Scandinavia: is the far right far off?

By Christian Nielsen

Home-grown in Norway, a resumption of border controls in Denmark and an increasingly immigration-weary Sweden. Is taking hold in the once-tolerant Nordic countries?

Thursday 4 August 2011

Following the calculated and murderous attack by Anders Behring Breivik last month, Norway now joins the ranks of England, Turkey, Israel, Ireland and the USA – places where home-grown terrorists have taken the lives of innocents.  On 22 July, Breivik detonated a powerful bomb in downtown Oslo and, dressed as a policeman, then went on a shooting spree on nearby Utøya island, killing some 70 mostly attending a political camp organised by the AUF, a youth organisation of the ruling Norwegian Labour Party (AP).             

Breivik appears to match the identikit photo of a new generation of home-grown terrorists: no criminal record, keeps a low profile, educated background … basically an ordinary-seeming guy, at least on the outside. But inside, we get a very different story. Inside, is a seething activist whose first and likely last act was aimed squarely at what he views as his government's soft stance on immigration. Inside, he sees newcomers, with their poor or non-existent Norwegian and special (cultural) needs, as out of place, as interlopers in the ‘Christian Europe' of yore.

Of course, Norway will wish to paint Breivik as a ‘lone wolf', a mad ‘crusader', declaring that his actions will only serve to strengthen , openness and awareness. But the scariest thing about the 32-year-old is that he seems far from the crazed loon everyone perhaps wishes he were – so their comfortable lives could return to normal.

Psychologists and a bevy of experts will spend the coming months combing over his life and analysing his manifesto (all 1,518 pages of it) entitled ‘2083 – A European declaration of independence' which  he published online shortly before his deadly acts. They will be looking for evidence of collaborators in the forums and fantasy-gamer sites he is reported to have frequented, such as ‘World of Warcraft', and they will try to piece together his moves in the months to years he spent planning the attack.

The media will do its own investigations, helped by snippets of information leaked which paint a picture of an estranged, hurt figure – a sociopath of the highest order. They will dig into his past political associations, including a stint in the early 2000s with the Progress Party (FrP) and its youth wing, which he reportedly left as his views grew more extreme.  And they will scrutinise his writings and postings on such far-right sites as  But what will this all achieve?

In the end, the extended analysis and media coverage may just give Breivik the ultimate forum he was clearly seeking, or else he would have turned the gun on himself (the final act of many who go on such killing sprees) as police finally cornered him.  He has committed the act and the media has done its part to get the message out, in vivid and graphic images, so instilling the real ‘terror', the fear that it can happen again … anywhere.

And the impact is far wider than Norway. It leaves an indelible imprint on its neighbours who held a one-minute silence in sympathy after the attacks. Indeed, Scandinavians share a common language base and similar cultural, social and legal moorings. So, they are left thinking, ‘Are we next? Is that guy with the turned-up polo shirt and colourful knit acting strangely?' Of course the fear is exaggerated, even nonsense, but this is how terror works.   

Far right or far wrong?

There is also going to be a lot of soul-searching and reflection (much like this dossier on Chronikler, it has to be said) on the far right and whether Breivik's message may embolden marginalised political wings in countries spanning Europe, from the Lowlands, and Germany to the likes of France, Italy, Greece and indeed the Nordic countries. 

Already, Danish politics leans to the right – in the Nordic sense of the right – on a number of issues, including immigration. The government's decision in July to reintroduce border controls is seen by many as cowing to Danish populism.

 “The reintroduction of controls came as a result of an agreement between the minority conservative-liberal coalition in Copenhagen, and the far right Danish Peoples Party (DF),” noted the World Website (WSWS).  “DF has had significant influence over government policy for a decade, co-operating with the coalition to impose the strictest immigration regime within the EU. At the same time, it has used every available opportunity to whip up nationalist sentiment within Denmark.”

The Guardian newspaper weighed in on the topic: “Immigrants and their descendants make up about 10% of Denmark's 5.5m population, and the number of residence permits granted rose by more than 50% between 2004 and 2009. Many believe the Danes have become steadily more opposed to immigration in recent years, reflected in the rise in [Danish Peoples Party] support.”

Denmark takes in comparatively fewer immigrants than its fellow Nordics, except Finland. According to 2010 statistics by the UN's High Commission for Refugees, Sweden has taken in some 82,629 or around 8.81% of the Swedish population, which is one of the highest in the Western world. It is followed closely by Norway (40,260 or 8.24%). Denmark has taken in 17,922 or 3.23% of its population, with Finland just 8,724 (1.63%). That is from a total of around 15.4 million refugees worldwide.

Danish attitudes towards newcomers with Islamic backgrounds, in particular, haven't been helped by the fatwa placed on the authors and publishers of a series of satirical cartoon in the Jyllands-Posten in 2005. A Somali man even tried to carry out the fatwa in 2010 and was tried on murder charges. As a side note, you could also argue that the 1989 fatwa on Salman Rushdie, the author of ‘The Satanic Verses', marked a turning point for Euro-Islam relations leading to fundamentalism and violence. And now, 20 years on, Newton's third law of motion – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction – may have regrettably taken seed. Fundamentalism begets fundamentalism. Still, the laws of physics can and should be challenged!

(Read the German daily Spiegel Online's editorial ‘The West is Choked by Fear' concerning the fatwa and European Islamophobia.)

Though tolerant as a state – its institutions and statutes – the Danish people have demonstrated that their tolerance only goes so far when it comes to this sort of intimidation and interference in the ‘Danish way'. That attitudes towards foreigners have steadily hardened in the wake of this cartoon catastrophe is now difficult to dispute.

Sweden's outliers …

Sweden, after a long affinity with left-leaning socialist governments, has undergone a political transition of its own.  In last year's general parliamentary (Riksdag) election, Swedes narrowly voted in the Alliance (a mélange of , moderates, centrists and liberals) ahead of the centre-left Red-Greens made of up social democrats, lefts and greens. The Social Democrats have ruled Sweden for 65 of the past 78 years, and are credited with setting up the country's generous welfare state.

But it was the rise of an anti-immigration nationalist party that has caught the attention of Europe. With 5.7% of the vote, or 20 seats, the Sweden Democrats (SD) entered parliament for the first time as the sixth largest and only non-aligned party of the eight elected to the Riksdag. This meant the Alliance lost its absolute majority but continued to govern as a minority government, which obviously affects the political milieu. 

A BBC reporter sums up this political wind shift in the wake of the September election:  “[The] success of the far right has shocked many voters in Sweden. Winning 20 seats in parliament, the Sweden Democrats have obviously touched a nerve […] The party appears to have tapped into voter dissatisfaction over immigration […] with the result undermining the image of Sweden as a tolerant and open-minded country.”

Sweden Democrats member for Varberg Erik Hellsborn wrote in his blog shortly after events in Norway, “Massakern är ett resultat av mångkulturen” (“The massacre is a result of multiculturalism.”), and he went on to say that the attack may be the worst atrocity Scandinavia has seen since World War II, but that it was not a bolt from the blue. He added: “Detta är vad mångkulturen gör, den skapar konflikter mellan människor, leder till hat, våld och en allmän brutalisering av samhället (“This is what multiculturalism is doing, it creates conflicts between people, leading to hatred, violence and general brutalisation of .”). The party has distanced itself from Hellsborn and his remarks.

Cities and some smaller towns have seen major socio-cultural shifts in a single generation in the wake of a decades-long policy of ‘tolerance and openness' to immigration, particularly refugees. But the quaint newcomers have proven to be disinclined or unable to fully integrate into Swedish life. The growing tendency for many immigrants to cluster in cities, such as Malmo in the south, is making it hard for Swedes not to use the ‘G' word to describe their struggling strategy … ghettos!

I was in an ‘outlying' part of southern Stockholm several weeks ago and waiting in a supermarket queue when an older man, who appeared to be from the Horn of Africa, approached the counter with his trolley. He had rudimentary Swedish and knew the basic cashier etiquette; put your items on the conveyor for scanning, check the total on the readout, etc. When he tried to pay with a card, something wasn't working.

The young cashier asked him to check a detail on the card reader but this was outside the gentleman's ‘routine' – he didn't understand. Instead of trying to explain in, say, English – which I learned that the cashier knew quite well – he kept telling the now flustered older man to do a series of steps to make the card work in a ‘DO I HAVE TO SAY THIS AGAIN!' sort of volume and tone.

This little story perhaps only hints at the next generation's unwillingness to abide by its parents' and grandparents' more left-leaning ‘softly, softly' approach to people and politics. The X, Y and Me-generations probably have no beef with foreigners, per se, but equally they have no patience for polite acceptance and the sort of civil code that has underwritten Swedish society for nearly a century.

But does this truculence mean far right parties eschewing unpleasant policies towards foreigners will gain more power, become even more mainstream than they are now? And will we see manifestations in Sweden of Anders Breivik's “counter-jihad” ideology? (Read the Svenska dagbladet article ‘Hatet käner inga gränser' touching on this ideology and links with Denmark, Belgium, Austria and the UK).  Hard to say, on both counts. But I can say that the honeymoon for foreigners in Sweden appears to be ending.

Sweden used to be a monoculture of like-minded, racially similar and largely acquiescent or conformist people. Today, it is grappling to accommodate multiculturalism and to hold onto the moors of its once-famed and admired social system, which many (more) now perceive as no longer in everyone's best interest. 

The risk under the current regime is that the rhetoric could change from the longstanding ‘we understand your problem' to ‘shape up or ship out'. That hard line perhaps has a place in countries that started as multicultural hotpots, like and the USA, but for countries with strong and largely uniform baseline traditions and cultural norms, such a radical change in tune could easily be interpreted as dancing to a far right melody.

The big question now is, will the Norway attack galvanise moderates and free thinkers in the region to oppose radical right wing ideology? Indeed, debate is now raging in Sweden on the future of SD, and whether its star can really continue to rise now that the sleepy masses have been roused out of their slumber.

So, the world is watching how Norway reacts to its new reality, its new world, and a few observers are keeping an eye on any political and perhaps social repercussions in the Nordic region, and beyond.

This article is part of a special Chronikler series on far-right extremism. Published here with the author's consent. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.


  • Christian Nielsen

    Christian Nielsen is a journalist, copy writer and editor based in Brussels. He writes pretty much anything that takes his fancy, from the woes of travelling with kids to the dangers of antidepressants, but technology, EU affairs and science writing pay the bills.

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