What has Norway learned from the Utøya attack 10 years ago? Not what I hoped

Show caption A memorial in Sundvollen overlooking Utøya island near Oslo, Norway, a few days after the 22 July 2011 assault. Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Opinion What has Norway learned from the Utøya attack 10 years ago? Not what I hoped Sindre Bangstad The deaths of 69 young Labour activists failed to prompt a reckoning with the far-right ideas that motivated Anders Breivik Thu 22 Jul 2021 11.00 BST Share on Facebook

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Any visitor to the island of Utøya, some 38 kilometres from Oslo, is immediately struck by the smallness of it. It measures no more than 26 acres. It was here that, 10 years ago this month, Anders Behring Breivik massacred 69 people attending a Norwegian Labour party youth camp. As one walks along the island’s tiny, winding paths, it is not difficult to imagine the sheer horror of it all, as teenagers, full of life, joy and laughter, suddenly realised that the shots being fired in the distance were not firecrackers, that the visitor dressed in a fake police uniform was a murderer, and that the island had all too few places in which to hide.

As Norway approaches the 10-year anniversary, and as far-right and anti-Muslim violence remains a feature of our political culture across the world, it is worth looking back at the lessons learned and those missed from this dark chapter in my country’s history.

Memories wound, and often divide more than they unite. It was not only the unprecedented scale and horror of the rightwing extremist terrorism that took place on Utøya and at the government’s executive headquarters in Oslo on 22 July 2011 that inflicted such a profound blow on Norwegians at large. Breivik’s terrorist attacks also posed a profound challenge to the longstanding national sense of Norwegian exceptionalism when it comes to racism. I was among those who argued at the time for a national reckoning with the far-right, racist and Islamophobic ideology that had motivated Breivik. For I knew perfectly well that his ideas about Islam, Muslims and the left were much more common among Norwegians than many were willing to let on. But Norwegian society didn’t take this route.

The already extensive literature on the 22 July attacks has recently been complemented by numerous new accounts in books written by survivors. They provide harrowing and chilling details, and make it clear that many survivors wanted such a reckoning, focused on the politics of rightwing Islamophobia. But in government, the Labour party faced the political and moral conundrum of choosing between an inclusive political rhetoric, casting these terrorist attacks as attacks on all Norwegians, or emphasising the fact that it had been the Norwegian left in particular that had been targeted. The staff at the prime minister’s office and the then PM, Jens Stoltenberg, chose the former.

That choice had a number of consequences. For it meant that any talk of the undeniable links between the conspiratorial and anti-Muslim world views of Breivik and the wider populist right – including the Progress party, of which Breivik had been a member for several years – became taboo. The mainstream media’s sudden shift from the discourse of terrorism to talk of “tragedy” and “catastrophe” once it became known that the perpetrator was a white, Norwegian rightwing extremist, rather than a radicalised Muslim, was telling in this regard.

Norwegians also quickly learned that for editors in a media that is overwhelmingly white and middle class, the proverbial answer to racist hate speech was “more and freer speech”. Ever-widening media platforms were offered to far right activists in Norway in the name of defending “free speech”. One of Breivik’s main ideological inspirations, the blogger Fjordman, would receive a stipend in 2013 from the private Norwegian organisation Fritt Ord Foundation, to write an exculpatory book. The editor of one of Breivik’s favoured online news sources, Document.no, was admitted to the Association of Norwegian Editors in 2018.

The parliamentary elections of September 2013 paved the ground for the most rightwing coalition government in Norwegian history. This was a government that included the Progress party for the first time. The closely intertwined anti-Muslim and anti-social democratic sentiment had made it all the way into government, just two years after the massacre.

Commemorative speeches about the massacre by the Conservative PM Erna Solberg would rarely refer to the fact that it was Norwegian social democrats who were killed and maimed on that day. Solberg’s stock response to, say, inflammatory comments that traded in anti-Muslim sentiment from her Progress party cabinet ministers would be a vague, non-commital criticism. In a context in which Norwegian far-right trolls regularly contacted survivors of the Utøya massacre with hate messages and death threats, and Breivik was permitted to send threatening private letters to survivors, the Norwegian Progress party and Conservative party MPs would soon be accusing the Labour party of “pulling the 22 July card”.

The Progress party’s favourite thinkthank, the Human Rights Service, has enjoyed government-backed state funding. Having learned that free speech rhetoric plays well with Norwegian liberals, the far-right and racist group Stop the Islamisation of Norway has spent several years travelling the country, under heavy police protection, regularly desecrating the Qur’an in town squares. (Such behaviour is legal: Norway abolished blasphemy laws in 2015.)

Neither the sorrow nor the burden was equally shared among Norwegians. We know from research that Progress party voters were among those least likely to take part in the commemorative events after the 2011 attacks. Activists on municipal council and local neighbourhood associations in Hole fought tooth and nail in order to prevent a national memorial to the victims of the massacre at Utøya from being built. After a decade, it took a court decision earlier this year in order to stop them. It has been documented that up to 70% of Progress party respondents believe that the Labour party has “used” 22 July 2011 for political gains.

As the social democratic Labour party looks likely to return to government after this September’s elections, the anti-Muslim and anti-social democratic hatred that was expressed so violently in 2011 is still very much with us. That said, since immigration has trickled to a halt because of Norway’s stringent new asylum policies and the Covid-19 pandemic, and is currently very low on the list of voters’ concerns, it seems unlikely that a Labour party in power will follow directly in the footsteps of their anti-immigrant sister party in government in Denmark.

There are grounds for hope. The countervailing tendencies to the far right and populist right are to chiefly be found among the many young Norwegians of all colour and creeds growing up in increasingly multicultural neighbourhoods where everyday conviviality has long been a facet of life. It is also to be found in the slowly but steadily declining numbers of Norwegians who have a negative overall view of immigrants and immigration. And last, but not least, it is to be found among the many young activists who, inspired by Black Lives Matter and other social movements in recent years, have replenished the ranks of the Norwegian anti-racist movement and provided it with a new energy and dynamism. As for the survivors from Utøya, they are and remain an integral part of these countervailing tendencies, and have pledged “always to remember and never to remain silent”.

Sindre Bangstad is a Norwegian social anthropologist, and the author of Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia