Why The Far Right Has Flourished In Scandinavia

Analysis: After the deadly Norway attacks carried out in the name of fanatical conservative ideology, it is time for Northern Europe to take stock of its increasingly extreme views on the political right: from rabid defense of Danish cartoons to the rise

Mourners in Oslo (Jørund Myhre)
Mourners in Oslo (Jørund Myhre)
Gunnar Herrmann

OSLO - Is Anders Behring Breivik a lone madman or a terrorist? We are unlikely ever to understand what goes on in the head of a man who kills kids with dum-dum bullets. However, we must conclude from Breivik's manifesto that he himself saw the murders as a political act. And for that reason the attacks are going to have political consequences, regardless of the results of his court-assigned psychological evaluation.

The Breivik manifesto posted on the Internet is full of references to the so-called "Islam debate." Many of the points are familiar: they've been widely written about, and discussed, also by political parties. This is not to say that right-wing politicians and publicists, to whose views much of the material in the manifesto can be traced, are in any way directly responsible for the crimes. Words don't kill – but they can add up to a dangerous view of the world, and spur vile actions. Breivik found enough raw material in Scandinavian political debate to craft a 1,500-page justification of his mass killings. We must use that fact as a catalyst for reflection on Northern Europe's political climate.

Right-wing parties have a long tradition in northern countries. In the past few years, under the collective label of "right-wing populism," they've also made an astonishing rise on the political scene. The Sweden Democrats made it into the country's parliament in 2010. The Norwegian Progress Party has, since 2009, been the second strongest in that country's parliament. Nearly 20% of Finnish voters gave their votes to the True Finns just a few months ago. And the Danish Peoples' Party has been exercising considerable influence on government policies for the past 10 years. All this has contributed to a much rougher political climate across Scandinavia.

Of course, there are differences among the groups. The Sweden Democrats have their roots in the Neo-Nazi scene, while in Norway and Denmark the right-wing parties began with platforms for lowering taxes. The True Finns were originally a provincial movement that today is mainly identified by its opposition to the European Union.

However, the past few years have seen certain common themes emerge among all these parties: an anti-Islam stance, and the view that the European way of life and European culture are threatened by immigrants, particularly those from Muslim countries. These are issues for all the right-wing populist parties, and they are also central to Breivik's manifesto.

Cartoons and refugees

There are many reasons for northern European attraction to such ideas. The "cartoon crisis' and attack on Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard (who created the controversial image of the Prophet Mohammad with a bomb in his turban) play a role, as do periodic arrivals of fairly large groups of refugees. Compared with other countries, however, the number of foreigners in Northern Europe is average or even below average.

Many believe that northern populists have quite simply copied a concept that worked well in other countries. Researchers have for a while now been observing that Neo-Nazism and racism are losing ground, and that instead right-wing groups – radical activists as well as political parties – have cherry-picked Islam as the new enemy. The idea of a superior race is replaced by the idea of a superior Western culture that is supposedly irreconcilable with the values of immigrants from Muslim countries. And this change in perception has helped the right-wing parties. Warnings of "over-foreignization," "creeping Islamization," and "multiculturalism" are increasingly mainstream and do resonate with voters who never would have voted for these parties before.

The encroachment of the right has been palpable in Scandinavian capitals for some time now, and up to now has quite simply been taken on board, with other parties adjusting to the new reality – including the Social Democrats, a party that often loses significant numbers of votes when right-wing politicians campaign in working-class neighborhoods.

The encroachment is most marked in Copenhagen, where politicians on both sides of the political spectrum have been known to try and outdo each other with calls for tougher immigration laws. During elections, like this spring's vote in Finland, speculation inevitably arises about coalitions of left-wing and far-right parties.

Post-Utøya this will stop, at least for the time being. Right-wing parties everywhere have started to distance themselves from the attacks. They will only become credible, however, when they change their rhetoric and adjust their stance. The hate-filled words in Breivik's manifesto speak volumes about the attitude right-wingers encourage that fuses resentment and hostility for those unlike themselves. It is an attitude that has no place in the debates of democratic parties.

Read the original article in German

Jørund Myhre

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