Norway, we need to talk about racism
Attacks on a politician and a new book marking the tenth anniversary of the Utøya massacre have finally led to a public debate about racism
Norwegian society has suddenly woken up to the realisation that racism exists – ten years after the massacre of pro-immigration, left-wing youth activists and politicians on Utøya island.
On 22 July 2011, 69 mainly teenage members of the Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet, AP) were shot dead by a far-Right terrorist after he had already detonated a car bomb outside government offices in Oslo, killing eight people.
Discussing racism, or even using the word, is taboo in Norway and stirs very strong feelings, especially among the Norwegian Right. Sylvi Listhaug, leader of the radical-Right Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP), is especially vocal against people who try to label Norway a racist society. “Because it’s not true,” she said. “Norway is one of the freest, best countries in the world – for everyone. Independent of gender, religion or ethnicity.”
Listhaug, a Trump supporter and climate change denier, is especially aggressive in her attacks on the Green Party’s Lan Marie Berg, the deputy mayor of Oslo. She blames Berg and the Green Party (Miljøpartiet de Grønne) for creating “climate hysteria” and trying to take freedom away from Norwegians.
Berg is used to being attacked. For years, she has received hate mail, death threats, and racist and misogynist comments – even when simply walking the streets of Oslo with her child. Online attacks on young politicians on the left, especially women, are extensive – even more so for women of colour .
These death threats and incitement escalated recently after Berg expressed sympathy on Facebook with the Palestinians during the bombing of Gaza, writing “Gaza in my heart”. The attacks came in many languages, including Hebrew.
Investigative journalist Harald Klungtveit collected and shared the most vicious remarks, threats and hatred posted by Facebook users against Berg on his own Facebook page. Klungtveit’s actions were a catalyst, focusing public attention on the reality of life for many Norwegians of colour.
Tina Bru, the minister of oil and energy from the leading Conservative Party (Høyre), was the first politician to react publicly. She said: “I can’t take it any more – enough is enough!… shut up!”
Bru said she was used to harassment herself, especially on the subject of climate change, but that she would have stepped down from politics if she had been exposed to the same level of harassment, death threats and incitement to hatred and violence as Berg.
Bru made it clear that, although she opposes Berg on climate action, this kind of hatred and attacks on individuals are a problem for democracy. It also prevents people from engaging with local politics.
There has been a torrent of support for Berg, and the police are finally investigating the attacks against her.
Let’s talk about racism
Talking about racism in Norway is difficult, because there is an assumption and a consensus that the country is tolerant and inclusive. And it is: more people than ever are positive about immigration and immigrants.
However, there is little understanding among white Norwegians of implicit bias or institutional racism. Even seasoned politicians seem to think racism doesn’t exist if it isn’t conscious.
In its 2021 report on Norway, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) commends the country for improvements, but says: “Many hate speech cases are not reported to the police or other competent authorities. The public debate is often driven by xenophobic and anti-migration discourse and the intensifying waves of hate speech increased prejudice in particular against Muslims.”
It’s also noticeable how reporting about immigration and immigrants usually takes a negative or patronising tone.
Talking about racism in Norway is difficult, because there is an assumption and a consensus that the country is tolerant and inclusive
Racism and racist ideology fuelled the attacks in 2011 and one would have thought – what with all the promises, the flowers, the concerts, the memorials, the museums and the marches – ten years would have been enough to confront such ideas.
Not really, say survivors, families of the victims and members of the AP’s youth wing in a new book, ‘Never Keep Quiet, Never Forget’. The most important argument running through the book is that politicians, even AP’s own, have failed to confront the extreme Right and racism in Norway.
Survivors and their families have been subjected to a decade of hate in private mail, on social media and on the streets, and been accused of playing the “Utøya card” by right-wing politicians, when they have raised concerns over racist or extreme-Right rhetoric, hate speech and targeted racist attacks on left-wing politicians.
Parents whose children were killed still get letters from their fellow citizens celebrating the massacre, or, in the case of survivors, saying it’s a pity their “Marxist, immigrant-loving children” lived. The book reports that young survivors have received death threats and messages wishing they had been killed by the terrorist.
A political attack
One of the Utøya survivors and a contributor to the book, Sofie Rosten Løvdahl says the problem is that the attack was never recognised as political. The media were mainly interested in the survivors’ feelings and didn’t want to listen to their message about fighting the terrorist’s political ideas.
Politicians preferred to arrange concerts and discuss memorials, rather than enact practical political measures – such as changing the curriculum or engaging with communities, looking at people’s role as neighbours, teachers, nursery workers and colleagues to confront hatred and racism.
The authors argue that not enough was done to facilitate collaboration between the police, the education system and the public sector. “We didn’t discuss the role of the media in preventing or promoting intolerance, xenophobia and extremism. We didn’t demand more effort in promoting collaboration between religious leaders,” Rosten Løvdahl writes.
She says that FrP – the party the terrorist was a member of – did not take enough responsibility in terms of confronting racism and hatred within the party. AP leaders, on the other hand, were in shock and didn’t want to make the political attack at Utøya seem party-political.
Right-wing politicians were quick to accuse survivors, the labour movement and AP of trying to capitalise on the tragedy, when they called for political unity against racist, radical-Right ideology. This political environment silenced politicians and thousands of AP sympathisers, who often were accused of being too emotional and not fit to comment.
Unfortunately, love is not enough to confront violence and racism. Political intervention was sorely needed; “a white paper and a couple of helicopters don’t cut it,” Rosten Løvdahl writes.
The attacks on Berg have now led to a public debate on racism – but it has been too long in the making and racism has grown considerably in the last ten years. Hate speech is illegal in Norway, but what is said online has been accepted in the name of democracy and freedom of speech.
Berg was attacked for years on Facebook, Twitter, Jodel and even the Green Party’s Facebook page. It took an investigative journalist to cut and paste comments into his own Facebook feed for politicians to wake up and for the police to launch an investigation.
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