Norway Terror Stigmatizes Islam Haters as Labor’s Appeal at Decade High
Anders Behring Breivik’s efforts to galvanize anti-Islam sentiment in Norway after last month’s hate killings have given the ruling party he sought to destroy its biggest tailwind in more than a decade.
Support for Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s Labor Party, targeted by Breivik in the July 22 bombing and shootings that left 77 dead, soared to more than 40 percent, two polls showed this week. If a vote were held today, that would be the best result since the 1985 election. Approval of Stoltenberg’s handling of the crisis is at more than 90 percent, polls show.
“It’s the first time in Norway that the popularity rating of an elected politician is higher than that of the King,” said Frank Aarebrot, a politics professor at the University of Bergen, in a phone interview. Since the attacks, Labor’s policies mean it enjoys “the strongest legitimacy. My guess is that the effect will last a couple of years.”
Breivik’s 1,500-page manifesto, published a few hours before his killing spree, railed against the “Islamization” of Norway and Europe, a trend he said he would try to halt through his terror acts. Yet the anti-immigration Progress Party that Breivik had sought to champion now faces a backlash as a key campaigning point is stigmatized ahead of local elections on Sept. 12. That’s left the group, Parliament’s second-biggest, with an identity crisis.
“They will try to keep a low profile on immigration, immigrants, threats from the Muslims,” Anders Todal Jenssen, a political science professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, said by phone. Without the attacks “they would have focused on immigration as a very important issue,” he said.
Backing for Labor, which was re-elected in 2009 on pledges to improve welfare without raising taxes, surged 11 percentage points in the month through July 30 to 41.7 percent, the highest result since September 1998, according to a Synovate poll. A TNS Gallup poll for TV2 showed a 9.2 point rise in support for Labor to 40.5 percent, a 12-year high. The opposition Conservatives slipped almost five points to 23.7 percent in the Synovate poll, while the Progress Party, of which Breivik was a member from 1999 to 2004, dropped three points to 16.5 percent.
Since the killings, more Norwegians say they now embrace multiculturalism, according to an Aug. 1 InFact AS poll published by Verdens Gang. Twenty-six percent of those questioned said they were more positive toward a multi-ethnic Norway than before the attacks. Nine percent were more negative and 49 percent said they hadn’t changed their opinion.
‘Lost Its Legitimacy’
“The anti-Islam argument has lost its legitimacy,” said Johannes Bergh, a political scientist at the Institute for Social Research in Oslo, in a phone interview. “You can’t make the type of arguments that the Progress Party has been making in terms of Islam being a danger to society or a threat to Norwegian culture. You just can’t say that anymore.”
The prime minister’s party is now poised to win next month’s local elections. Polls before July 22 had shown it was set to lose.
Stoltenberg isn’t the first leader to see his approval ratings rise following attacks against his citizens. Support for former U.S. President George W. Bush jumped to 90 percent after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, according to Gallup. Backing later fell below 30 percent at the end of his second term.
Stoltenberg has won admiration from voters for avoiding traps that risk polarizing the debate in Norway. He has even urged lawmakers and media not to vilify anti-immigration policies.
“We should not start a witch hunt against those opinions that we don’t agree with,” he told reporters on Aug. 1.
Bush, by contrast, in 2001 pledged to hunt down those responsible for the September attacks, and said he wanted Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.”
Siv Jensen, who as the leader of Norway’s Progress Party has warned of “sneak-Islamization,” said Breivik’s attacks shouldn’t silence the immigration debate.
“In the time that lies ahead, we need even more freedom of expression,” Jensen said in an Aug. 1 interview. “It is important to me that we all can combine freedom of expression with dignity and I think we will manage that, even if it is a new terrain for us.”
Still, the party may need to modify its tone in the debate, Jensen told reporters this week.
“We’ve all changed our behavior and we won’t be the same as before,” Jensen said.
Norway received the second-highest number of new asylum- seekers per inhabitant after Sweden last year, according to a survey of 44 industrialized nations by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Non-western immigrants and their children last year accounted for 9.4 percent of Norway’s population. In Germany, non-western immigrants made up 6 percent, data from the national statistics offices of each country show.
Voters upset with this trend should be free to say so, Stoltenberg told reporters on July 27.
“We have to be very clear to distinguish between extreme views, which are completely legal and legitimate,” he said. “What is not legitimate is to try to implement those extreme views by using violence.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Josiane Kremer in Oslo at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tasneem Brogger at email@example.com
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