opening up the stuffy old Norwegian monoculture.

The non-consensus views have ranged from old-fashioned racism to "um, hey, suddenly all the girls in my daughter's class are wearing hijabs, what is going on here?" 

Over the last twenty years, the Progress Party has put the immigration optimists on the defensive. They've faced moral condemnation every step of the way. In Norway, optimism is a virtue, and pessimism implies a moral fault. It is always safe to err on the side of optimism. But reality has not been kind to the immigration optimists. So they retreat and regroup, then retreat and regroup, then retreat and regroup, all the time feeling morally superior to the pessimists, confident that this time they'll finally be able to hold the line. And they still are.

Over the same twenty year period, the internet came and opened up Norway's political culture, partly by exposing people to the ideas of the outside world, and partly by creating new spheres for political debate that were beyond the control of the established media. In this area, too, the political right benefited.

Picture this changing political and technological landscape, marked by a war for the moral highground, by media decentralization and a combination of rightist confidence and victimization claims.

Failed backlash

Now add Breivik and stir. This is the landscape he grew up in, and which his actions now play out against. Breivik was a member of the Progress Party for a while in the early 2000s: he used the internet to form his belief system, and the internet to publish his 1500-page manifesto. He admires writers who have been central to the Islam-critical wave of the 2000s, from Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Bruce Bawer to the counter-jihad blogger Fjordman. He is a terrorist of the social media generation, who dreams of one day tweeting from prison to the many admirers he thinks he has.

Given the war for Norway's moral high ground, it is not surprising that some Norwegians see Breivik as proof that they were right all along: immigration pessimism is evil, or at least, the first step on a slippery slope towards evil. Critics of Islam play with fire, and although they're not guilty of complicity as such, they should not pretend to be surprised when the house burns down.

This backlash should not be exaggerated. The author Bruce Bawer, who has lived in Oslo for more than a decade, yet whose grasp of the political culture is at about the level of a journalist who just stepped off the plane, is inexplicably used as an authority on Norway in American conservative publications. He argues that Norway's "multicultural left" is using Breivik to carry out a witch hunt against critics of Islam and Muslim immigration.

Not so. There are no doubt people who want to do this, and try to do it, but it's not working very well. At most there are witch accusations, but the "witches" don't suffer much from it, and arguably even benefit. This is not to say that Bruce Bawer or the blogger Fjordman are admired in Norway. They're not. Even people - like myself - who agree with many of Bawer's political ideals, or who - unlike myself - agree with his analysis of Islam in Europe, roll their eyes over his idiosyncratic beliefs about Norwegian history and politics.

As a native of Norway, the blogger Peder "Fjordman" Jensen understands it better, but his political extremism and his fantasies about a civil war with Muslims repel all but a tiny minority. Norwegians may value good intentions over good results, and optimism over pessimism, but we have no time for utopians and absolutists, or erudite fanatics like Fjordman.

But ignorants and extremists aside, it has never been easier to discuss the negative side of immigration and Islam in Norway than it has been over the last few years.

Breivik hasn't changed that. Oddly enough, a witch hunt against the moderates on "his" side was precisely what Breivik hoped would happen. He hoped it would radicalize and polarize them, forcing them to adopt violent tactics. Breivik believes that a large minority of Norwegians secretly agree with his goals, and will respond to persecution by launching a civil war that will solve the Muslim problem once and for all.

Keep in mind that this is a person who proposes, according to the psychiatrists who have observed him, that Norway should gather together third-world women in breeding farms to improve our fertility rates, and that we should use DNA testing to restore the old Norse royal family to the throne. Mentally ill or not, he clearly doesn't live in the same world as the rest of us.

The anti-racists who cried wolf

What really happened in Norway after the July 22 attacks was not a witch hunt, but something more subtle: an attempt by the traditional holders of the moral high ground to use slippery slope arguments and guilt by association to discredit moderate versions of Breivik's ideas.

This has been met with only mixed success. It has been successful, in the sense that these arguments have been formulated, and are taken seriously by those who never liked immigration-skeptical ideas in the first place.

It has been unsuccessful in the sense that it has persuaded nobody else.

Ten or twenty years ago, it might have gone differently. But in Norway today, people who warn others about racism and Islamophobia are treated like the boy who cried wolf. We listen to them, and worry a little that they may be right, but then we remember all the times they've failed us in the past. And then we shrug and move on.

And with good reason, most of the time. Breivik does not appear to represent any politically relevant group or movement in Norway, not even a small one. Many people, of course, share some of his ideas. About half of the Norwegian population are opposed to immigration. Many worry that we're not able to integrate non-western immigrants into Norwegian society, particularly extremist and traditionalist Muslims.

One may agree or disagree with these views, but they're not extreme. These are the voters the Progress Party appeals to, which is one of the most moderate ‘populist right’ parties in Europe.

The idea that Islam itself is eternally at war with democracy, or that the EU has secretly conspired with Arab countries to create the continent of Eurabia, where non-Muslims will be second-class citizens, is a marginal belief, championed only by a few bloggers, like Fjordman, and by tiny political organizations like the EDL-inspired Norwegian Defence League.

They're few, and even they don't advocate violence. They believe that some form of violence may descend upon us in the future, unless we halt immigration, but they don't encourage people to pick up weapons and plant bombs. And they certainly don't believe in using terrorism to radicalize Norwegian society, in order to trigger civil war and a takeover by a nationalist guardian council.

There are no doubt individuals who do, and there may of course be more of them than we know about, and perhaps there will be more of them in the future than there are today, and perhaps they will organize and become dangerous. But for the moment, Breivik appears to be not only politically marginal, but irrelevant as well. At least in Norway.

Using Breivik to analyse the immigration-critical Norwegian right is a bit like using Rote Armee Fraktion to analyse the European leftist movements of the 1970s, or using al-Qaeda to analyse Muslims. They are clearly part of the same ideasphere: you will find similarities. But there is a limit to how much you can learn about moderates by looking at extremists. And if you stop noticing the difference altogether, you yourself are well on your way to becoming an extremist.

So did anything change in Norway after July 22, 2011? Personally I think it's too soon to tell. My own bet is on the generation of young, politically aware Norwegians who felt themselves personally attacked that day. Youths who have grown up in one of the safest countries in the world, and suddenly get a taste of what being politically active can cost you in less stable countries.

I don't mean only in the Labor youth wing. The victims came from all over the country. Everybody knows somebody, or somebody who knows somebody. All politically active youths in Norway know that it could easily have been themselves who got murdered for taking a political stand. What does that do to someone who is still young enough to fundamentally change their ideas? I have no idea. I don't even know who they are, and I don't know how or when this will play out.

I suggest you ask them, in five or ten years time. 

About the author

Bjørn Stærk works as a software developer in Oslo, and has been blogging and writing about politics since 2001.