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Breivik’s Rival Political Narratives

Conspiracy theory in Norway is not a well-known subject outside of Norway. However, since the terror attacks of 22 July 2011, it’s getting a lot more attention. There is much to learn for comparative, cross-national study of conspiracy theory and rival political narratives through the Norwegian example – not least by focusing, contra the hype and alarmists, on how it is that Norwegian society has proven quite resilient to the spread of such theories, and their sometimes dangerous consequences. A new book on the far right by Norwegian investigative journalist Øyvind Strømmen provided a  starting point for our research on Norway in the context of our recently launched project  on short-circuiting rival political narratives.

 The Dark Web: Norway, conspiracy theories and the aftermath of the July 22 attack, By Øyvind Strømmen

Reviewed by Mari Tunby 

The mainstreaming of conspiracy theories

In 2009 on Norway’s, an influential website critical of immigration, the well-known Norwegian blogger Fjordman responded to a comment made by Anders Breivik about multiculturalism and the elites that apparently control it:

“My prediction,” he said, “is that the EU will find itself in internal dissolution within twenty years.” […] “Sooner or later,” he continued, “people will realise that, behind the population’s back, the EU and European leaders have already decided to allow continued Muslim colonisation of our continent. This the greatest betrayal in world history, and it is unbelievable that our so-called maktkritiske [critical of power] news media, including the country’s biggest newspaper VG, are not writing a single world about it. The fact is that western leaders are waging demographic and judicial warfare against the white majority population in western countries to break them down in favour of an authoritarian, post-democratic world order with themselves at the top.” (From Strømmen 2011: 57 [Quotes translated by the Mari Tunby])

This 2009 quote drawn from Norwegian commentator Øyvind Strømmen recent book Det mørke nettet: om høyreekstremisme, kontrajihadisme of terror i Europa [The dark web: of right-wing extremism, contra-Jihadism and terror in Europe] puts Breivik’s 2011 rampage in chilling perspective.  Breivik has since justified his actions as a defence of a white Christian Europe and now, in a nasty piece of theatrics, will put the establishment itself on trial by calling Islamic extremists to witness as part of his defence.

With Breivik’s actions, the conspiracy theory (which enabled the man to stitch together a story he, and some others, believe in) and the blogosphere (which provided him with a network in which the dichotomy between ‘organised terrorism’ and ‘lone wolf activism’ looks old fashioned) combined to awful and spectacular effect.

So, while Breivik is no doubt a radical outlier and extremist, Strømmen’s intent is to show us how insidious the kinds of conspiracy theories used by Breivik are, and how his words, if not his actions, do fit into a broader spectrum of opinions that are finding their way into mainstream political discourse and public life in Norway. As he has clarified in an interview, his central argument is that “anti-islamic conspiracy theories have found entry into established political rhetoric. We can hear centrist politicians use argumentation and words from groups they would otherwise not touch with a barge pole.” Norway, Strømmen argues, needs to face up to its challenges, and acknowledge it has a darker side – something that, with its national myth of being an egalitarian, wealthy and peaceful society – it is apparently struggling to do.

But for most that Norway – little Norway, the land of fjords and cross-country skiing, of openness – could be embroiled in something like that came as grievous shock for many.

The end of the Norwegian myth?

 What happened in Oslo and Utøya thrust Norway into the world’s limelight. Of the Nordic countries Sweden, and to a lesser extent Denmark, has been in the sights of political scientists with an interest in the far right for years. But for most that Norway – little Norway, the land of fjords and cross-country skiing, of openness, the Nobel Peace Prize and actually existing social democracy – could be embroiled in something like that came as grievous shock for many. But perhaps it was not entirely unforeseeable. Nor should it be passed off lightly as merely some of the froth and fury of an extreme right and singularly unhinged individual. At least, this appears to be Strømmen’s contention.

The reaction outside of Norway of shock and surprise is no doubt underpinned by some idealised assumptions about Norwegian society and the Nordic model. But, like many countries, Norway is dealing with the hard facts of globalization, immigration debates and xenophobia. These debates are, however, playing themselves out in specific ways here. Sadly Breivik’s case, and the country’s particular political culture and system, makes Norway an important comparative site within which to study the epidemiology of populist xenophobic conspiracy theories.

With a journalist’s eye for detail, Strømmen provides an exhaustive and convincing account of the patterns of communication and linkages that lurk in cyberspace– in Norway itself and between Norway and a wider global and European conspiratorial community. Plumbing the depths of the internet, he commands unrivalled knowledge of a large range of on-going and detailed narratives and conversations that he has been following for years. (His expertise saw him called as an expert witness to give evidence at the 22 July Commission after the attacks.)

Strømmen’s writing traces how the ideas originating amongst extremists have trickled down, via the conduit pipes of conspiracy theory, into fairly mainstream attitudes and agendas. It may not be enough to look at conspiracy theory as a catalyst for radicalism (or as a DEMOS report of 2010 put it, a ‘radicalising muliplier’). He enjoins us to think of conspiracy as an influence that works in the other direction as well: a way of shifting and framing mainstream debate in ways that are simplistic, poorly evidenced, and occasionally dangerous.  In this argument conspiracy feeds the mainstream first, and the radicals later.

With this ‘mainstreaming’ in mind however, it’s worth remembering that in the process many of the ‘dangers’ are diluted and socially processed. While it understandable to be shocked that something like this could happen in Norway, it’s equally remarkable to note how resilient Norwegian society has proven. Breivik does appear to have ‘changed everything’. The ways in which a society achieves this resilience, through institutions and culture, is crucial, and this is not a dimension that Strømmen tackles.

The Three waves of Norwegian Extremism: Conspiracies and The New Resistance Movement

The Dark Web breaks the narrative of right wing extremism in Norway into three broad waves, all of them overlapping since the late 1970’s. The first is characterised by neo-Nazi extremism of the sort that can also be found in roughly similar forms throughout Scandinavia, as well as in other parts of Europe. The second wave, he says, is distinctly not neo-Nazi – it has even included people and groups who saw action as a part of the Norwegian resistance movement during the Second World War. This second wave took on a more overtly anti-immigration aim, and parts of this movement have apparently seamlessly morphed into the current third wave: strident anti-Islamism; This last one emerging most forcefully after 9/11. In Strømmen’s words, the third wave is ‘perverted criticism of Islam mixed with conspiracy theories‘.

Understanding contemporary Norwegian far right conspiracism requires understanding 20th century Norwegian nationalism. In particular, as Tore Bjørgo (1995) has argued, one needs to recognise the crucial influence Nazi occupation and the Norwegian resistance movement had on the national psyche. Unlike in Sweden, the political myth of modern Norway and of Norwegian national identity is deeply linked to this narrative of defence and traitors, resistance, and of liberty and independence. This is why it is possible to use Bjørgo’s term ‘the new resistance’ to describe much second and third wave far right activity.

It is from within this history that a feeling that the primary enemy is the political establishment itself has emerged. In a manner that easily dovetails with traditional populist anti-elitism and a defence of the ‘real people’ against a conspiring and selfish establishment, the ‘new resistance movements’ imply an equation between modern-day governments and Quisling’s collaborationist government during WW2. As Bjørgo put it, the fight against ‘national traitors’ and ‘foreign invaders’ go together and are both equally justified (Bjørgo 1995: 183).  Breivik’s ‘manifesto’ and ‘crusade’ narrative (entitled 2083 – European Declaration of Independence) is clearly redolent with such imagery and themes, and he glories in the actions of WW2 resistance heroes.

What is interesting for the purposes of our project is the contrast between these extreme beliefs and the high degrees of trust in state and government that Norwegians still report – their resilience.  This suggests that we are really dealing with a fringe movement that does not have widespread popular support in any form. Only a very small proportion of Norwegian’s are likely to subscribe to explicit violent or xenophobic conspiracy theories of any kind– in contradistinction to some other countries where conspiracy theories are perhaps more rife.

Yet this shifts the focus on the impact of conspiracy theories onto mainstream society and beliefs.  This is where their impact seems to be greatest –not in garnering outright support for hard-line conspiracies and violence but in profoundly reshaping the debate, particularly in the areas of multiculturalism and immigration.

‘Islamophobia’ and the Eurabia Conspiracy

 In 2008, an anonymous comment on a blog post on VG, the largest Norwegian newspaper about Mohammed becoming the most popular name for baby boys, read as follows:

“To all of you who, over these past few years, have had a suspicion that we were right, to all of you who have sat on the fence and have not dared to take a stand, and to all of you who have been looking for ‘decisive proof’ that the cultural immigration has grown out of control: Here it is … The contrived guilt that Norwegian authorities have historically used to justify the helping of anyone and everyone has led us into this quagmire.  (…) Norway, as all Norwegians over 30 have known it, is lost. It is gone, most likely for all eternity.” (From Strømmen 2011: 94)

 Back in 1995 Tore Bjørgo noted the relatively minor role that Islamic conspiracy theorising played in Norwegian and Danish anti-immigration rhetoric. But, he warned: “[a]s fear of Islam replaces communism as the perceived threat to Western Civilisation, Islamic conspiracy theories are likely to become more and more elaborate and appealing” (1995: 208).

He has been proven right in many respects. While there was widespread and immediate recoil from anti-Islam attitudes’ following the horror of 22 July, Norway has nevertheless experienced a steady increase in immigration scepticism, usually directed at the ‘culturally other’ Muslim. For the far right in particular, this ‘crisis’ has reached significantly conspiratorial proportions.

‘Eurabia’, for those unfamiliar with it, implicates Muslim groupings and countries in the cultural and demographic colonisation of Europe through the conscious and relatively systematic manipulation of immigration policy by often hidden influencers. The main actors in this story are usually considered to be national European governments alongside various elite alliances, including politicians, journalists, academics, religious leaders and the financial sector who it is claimed act as a supranational cabal against the true interests of the native population. Italian journalist and prominent promoter of the theory Oriana Fallaci describes it as ‘the biggest conspiracy in modern history’ in which Europe has ‘sold itself like a slut to the sultans.’ (Quote from Strømmen 2011: 81)

In Norway as in much of Europe it is the Eurabia conspiracy that has taken hold of the hard line anti-immigrationists. In Breivik’s case, it provided his pan-European momentum, connecting him to large numbers of like-minded people. The Eurabia conspiracy is central to the notion of a ‘new resistance’ and Strømmen’s ‘third wave’ of far right activity in Norway.

Conspiracy theories and the romanticisation of violence

It’s difficult to connect belief in a particular conspiracy theory directly to violent actions or intentions, but in the case of Norway the issue is bound to arise. Certainly there is no doubt that the Eurabia conspiracy has an especially violent discourse, and it glorifies violent behaviour with language of defence, honour and crusades. The narrative is often of the ‘one true believer’ variety—a lone individual heroically performing a terrible but necessary deed. Discussing Breivik’s idolisation of WW2 resistance, Terje Emberland notes ‘an implicit need to use violence in occupation rhetoric.’

The narrative is often of the ‘one true believer’ variety—a lone individual heroically performing a terrible but necessary deed.

Øyvind Strømmen agrees, indicating an inherent romanticisation of violence in many of these conspiracies. Strømmen’s  blog points to celebrity blogger Fjordman (Peder Nøstvold Jensen in real life) as a major voice in this area. Fjordman’s writing is seen to have been a decisive influence on Breivik, and his essays make up the lion’s share of Breivik’s cut-and-paste ‘manifesto’. Fjordman, described by counterjihad website Gates of Vienna as ‘one of the best of us’, will also appear as a witness in Breivik’s trial.

Of Fjordman Strømmen writes:

Now, of course Fjordman claims – both as Fjordman and as Peder Jensen – that he has never encouraged violence. Well, frankly, I don’t think you have to. If you’re saying that Jens Stoltenberg [Norwegian Prime Minister], for instance, is actually a worse traitor than Quisling [Minister-President during German WW2 occupation of Norway], if you’re saying that Europe is being occupied and colonised, if you’re saying that politicians, journalists and academics – across the political spectrum – are willingly playing a part in this… if you’re saying all of this, politically motivated violence does not seem like an absurd idea; the step into violence is not a big one.

This model implies a semi-causal relationship between conspiratorial beliefs and violent actions. But this link necessarily remains somewhat tenuous. Here the argument is that conspiratorial beliefs can function like catalysts: they operate as ideologies that grease the wheels, that work as ‘multipliers’, edging people toward extremism.

We would argue, as Strømmen appears to do too, that it might be more fruitful to leave the relationship to violence to one side (in part because the type of individual and individual circumstances make the causal link difficult to posit for certain) and concentrate on the more subtle and corrosive effects of conspiracy theory on governance and political processes. In particular, how xenophobic conspiracy theory may be undermining positive debate on multiculturalism and on immigration by becoming a part of the ideology of many in the ‘acceptable’ populist mainstream. Although it is unlikely that such conspiracy theories in Norway will gain significant enough traction to actually destabilize trust in the institutions of liberal democracy itself (as it may in some other countries), it could nevertheless become a real obstacle as the country moves forward in specific policy areas.

Nearly a year on since 22 July, it’s also time to reassess the alarmism that it brought in it’s wake, and perhaps some of Strømmen’s work was caught up in to some extent. In many respects, abhorrence of Breivik’s acts have strengthened aspects of the civil society and institutions that work against extremist and xenophobic conspiracy theorising.

Blaming “the system”?

For many it was shocking how quickly the tone of the debate switched after 22 July. Although the vast majority of people hated Breivik and his actions, a sense that it was Breivik himself who was let down by a system that has failed to deal with the challenges of multiculturalism nevertheless appeared to creep into many public discussions. It’s in this sense that Strømmen writes ‘Breivik may have been a lone wolf in his actions, but not in his convictions.’

In recent years, this has become part of what is known, slightly disparagingly, as the ‘multikulti’ debate. Why has multiculturalism taken on these hues?

Theories like Eurabia may be contributing to framing multiculturalism as a conspiracy theory, or something akin to it. As senior researcher at the Centre for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities Cora Døving has commented, it could be that through the act of repeatedly claiming that the shape of contemporary society is a result of ‘multiculturalism’, it’s opponents impart the impression that the changes that Norway is currently experiencing are a result of a certain type of policy, rather than the result of economic and cultural dynamics.

Often, as Lena Lindgren (a journalist from the Morgenbladet weekly) put it , this growing banality of conspiracy theory will take the form of a knowing, ‘you’re on to something there’ nod.  Eurabia (alongside climate and related scepticism), she says, has become the most common form of ‘acceptable’ conspiracy thinking.

The Progress party and conspiracy theories

Breivik was clearly influenced by the Eurabia myth. But as Terje Emberland comments, this interpretation of immigration policy is something that he actually shares with the right-wing populist Progress Party [Frp] amongst others. Indeed Frp – of which Breivik was once a member –has played a role in the banalization of conspiracy theory. It’s from their  leader Siv Jensen that another new word entered the Norwegian political vocabulary in 2009: snikislamisation – literally, sneak-Islamisation. Indicating stealth and secrecy, the term encourages suspicion of the ways on which immigration issues are being handled. Reminiscent of the Eurabia thesis, the narrative is one of creeping takeover and an implied neglect of the needs and worries of the ‘real Norwegians.’

Strømmen emphasises that the Progress Party [Frp] should not be lumped together with more extreme right-wing parties in Europe – like Jobbik in Hungary, as it occasionally is. He also points out that the Progress Party is not (really) a part of a radical nationalist movement, nor does it have any fascist roots. Yet he sees them as having contributed more than any other political party to normalising conspiracy theories and extreme right-wing thinking, and thus paving the way for  the views of groups such as SIAN (Stopp islamiseringen av Norge – ‘Stop the Islamisation of Norway’) and the Norwegian Defence League.

In his analysis, the conspiratorial ideas of people like Fjordman filter through the blogosphere, the media, and eventually into mainstream political debate. And it is the rhetoric of the Frp in particular that allows them to resurface in more polished or less offensive forms.

Sometimes, the accusation that multiculturalism is a conspiracy is made quite explicitly however. For example, in July 2010, Frp politician Kent Andersen wrote:

‘Today’s immigration industry and cultural invasion has never been decided anywhere. To make Norway multicultural is a decision that had been made in the back-room, in secret. By a small number of people who believe it is a smashing idea to have multi-culture rather than Norwegian culture. But they realised that there never would be a majority in favour of 100 000 Muslims in Oslo.  That is why they just went ahead with it. Without telling anyone about the plans in advance.

The situation in Norway today has never been examined in advance. There are no warnings, no hearing documents, no descriptions in party programmes, no impact analyses and no plans for how to succeed. The plans about the “multicultural Norway” were never presented in Parliament and were never voted on there or in a popular referendum. And the immigration cap was never repealed in order to get an indication of what was about to happen. In other words, one can be tempted to say that today’s Norway is a result of a coup d’etat.’ (From Strømmen 2011: 162)

Such pronouncements make it clear that conspiratorial worldviews are attempts to twist perceptions of democratic institutions: as the ‘one true believer’ standing up for the interests of the people, the conspiracy theory believer denounces the anti-democratic enemy.

Typically, ‘multikulti’ criticism takes less spectacular forms however, functioning not as outright, conscious conspiracy thinking but more in terms of direct or underhand accusations of wilful negligence or by insinuation. In 2010 for example, representatives from Frp’s more immigration-sceptical wing published an opinion piece in Aftenposten, a national newspaper, in which they asked: what is wrong with Norwegian culture as the governing Labour Party appeared intent on replacing it? Echoing the narratives of occupations and treachery common in the extreme right, they claimed real Norwegian’s were being ‘stabbed in the back’ through the establishment’s carelessness.

Norwegian society, he argues, has allowed violent and fringe perspectives to enter into the mainstream relatively unchallenged.

How did we let this happen?

 Strømmen ends on a dark note: Norwegian society, he argues, has allowed violent and fringe perspectives to enter into the mainstream relatively unchallenged. Why has the country not learnt from years of violent right-wing activism? Arguing for a sense of collective responsibility he asks: how did we let this happen?

Perhaps Norway needs to shed something of its idealised pallor, or perhaps it is working off such a low base that the very existence of such forces seems all the more shocking.

Strømmen’s work is an up-to-date introduction to the far-right and associated contemporary conspiracy theorising. But there remains a lot more to be understood about the inner workings of Norwegian society and political culture – not least the ways in which extremist conspiracy theorists are actually a very small constituency and are being actively and often successfully combated. While conspiracy theorising is not negligible and does appear to be shaping some important mainstream political debates it cannot be said to be rife by any yardstick. And this fact is especially remarkably given the outwardly devastating consequences of 22 July.

On the whole, we still need to understand the circuits in which conspiracy theory forms and moves in the context of such a highly educated, economically egalitarian and state-directed society. Where do the differences and similarities between Norway and other European national contexts lie in this regard?

We surely need to probe the specifics of the Norwegian system:  the much admired state-citizen contract with its nevertheless top-down, Oslo-centric command and control structure. Might it facilitate the perception that things are getting decided upon by small number of elites? How does this system react to increased diversity?  Or to the massive explosion of horizontal trade, travel and communications networks that have developed ‘down below’, and are connecting up to the marginalised but hard core right wing? Why do some people (even if it is a small number) feel sufficiently left out of the benefits of globalisation and social change to require a conspiring enemy, and what are the long term implications of corrosive conspiracy theorising for the social democratic model that relies on high degrees of trust between groups, and between the people and the state itself?

In conclusion..

 More research in general needs to be done into how the conspiratorial worldview, with its xenophobic populist allies, can breed distrust in the liberal and democratic institutions and widen social schisms; how it might unhinge confidence in process and leadership and drives political parties towards increasingly polarised attitudes. This means surmounting the sensationalism of many hard line conspiracy theorists’ claims  (and those of the alarmists’) and finding strategies to take the subject seriously as a source of unhelpful attitudes, without lending its protagonists credence or unwarranted attention. This is a part of the challenge that Counterpoint and Political Capital are accepting in our joint project on understanding and combating conspiracy theory as a driver of xenophobic populism.

For our work, Norway should prove a modest yet valuable comparator case, by reason of some very distinct historical, social and economic factors.


Further References

Tore Bjørgo (1995) Terror from the Extreme Right. Frank Cass: London

Øyvind Strømmen (2011) Det mørke nettet: om høyreekstremisme, kontrajihadisme of terror i Europa [The dark web: of right-wing extremism, contra-Jihadism and terror in Europe], Cappelen Damm: Oslo.

Anders Ravik Jupskås (2009) ‘Høyrepopulisme på norsk – Historien om Anders Langes Parti og Fremskrittspartiet’ [‘Right-wing populism in Norwegian – the History of Anders Langes Party and the Progress Party’], in Simonsen, T.E. and Kjøstvedt, A.G. Høyrepopulisme i Vest-Europa [Right-wing Populism in Western Europe], Unipub: Oslo

Research supported by the OPEN SOCIETY FOUNDATIONS


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