The Norway Tragedy

By Farooq Sulehria for The News International

One does not expect funeral processions in paradise. The horrific events in Norway on July 22 – the bomb blast outside the office of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in Oslo, followed by a shooting spree in the holiday island of Utoya, which together claimed 92 lives – were this kind of tragedy, because they happened in a country which is a haven of peace.

The Oslo massacre has taken away its innocence from Norway. In the same way as the murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme in February 1986 marked the end of the fond myth of an eternally peaceful Sweden. He was shot as he walked home with his wife from a cinema in Stockholm.

As Pakistani-born activist Toni Usman notes in an email to his friends, Norwegian democracy is unique in that the prime minister and other ministers can go about their daily lives without security by their side. King Harald V “can travel by public transport without anyone batting an eyelid, and it is this democracy which is under attack.” A successful TV and stage actor, Usman himself is a shining example of tolerance in Norway, a country where royals, elite politicians and celebrities freely mix with commoners. Ordinary citizens live a life unheard-of in much of Europe, without violence or fear of theft. The Norwegian lifestyle may appear naive even to Europeans.

Secret addresses or telephone numbers are rare. Online, Yellow Pages will offer aerial shots of people’s homes, maps of areas where they live, even their email addresses. The press runs details on celebrities’ incomes and fortunes. “To them, living in an open society has been not just a privilege, but also a statement to the rest of the world; a display of how it is possible to live together in peace,” as a BBC correspondent commented.

After another assassination there in September 2003, when Foreign Minister Anna Lindh was stabbed in Stockholm, Sweden drew a security wedge between top politicians and ordinary Swedes. But Norway still resisted calls for greater home security.

Since July 22, all public places such as clubs and restaurants have been closed as these lines are being written on July 24. Parliament House is surrounded by troops. The Oslo city centre looks like a war zone.

Anders Behring Breivik, apparently the lone director and scriptwriter of the tragedy, has confessed to his crime. Norwegian and Swedish media are rife with reports about his extreme Islamophobic and anti-left views. It is not coincidence that Breivik unleashed his terror on activists of the Labour Youth Club, the youth wing of the Norwegian Labour Party.

Both the Labour Party and the AUF have been campaigning against racism. Ever since the 1950s, a summer camp at the island of Utoya has been a regular feature of AUF activities. (Most Scandinavian left parties, big or small, hold summer schools for the political education of their cadres.)

The Norwegian Labour Party, perhaps the most radical wing of social democracy in Europe, has a unique history. Once a member of Lenin’s Third International, the Norwegian Labour Party is staunchly pro-immigrant, in a country that has seen the phenomenal growth of the anti-Muslim Fremskritts Party (Progress Party). Breivik had been a member of the Fremskritts Party between 1999 and 2006.

In Norway, “Muslim” has become synonymous with the word “Pakistanien.” The carnage is therefore extremely significant for Pakistan because Pakistanis constitute Norway’s biggest immigrant community.

Until Breveik’s identity was revealed, Pakistani Norwegians remained behind closed doors, hoping against hope that no Pakistani link was found to the atrocity.

Ironically, when Breveik’s identity had been established, the Pakistani community began to invoke victimhood. Whitewashing even the crimes for which Al-Qaeda & Co. have claimed responsibility, some community leaders were heard saying, “Look! We are always implicated for nothing.”

In terms of proportion, Norway hosts the largest immigrant population of Pakistani origin in any European country. Yet the Pakistani media downplayed the tragedy, out of ignorance perhaps. An Al-Qaeda signature on the tragedy would have proved fatal not merely for Norwegian Pakistanis but also for the sizable Pakistani-Danish and the small Pakistani-Swedish populations.

The Norwegian leadership, as well as the media especially the daily Dagbladet, played a praiseworthy role in the immediate aftermath of twin tragedy. No knee-jerk response.

However, refusing to learn any lessons from the News of the World scandal, the Murdoch press was quick to discover Al-Qaeda footprints in Utoya. The Sun, the flagship of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in Britain, described the tragedy as “Norway’s 9/11.” The headline screamed: “AL-QAEDA MASSACRE.” (Yes, in capital letters.)

Qatar’s Al-Jazeera, as if in a bid to outdo even the Murdoch media, attributed the tragedy to Mullah Krekar, a Kurd from northern Iraq living in Norway. Mullah Krekar is a controversial character. When his asylum plea was rejected, he appealed to the courts to reconsider his case. However, he keeps declaring that his mission is to annihilate Western civilisation.

But such lucky escapes do not offer any respite from the growing fascism and religious fanaticism in Europe. Norwegian police seems to have been monitoring extremist Muslim outfits too closely to keep an eye on their Christian counterparts. The tragedy demonstrates yet again the dangers inherent in the “othering” of Muslims on the continent.

One hopes that the Norwegian paradise has been lost only temporarily, not forever. Prime Minister Stoltenberg has advised Norwegians to stay optimistic despite the tragedy. “The answer to violence is even more democracy. Even more humanity,” he says.

  1. July 26th, 2011
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