Last week's Oslo terrorist attacks are raising delicate questions of immigration and integration here after the admitted attacker cited anti-Muslim views as motivating the assaults.
A country of less than 5 million people, Norway has seen its once homogeneous population change in recent years with new arrivals from Africa and the Middle East. This transformation, in part, drove Anders Behring Breivik, charged with Friday's car bombing and shooting spree that killed at least 76 people in the span of a few hours.
Now, even as this country still grieves for its victims, many say how Norway responds to the attacks could define immigration policy in the future.
While Mr. Breivik's views, revealed in his 1,500-page tirade against Muslims and multiculturalism, are extreme and his attack reviled by Norwegians of all political leanings, Breivik fed on an undercurrent of prejudice and hatred that exists in some areas of Norwegian society, where being Norwegian is still very much determined by one’s fair skin and light hair.
“We have to find out what kind of country Norway is. That’s where the struggle is going to be in the coming years,” says Thomas Eriksen, a professor of anthropology at the University of Oslo. “And we are going to have to deal with that.”
He says many immigrants still face an uphill battle in terms of integration and acceptance from their fellow Norwegians. “They can acquire our civilization but never our culture,” he says, offering up a common opinion. “In other words, they won’t be ‘us’ they’ll always be the ‘other’.”
Indeed, experts on immigration and integration point to a growing skepticism across Norway that now surrounds most Muslim immigrants. Though Breivik’s thinking is condemned, many of his views aren’t new.
“Some of his ideas are more commonplace than we’d like them to be,” says Rune Berglund Steen, communication manager for the Norwegian Center Against Racism. "This skepticism of Muslims has become a fairly central topic in Norwegian politics.”
Norway’s second-largest political party in parliament, the Progress Party, has been accused of backing xenophobic positions and Breivik was on the party’s member registry until 2006. The party quickly denounced the attacks and Breivik’s beliefs.
Mr. Steen says most Norwegians have a positive view toward immigrants. For example, he said a recent poll found that about 8 out of 10 Norwegians found it favorable if a child attends a school with mixed ethnicities.
But for Breivik and his ilk, Muslim newcomers here represent a "takeover."
“The problem can only be solved if we completely remove those who follow Islam. In order to do this all Muslims must ‘submit’ and convert to Christianity,” he wrote in his manifesto. “If they refuse to do this voluntarily prior to Jan. 1, 2020, they will be removed from European soil and deported back to the Islamic world.”
Most Norwegians, however, reject Breivik’s anti-Islamic views, preferring to see themselves as a tolerant, peaceful people and Breivik as a backwards extremist.
“It’s the fact that he attacked our multiculturalism,” says Alexander Roine, waiting outside the courthouse where Breivik appeared Monday.
Mr. Roine, an Oslo native whose father came from Tunisia, says Norway is rightly famous for its peaceful, tolerant attitude but conceded older generations are still adjusting to the country’s brisk demographic shift.
“We would think a guy with these views would be like 50 or 60 years old,” he says of Breivik. “This guy was born in a Norway that was already multicultural. He attacked everything this country stands for to the last detail.”
Norway has experienced a steady rise in immigration, like many European countries, with the number of its immigrants doubling since 1995.
Most came for the robust economy, political stability and generous welfare state, settling in dense pockets in Norway’s largest cities. It’s estimated that 11 percent of Norwegians are immigrants or the children of immigrants and about 2 percent of the population practices Islam.