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Anti-immigration party occupies the center of an uneasy debate in Norway


MORTENSRUD, Norway » Lise and Kjetil Ulvestrand came to this town south of Oslo in 2005 for the space, the views, the forest and the cheaper rents. Lise 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 non-ethnic Norwegian majority was growing rapidly.

So the Ulvestrands decided last summer to move back into comfortable western 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. Breivik, who was convicted of mass murder and terrorism, had been a member of the Progress Party, attracted by its anti-Islamic slant, from 1999 until he was removed from the rolls in 2006 for not paying dues, having quit the party because it was not sufficiently radical.

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 has raised some eyebrows; quite unfairly, said Ketil Solvik-Olsen, minister of transportation and communication and a deputy leader of the party.

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, Solvik-Olsen scoffed at the notion that the party had anything to do with 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, 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."

Solvik-Olsen was the chairman of the Oslo section of the Progress Party when 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. "Yet they firmly belong with other parties, some of which are arguably more extreme, that see immigrants and in particular Muslims as a threat to the integrity of society," he said.

Even as the Progress Party is promoting more moderate faces like Solvik-Olsen for positions in government, it is being criticized by older, more ideological members and beginning to lose support in opinion polls.

"They’ve gotten more housebroken," said Anders Romarheim, a fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies. At the same time, he said, the new acceptability of the party may have encouraged the fierce anti-Islam opinion that remains prevalent on Norwegian social media, if moderated in public and political comment.

But there is also a new reticence about public rhetoric, the prime minister said. "Part of the discussion about immigration and integration has slightly changed," she said. "We still have strong discussions, but there is a more careful voice."

Public discussion of Islam is less about "their beliefs or their color, it’s more about lack of education and need for training," Solberg said. 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.

The backlash to naving — the sense that the country is getting soft and giving too much money to slackers and foreigners — was an important part of the Conservative-Progress Party victory. Those who get benefits should be in training or other useful activity, "so you can’t stay at home and play video games and get benefits — to be passive increases problems," Solberg said.

Tore Bjorgo, who studies right-wing extremism at the Norwegian Police University College, said the Progress Party was hard to classify, since it also favors lower taxes, more business-friendly regulations and better protections for the elderly, as well as eliminating toll booths.

"It’s a democratic party," he said, with members who are racist and xenophobic and others who are not. "But it has elements that bring up some of the mud from under the surface of politics," he said, and the party "wants to keep those votes."

Hylland Eriksen said Breivik’s massacre had 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.


Steven Erlanger, New York Times

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