The Scandinavian countries have historically been some of the most robust and fruitful democracies of modern times. Each nation ranks high in many metrics of human development as well. They are in many aspects as close to perfect democracy as can be. This does not rule out trouble in paradise, however. When looking at the case of Norway, there appear to be some subtle signs that democracy could fall into jeopardy. At first glance, statistics and other data do not show much evidence for erosion. In fact, Norway was ranked number one on the UN Human Development Index, with neighboring Sweden at eight, Denmark at eleven and Finland at twelve (UN HDI, 2018). So how exactly is it that this seemingly perfect nation could be feeling the tremors of a crumbling democracy? Perhaps the answers to this question lie beyond what we see at the surface. After years of dealing with the migrant crisis and an increase in conservative opposition, immigration continues to be a divisive issue in Norway. The seeds of this discontent can be tied to xenophobia and racism, factors that have led to declines in democracy historically. As with many western countries, Norwegians and politicians are not entirely happy about the influx of Muslims into the country. In taking a look at data as well as social concepts from Norway, the threat of right-wing extremism on democracy is one that should not be ignored. Norway’s leaders must act quickly if they hope to prevent their democracy from becoming more at risk.
Norway’s wealth and history with progressive policies makes it a very desirable place for refugees. A robust national health system, free university and numerous other subsidized programs are all funded by heavy taxation and a prosperous oil fund. Although the nation is extremely successful, these benefits are not infinite, meaning the country also has some of the strictest immigration policies in the world. This has led to Norway being an extremely homogenous society with well-preserved cultural practices and language. Additionally, a large majority of citizens identifying with the state religion and are Evangelical Lutherans (CIA,2017). In 2017, it was estimated that 83.2% of residents were ethnically Norwegian, 8.3% were European and only 8.5% belonged to other demographics (CIA, 2017). It is also important to note the ties between Scandinavian blood and past ethnic conflict. During WWII, the Nazis occupied Norway. It is widely known that Hitler was obsessed with a concept known as “der nordische Mensch” or the Nordic people. The belief that tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed people are somehow superior has been proliferated for decades since then by hate groups. When one take these unfortunate facts and considers that there is a minority of non-whites and Muslims living in the country, there should some degree of alarm raised.
As of right now, Norway’s democracy continues to be strong and successful. In 2020, the Freedom House Report gave Norway a perfect score in terms of political rights and civil liberties (Freedom House, 2020). With that said, these scores and the current overall state of affairs is do not buy Norway an eternal ticket to democratic stability. One way to measure the early signs of trouble is to look at hate crime occurrences. Over the years, hate crimes have increased in Norway, with 761 being recorded in 2019 (ODIHR, 2020). Of these incidents, a majority were classified as having racism and xenophobia as the root cause and a majority were also physical assaults (ODIHR,2020). In that same year, a group called Stop Islamisation of Norway (SIAN) gathered in a square in Kristiansand, setting fire to a Quran (Kvittingen, 2020). This resulted in a brawl with counter protestors while onlookers watched. The data as well as first-hand accounts of anti-Muslim behaviors are deeply concerning. These public and fearless acts of hate indicate that right-wing groups feel emboldened to express their views in front of others, even if it means drawing scrutiny. This also means that vulnerable people are better able to see first-hand what right-wing groups are like, which could be used as a tactic for recruitment.
The most ominous example of racially motivated violence occurred in 2011, when Anders Breivik carried out a horrific terrorist attack in southern Norway. A lone-wolf extremist, Breivik planted a car bomb in Oslo which killed at least seven people before traveling by ferry to Utøya, an island west of the city. Disguised as a police officer, he stated that he was there to check on the young people attending a summer camp. The camp was politically focused, with many of the attendees having parents in the Labor Party (Erlanger & Shane, 2011). Once granted entry, he spent ninety minutes hunting and murdering those who crossed his path. After all was said and done, he had killed over ninety people, many of whom were teenagers (Erlanger & Shane, 2011). The shock would not end there, as it was soon discovered that Breivik had posted a 1,500-page manifesto online about a race war that he thought would come. He and many other right-wingers believe in the idea of “Eurabia,” a scenario in which Muslims take over the world (Fagan & Carlsson, 2013). This belief is what fueled Breivik, as he wanted to create an awakening within Norway in regard to what he saw as a major threat to civil society. While he acted alone and was not affiliated with any major terrorist organizations, his actions show that Norway must be extremely vigilant when watching for potential violence. If it happened to this degree, it can happen again especially given that the influx of Muslim migrants is unlikely to cease.
Breivik might have been the only case of mass violent extremism in Norway’s modern history, but his beliefs are not entirely unique. With all the talk of how progressive the country is, it might come as a surprise that some of Norway’s people and leaders are against the granting of asylum for Muslim refugees. Muslim migrants are often blamed for rises in violent crimes such as rape. In a project completed by the Guardian, Norwegian politicians were interviewed on immigration policies. In the city of Moi, a string of rapes carried out by foreign taxi drivers sparked outrage and fear. Soon came demands for politicians to reform immigration policies for those coming from outside the EU. At the front of the anti-immigration movement is the Progress Party, which is a current member of the coalition government. Christian Wedler, a member of the party explained just why they want to limit immigration. He stated that he felt that the values held by many Muslim migrants are incompatible with the western female rights (Wedler, 2020). These statements underscore one of the fundamental ideals needed to understand why the addition of Muslim migrants into Norway is so problematic. They are viewed as a threat to the status quo and to the long-held and cherished cultural practices held by native Norwegians. In a society made up so densely of white, Lutheran people, the exposure to different cultures and religions is not as high as it would be in the United States or UK. The fear of newcomers jeopardizing the cultural pillars of a society is a tale as old as time. We saw it with the Nazis targeting the Jews, and we are seeing it now in the United States with Latino and Hispanic immigrants. What these cases have in common is not the presence of cultural divides, but the weaponization of them. Breivik and the other right-wing extremists in Norway are perpetuating dangerous notions about Muslims that do nothing but instill fear. Fear mongering is a tactic often used by individuals and groups hoping to come to power.
With anecdotes and philosophies tell one story about Norway’s potential democratic slip, there is another problem standing in the way. Right now, there is not a whole lot of tangible proof that Islamaphobia and racism are deeply impacting voting or other measures of democratic turnout. Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party has held office for years now, and she is very well-liked by the people. Although she is a conservative, she is not one to stand for harsh, racially based immigration policies. The lack of evidence for blatant Islamaphobia at the polls could mean one of many things. One possible explanation comes from an article published by the Cambridge University Press. The research looked at Greece and whether or not the migrant crisis increased support for right-wing groups. They found that “despite heated debates about asylum policies and the allocation of refugees across Europe, there exists very little evidence regarding the impact of refugee arrivals on native voters’ political preferences and behavior (Dinas et al., 2019). This fact is a huge problem if one is trying to make a case for the urgency of intervention. Norway is in no way at risk for becoming authoritarian any time soon. However, they should treat the acknowledgment of the current small threats as a preventative measure to preserve their democracy. Norway is fortunate enough to be in a strong position now, but they should use the lessons of their peers and of history when it comes to the dangers of race-based hatred and ultra-conservative rhetoric.
Hi Emma – great blog post! I’ve learned about Islamophobia spreading throughout Europe in part because of the refugee crisis but have never learned about specific incidences and problems in Norway. I really liked that you encourage Norway to take a look at the problems facing their democracy now before they become worse. I’ve noticed that a lot of European countries act like they do not have an issue with discrimination and turn to the United States as the country with the problem when in fact some of the same issues are shared but may be not as obvious or as large of an issue as in the United States. But they are problems worth addressing and are symptoms of larger issues of oppression and power structures. Also, I appreciated that you brought up the Dinas et al. piece. I also read that for class and gathered that even though there was not a large difference, the presence of refugees did increase support for the Golden Dawn a little bit. It presents an interesting question for how political parties should react. This is, of course, hard to determine due to the many issues that could be contributing to the rise in support for right-wing groups. I think it is important for political parties that aren’t right-wing extremists to work hard to combat misinformation and be cautious when interacting with these groups. You mention that the current Prime Minister does not tolerate racially based immigration policies but I would be curious to learn more about how she and other politicians are speaking out and working to address this issue.
This was a really insightful blog post, Emma! I would have never thought to write about Norway in the context of democratic erosion, but this article makes it clear how important it is to critically examine the state of democracy in all countries at all times, regardless of their scores on democracy indexes. My favourite line in this post is “What these cases have in common is not the presence of cultural divides, but the weaponisation of them.” I think this is a very profound statement. Cultural division is not the problem, but weaponising this division is what poses a threat to democracy. In fact, cultural division can actually be analogous to democracy. Having a wide array of cultures, each with its own distinct nature and political influences, is by definition beneficial for political pluralism. However, when those in power seek to divide the electorate along racial or cultural lines, that is when democratic erosion can take place. The homogeneity of Norway and other Scandinavian countries certainly makes the maintenance of a healthy democracy easier than, say, such an incredibly diverse country as the US. But that does not mean the Norwegians should get complacent. As you write in your post, there is currently insufficient data to prove that this recent anti-Muslim sentiment impacts political participation, yet I find that quite hard to believe. Perhaps it is only a matter of time until the next right-wing party rises to political power in Norway under a nativist banner.
Nice blog post Emma. I know very little about Norway in general, but you did a great job informing a “lay-person” about the state of its democracy, and the problems that could potentially undermine it. I was shocked to hear the anti-islamic sentiment is a problem in the country. However, given what you said about Norway’s homogeneity, and given Muslims, outside of white-Europeans, are their primary immigrants, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. It definitely seems comparable to current anti-immigration sentiments in the United States. I wonder how this sentiment will evolve in the future. I hope the stability and quality of their Democracy precludes backsliding sourced from this issue alone. Anyways, thanks for the read. I feel a little more informed, which is all I could ask for!