Norway’s disturbing lurch to the right

Alf Gunvald Nilsen argues that the advances made in Norway’s general election by the anti-migrant Progress Party, which looks set to become a junior partner in a right-wing coalition government, shows the country has not dealt with the roots of Anders Breivik’s crimes.

The events that left 77 people dead, prompted public debate to focus on a deeply troubling question: what was it about Norwegian society that had made 22/7 possible? Breivik’s extensive links to far-right groups and anti-Muslim networks prompted the recognition that his actions and ideology could not be understood in a vacuum. Rather, it seemed clear that he had emerged from the fertile ground of a racism and an Islamophobia that had attained a degree of respectability in public debate in Norway. This, it was argued, demanded a collective response: Norwegian society had to confront deep-seated xenophobic attitudes and embrace the fact that cultural and ethnic diversity had come to stay.

For a time, this was a recognition that seemed to hold sway. The most significant indication of this shift was the fact that electoral support for the Progress party – a party of which Breivik had been a member for a number of years, and whose warnings against the “sneak-Islamisation” of Norwegian society resonated with the main tenor of Breivik’s ideology – was significantly reduced in the local elections of September 2011.

However, the fact that the party now seems destined to become the second largest player in Norway’s new ruling coalition raises the question of why 22/7 failed to become more of a watershed in Norwegian politics. A very likely reason is the fact that Norway has failed to take the lessons of the attacks that befell us that dreadful day to heart. Breivik’s actions and ideology were quickly pathologised and turned into an aberration – indeed, the court proceedings against him were remarkable for their studious avoidance of questions relating to the broader context in which Breivik had flourished. An aberration, of course, is not something that weighs down on a nation’s collective conscience. Norwegian society could move along, safely ensconced in its affluent comfort zone. And this should be a matter of great concern for those of us who were hoping for a more tolerant society to emerge from the trauma of 22/7.

Guardian, 10 September 2013