Amid Debate on Migrants, Norway Party Comes to Fore

Steven Erlanger, New York Times, January 24, 2014

Lise and Kjetil Ulvestrand came to this town south of Oslo in 2005 for the space, the views, the forest and the cheaper rents. Ms. Ulvestrand, a former development worker in Latin America and a social worker with Norway’s immigrants, says she is comfortable around foreigners and different cultures.

But as the number of immigrants, including Muslims, gradually increased in Mortensrud, she began to worry about her children and their education.

“I loved the forest and had friends, but ethnic Norwegians were moving out, so my children were losing friends,” she said. “After a while we discovered that when kids were 5 or 6, everyone moved out. We wanted a stable environment, and we had some questions about the social challenges at the school,” where the number of people who are not ethnic Norwegians was growing rapidly.

So the Ulvestrands decided last summer to move back into comfortable west Oslo, where she grew up. “I felt a bit guilty about moving, having worked in Latin America with minorities and defending their rights,” she said. “It wasn’t just ethnic Norwegians, it was anyone with resources moved out.”

Their concerns about immigration and perceptions that Islam is challenging prevailing national values are widely shared, both among some Norwegians, like the Ulvestrands, on the left of the political spectrum, and among many on the right, who in September put the Conservative Party into office after eight years of government by Labor Party-led leftist coalitions.

In a nation that has long prided itself on its liberal sensibilities, the intensifying debate about immigration and its effects on national identity and the country’s social welfare system has been jarring—and has been focused on the anti-immigration Progress Party, which is part of the new Conservative-led government.

The Progress Party came under intense scrutiny in 2011, when a former member, a Norwegian named Anders Behring Breivik, bombed government buildings in Oslo, killing eight people. He then killed 69 more people, mostly teenagers, in a mass shooting at a Labor Party summer camp on the island of Utoya. {snip}

Still, the performance of the Progress Party in the first general elections since the Utoya massacre and its success in winning a place in government have raised some eyebrows; quite unfairly, Ketil Solvik-Olsen, minister of transportation and communication and a deputy leader of the party, said in an interview.

Mr. Solvik-Olsen recently discussed politics and faith at the Norwegian Lutheran church in Mortensrud. A tall, cheery man of 41, educated in Ohio and once employed by Disney, Mr. Solvik-Olsen scoffed at the notion that the party had anything to do with Mr. Breivik. “He left because his ideas were not getting support,” he said. “We are strict on immigration, but this is not a war on cultures. Our idea is to protect our welfare system.”

Asked about national values, Mr. Solvik-Olsen instead spoke of the kind of discomfort that the Ulvestrands felt here. “Some people feel they’re waking up one morning and their old neighborhood is gone,” he said. “Strangers move in and people don’t even understand what they’re saying; we have a generous welfare system, and you feel a stranger in your own neighborhood.”

Mr. Solvik-Olsen was the chairman of the Oslo section of the Progress Party when Mr. Breivik was a member, but he said he did not remember him. After the killings and a disastrous showing in local elections in 2011, the party, always populist, moved to gain more respectability, tamping down more extreme voices. In September, the party won 16.3 percent of the vote—down from the 22.9 percent it won in 2009, but enough to form a coalition with the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister Erna Solberg.

The Progress Party is now considered mainstream, and its level of support has required “more moderate rhetoric” than that from more extreme parties like the smaller Swedish Democrats, said Thomas Hylland Eriksen, a social anthropologist at the University of Oslo. {snip}

{snip}

Public discussion of Islam is less about “their beliefs or their color; it’s more about lack of education and need for training,” Ms. Solberg said in an interview. Given Norway’s generous asylum policies and social welfare system, the new government wants to reduce abuse and ensure, she said, that “you always earn more money by working than by not working—it’s a bigger social issue here than immigration.”

According to the Norwegian Language Council, the most popular new word of 2012 was “naving”—to live off welfare rather than to work. Used by young people, it stems from NAV, the Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration, which administers about one-third of the national budget.

{snip}

Mr. Hylland Eriksen says the massacre committed by Mr. Breivik has regrettably had little lasting impact on Norway’s politics. “Immediately after the terrorist attack, some of us were hoping that it would serve as a loud and clear reminder of the need to accept that we live in a culturally diverse society, since the attack was motivated by a wish to cleanse Norway of alien cultural elements,” he said. “Instead, the political dimensions of the attack have been consistently dodged.”

It is almost more difficult now “to criticize Islamophobic and xenophobic attitudes, since those defending such positions may retort that it is unbecoming to associate them with Breivik,” he said.

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