One year after terrorism struck Norway: taking stock

Key figures in the Norwegian media have acted on the assumption that open confrontation with right-wing bloggers and activists is the most effective strategy to combat extremism.

Anders Ravik Jupskås Tore Wig
24 July 2012

As Norway marks the anniversary of the events of July 22, where the nation lost its virginity as the target of a major terrorist atrocity, many commentators, politicians and journalists wonder what the enduring impact of this traumatic event has been. One year on, we begin to glimpse a complex answer.

Disentangling what is unexpected from what is normal in the wake of the mayhem wrought upon the country last summer is no easy task, simply because the event is unprecedented. Comparisons with 9/11, the terrorist bombings in Madrid and London, and even the killing of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands in 2004 have been drawn, but July 22 in Norway differs in crucial respects. Although some of these horrific acts were carried out by “internal enemies”, they were all committed by Muslim extremists. This makes them difficult to compare to the homebred islamophobic solo terrorism conducted by Anders Behring Breivik. Norway post-22/7 thus presents the world with a unique first look at how a European society responds to a massive counter jihadist terrorist attack committed by “one of our own”.

Back to normal?

In general, the fundamentals of Norwegian politics have not been altered by 22/7. In fact, one of the most salient features of the first year has been how fast political developments have returned to their pre-22/7 trajectory. There is certainly no long term “July 22-effect” with regard to party support. While public support for the two largest parties – the Labour Party in particular, but also the Conservatives – immediately increased after the attack and was later confirmed in the local elections held less than two months after the attack, Labour-support has decreased in recent months and is now even lower than it was right before Breivik committed his massacre.

Norway’s right-wing populist party, the Progress Party, on the other hand, being indirectly linked to the atrocity due to their Islam-critical rhetoric and Breivik’s earlier involvement in the party at the local level, suffered significantly at the polls and their support was almost halved in the local elections. Now, one year afterwards, the most recent polls show 22.8 per cent support for the party, which is equivalent to their standing in the parliamentary elections of 2009.

More tolerance and democratic participation

Even though the general picture could be labelled a story of a negligible impact, there are a few signs of societal change. Firstly, unlike the effects on public attitudes caused by Islamist terrorism in the last decade, analyses indicate that Norwegians have become slightly more positive towards immigration and multiculturalism. While surveys show that 53 per cent agreed that Norway “should not accept more immigrants” in 2009 and 2010, only 46 per cent did so in 2012. This could be explained by the association between the terrorist and xenophobia.

Secondly, the attacks have been followed by more civil activism and political awareness. More people have signed up for voluntary work in civic organisations. The Norwegian Red Cross, for instance, doubled the number of newly recruited volunteers. Particularly the younger generations have increased their level of political participation. The turnout in the local elections increased substantially compared to other elections in recent decades and all youth party organisations have had a noticeable increase in the number of members. Not only did the Labour youth party, which suffered tremendously from the terrorist attack, increase its membership by 50 per cent, but even the Conservative youth boosted their numbers from 2800 to 4400. Another identifiable effect of 22/7 is the more protruding position given to a new generation of youth politicians, who, in being a direct target of the attacks, have quickly come of age as participants in the public debate. Several youth party leaders report that their policy suggestions are taken more seriously not only in the media, but also within their own parties.

More visible Islamophobia, but also more confrontation

Thirdly, the media have made it much easier for Islamophobic voices to be heard in the public debate. Perhaps this comes as a consequence of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s appeal for “more democracy” and “more openness”. Fringe representatives who were invisible to the public before are now being invited to TV-shows and radio programmes. Op-eds by right-wing extremists have even been published in the largest newspapers in Norway.  Key figures in the Norwegian media have acted on the assumption that open confrontation with right-wing bloggers and activists is the most effective strategy to combat extremism. The idea of confronting extreme ideologies has also found expression online, as right-wing bloggers, communities, and general anti-immigrant rhetoric face increased resistance on forums and in the blogosphere.

Fourthly, as seen in the wake of most terrorist atrocities across Europe and in the US, there looks to be a comprehensive increase in the scope and depth of legislation designed to combat terrorism, both homebred and external. Inspired by American and British legislation, the Norwegian government has suggested that it should be illegal to plan terrorism alone and to participate in terrorist training camps. According to current legislation, only those who prepare terrorist attacks as part of a larger group can be convicted for terrorism. 

Explaining the reactions

22/7 caused massive damage to innumerable lives, and scarred the nation’s capital for years to come. Yet, in spite of the terrorist’s explicit political motivation, and links to one of Norway’s major political parties, the political system and the public debate in Norway has calmly climbed out of the rubble with few visible bruises. What has followed has been a slightly more tolerant society, a more inclusive public debate, an increase in political activism among the younger cohorts, and a sharpening of relevant legislation. While these moderate effects could be explained by Norway’s strong economy, depolarised and consensual political debate, and skilfull political leadership, it is hard not to suspect that things would have been different had the terrorist in some way or another been connected to Islam.

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