Violence in Årdal, Norway, in 2013 left three civilians murdered on a bus. The suspect was taken into custody and described as a man of “30 years and not ethnic Norwegian.” These types of designations have become mainstream in the Norwegian news media. According to a statement released by the Norwegian Language Council, “people of ethnic minorities cannot be considered ‘Norwegians.’”
Anders Behring Breivik, an alt-right customer service agent, was, by this definition, an “ethnic Norwegian”—a white man of Norwegian descent. A former member of Fremskrittspartiet (Progress Party) and an active contributor to anti-Muslim websites, Breivik made very clear his prejudice against immigration and “Stealth Islamification” by targeting Arbeiderpartiet (Labor), Norway’s social democratic party. In the chaotic days after the July 22 massacre on Utøya, Norway was not expecting a man of this description to be the culprit. Sociologist Mette Andersson commented, “Before the prime minister for justice officially revealed that the terrorist was a white Christian Norwegian, a terrorism researcher had suggested that Islamic terrorists were behind the attack, and reports of Muslims being harassed in the streets of Oslo were spreading through the Internet.”
This is perhaps why Breivik initially felt comfortable expressing his extreme-right views online in supportive chat rooms and anti-Islam websites, beginning in 2002. He mentions in his manifesto how several Norwegians at a friend’s birthday party were “completely freaked out about discussing political issues relating to multiculturalism and Islamization.” The subject was taboo in the consensual and passive Norwegian society. This made the fact that Breivik was an “ethnic Norwegian” even more shocking to most people who view Norwegian culture as kind and polite.
The early presumption was that Breivik was, of course, insane. He murdered 77 people and injured hundreds. This type of behavior and thinking was assumed to be crazy. Yet after two psychological exams, Breivik was found to be sane. He knew what he was doing. First person accounts from the 2012 documentary Til Ungdommen describe Breivik laughing darkly and speaking to the dead bodies, shooting at everyone with a calm composure.
“The racism and bigotry that have simmered for years on anti-Islamic and anti-immigration websites in Norway and other European countries and in the United States made it possible for him to believe he was acting on behalf of a community that would thank him,” said Jostein Gaarder and Thomas Hylland Eriksen of the New York Times five days after the attack. The online communities Breivik found allowed to him believe he was acting on behalf of the common good. A panel member in Til Ungdommen stated: “If he [Breivik] is deemed ill, we will never come to terms with his ideology.” Norwegians were ashamed of Breivik and would not speak his name for weeks after his arrest, prior to his conviction.
The award-winning film Til Ungdommen, directly translated as “for the youth” but Americanized as Bravehearts, accidentally centers around the Breivik attacks. Originally focused on the significance of Oslo political youth parties and those students who participate in them, the surprise attack occurred in the middle of the filming process. The videographers taped footage of the brutal attacks and interviewed youth party students. The film follows four young adults, one from each youth party of Sosialistisk Venstrepartiet (Socialist Left), Arbeiderpartiet, Høyre (Conservative), and Fremskrittspartiet. Two of these students are what was previously defined as “ethnic Norwegians,” with white skin, blonde hair, and light eyes, who lived in two of the nicer areas of Oslo. The other two lived on the east side, which is notorious for cheaper housing compared to the west side villas.
Anders Vassenden, a researcher at the International Research Institute of Stavanger, did a recent interview series about these poorer areas involving “white majority Norwegians who live in multiethnic neighborhoods in Oslo Suburbs” in order to study what constitutes “Norwegianness.” When it comes to being part of a culture, what are the parameters? One of the women interviewed refers multiple times to the concept of “white Norwegians.” On one hand, this leaves room for Norwegian citizens of “non-ethnic” Norwegian backgrounds to be categorized under the term “Norwegian,” replacing the assumption that a Norwegian must be white. On another hand, this need for descriptive categorization based on race continues to be a part of the problem with xenophobia.
One of these categories, perhaps the largest, is Muslim Norwegians. The hate that fueled Breivik’s attack was toward the religion of Islam. He and others believe that Islam poses a cultural threat to Norway’s clearly defined nationality.
In their public speeches after the Utøya attack, authorities like Jens Stoltenberg and Crown Prince Haakon included the necessity to meet Breivik’s hate with massive amounts of love and togetherness. There was a huge rose parade in downtown Oslo on July 26, 2011, where over 200,000 Norwegians marched in silence to honor those killed in the attack. One wonders how this scene would have been different if the one responsible was not an “ethnic Norwegian.” Would there be a defensive discourse, or a separation of “us” and whichever “them” was responsible? Luckily Norway did not get a chance to find out.
Upon investigation, a manifesto was found in Breivik’s home. The document was sent to thousands of people and included harsh anti-Islamic sentiments and personal experiences as a former member of Fremskrittspartiet. In it he writes, “I have lost faith in the democratic struggle to save Europe from Islamification … And even if they [Fremskrittspartiet] ever did manage to form a majority government with Høyre their principles and party program would not be conservative enough to halt the ongoing Islamic demographic warfare OR increase the ethnic Norwegian fertility rate from 1.4 to 2.1. The only thing [Fremskrittspartiet] has achieved so far is to give false hope to Norwegians.”
Sana, a 16-year-old Muslim girl and member of Venstre, asked a political panel in the aftermath of the July 22 attacks, “If it had been a Muslim, would we be discussing ‘us’ today or ‘us’ and ‘them’?” At the time her mother and many others prayed that the attacker was not Muslim. Sana says “My immediate thought was that no one will trust me now, as a Muslim.” She mentions the people who were shouting in the streets at women wearing hijabs and saying: “Look what your people have done!”
We should all watch for a new film centered around the July 22 attacks, directed by Paul Greengrass of The Bourne Ultimatum and Captain Phillips. The film will star Norwegian actors and will be available on Netflix. We can only hope that continued examination of the Utøya tragedy might eventually provide illumination and closure.
• “The debate about multicultural Norway before and after 22 July 2011,” published by Mette Andersson in Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, link: www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1070289X.2012.684442
• “A Blogosphere of Bigots,” published by Jostein Gaarder and Thomas Hylland Eriksen in The New York Times, link: www.nytimes.com/2011/07/29/opinion/Gaarder-Eriksen.html
• “Untangling the different components of Norwegianness,” published by Anders Vassenden in Nations and Nationalism, link: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-8129.2009.00438.x/abstract
Laila Simon is a recent graduate of St. Olaf College. Based out of Portland, Oregon, she writes poetry, spends her days working at a Nordic nonprofit, and looks for her next travel opportunity. Previously published in St. Olaf’s The Quarry, Silver Birch Press, and on the Rain Taxi: Review of Books website.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 3, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.