Norway Questions Its Tolerance Of Extremism

Jul 26, 2011
Originally published on July 26, 2011 1:51 pm

As Norway struggles to comprehend last week's brutal twin attacks, Norwegians are starting to question whether their open and free society has been too lax in tolerating extremist views.

Hours before the bombing in central Oslo and a shooting rampage that killed at least 76 people, self-described perpetrator Anders Behring Breivik reportedly posted a video on YouTube containing anti-Muslim imagery. Set to eerie music, the video features text that rages against multiculturalism and echoes Breivik's 1,500-page manifesto calling for a Christian war to defend Europe from Islamic domination.

Breivik has been described in the media as a lone lunatic on the far-fringe of society.

But Rune Berglund Steen of the Norwegian Center Against Racism disagrees.

"Most of his ideas, his view of society is not original," Steen says. "He has bought into a certain ideology already there, including the distrust, hatred of Muslims."

Breivik, 32, once belonged to the ultra-right wing Progress Party, which has become the second largest party in Norway. Steen says the Progress Party wants much stricter controls on immigration, while Breivik is much more violent.

"What he wants is to kill the people who are not like him," Steen says.

Norway has a population of just under 5 million. Eleven percent are immigrants, and half of those are Muslim. Islam has become the country's second largest religion.

Norway does not share the economic pain other Europeans countries are going through. It is oil-rich and has virtually no unemployment. Nevertheless, there is mounting unease over the rapidly growing number of immigrants.

In a country that "enjoys a level of social welfare few others enjoy, it is easy to become protective, nationalistic," Steen says. "For a country that has often experienced itself as homogenous ... it is easy to feel the lure of thinking the idea of impurity, the idea of including new elements in our society, it is a potent and dangerous sentiment."

Breivik claims he is part of a terrorist network with two other extremist cells in operation, and investigators are focusing on whether he acted alone or had accomplices.

It's a big challenge because right-wing extremism had been more or less ignored by Norwegian security officials.

Professor Lars Gule of Oslo University has monitored extremist websites for years, even chatting with Breivik a few years ago on one of the suspect's favorite ultra-right-wing sites.

"These websites are working as greenhouses because they tend to be isolated," Gule says. "There is no opposing voice there, so the extremist postings are the fertilizer within the greenhouse, and we should not be surprised when a terrorist flower sticks its head up."

He estimates that many thousands of people regularly visit such websites in Norway alone. Adding the rest of Scandinavia, Britain, France and Germany, Gule says, "We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people with extremist, reactionary, xenophobic and islamophobic views."

Gule says careful research is needed to determine exactly who is involved and how many there are.

By ignoring the issue for so long, he says, many of these extremist ideas have crept into everyday political debate — for example, in postings at online editions of daily newspapers.

"And the next time around," Gule says, "the editors of the paper editions will allow letters to the editors that would have been put into the wastebasket 10 years ago. Now they can be published."

Steen of the Norwegian Center Against Racism says everyone has been affected by right-wing extremism. The climate has changed so radically, he says, that even the word "racism" has been so discredited that he and his colleagues don't use it anymore.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

The Norwegian shooting suspect, Anders Behring Breivik, will be held in isolation for two months. A judge made that decision after Breivik acknowledged killing dozens of people on Friday. But the extremism he represents was not so isolated within his country.

LOUISE KELLY: Some Norwegians are starting to question whether their open and free society has been too lax in tolerating extremist views. It's a question with implications well beyond Norway. And we start our coverage with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Oslo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: This is the soundtrack of a video Breivik posted on YouTube before Friday's brutal attacks. The text rages against multi-culturalism and echoes his 1,500-page manifesto, calling for a Christian war to defend Europe from Islamic domination. Throughout the media, Breivik has been described as a lone lunatic on the far fringe of society. Rune Berglund Steen, of the Norwegian Center Against Racism, disagrees.

RUNE BERGLUND STEEN: Most of his ideas, his view of society, is not original. He has sort of bought into a certain ideology which is already there, including the distrust, or in his case, the hatred of Muslims.

POGGIOLI: Breivik once belonged to the ultra-right-wing Progress Party. Steen says the party - which has become the country's second largest - wants much stricter controls on immigration, while Breivik is much more violent.

BERGLUND STEEN: What he wants is to kill the people who are not like him.

POGGIOLI: Steen explains why.

BERGLUND STEEN: A country which has - really enjoys a level of social welfare that few others countries do enjoy. It is easy to become protected. It is easy to become nationalistic. For a country that has often experienced itself as homogenous, although it hasn't been, it is easy sort of to feel the lure of the idea of impurity, the idea of including new elements into our society; it is a potent and dangerous sentiment.

POGGIOLI: Professor Lars Gule of Oslo University has monitored the field for years. He even chatted with Breivik a few years ago on one of the suspect's favorite ultra-right-wing websites.

LARS GULE: These websites are working as greenhouses because they tend to be isolated. There is no opposing voice there, so the extremist postings are the fertilizer within the greenhouse and one should not be surprised when a terrorist flower sticks its head up.

POGGIOLI: Gule estimates that many thousands of people regularly visit these websites in Norway alone. He then adds the rest of Scandinavia, Britain, France and Germany.

GULE: We're talking about hundreds of thousands of people with extremist, reactionary, xenophobic, and Islamophobic views.

POGGIOLI: Gule says careful research is needed to determine exactly who is involved and how many they are. By ignoring the issue for so long, he says, many of these extremist ideas have crept into the everyday political debate, for example in postings on online editions of daily newspapers.

GULE: And then next time around the editors of the paper editions will allow letters to the editor that would have been put straight into the waste basket 10 years ago. Now they can be published.

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Oslo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.