Mohammad Usman Rana: Our multicultural democracy made us vulnerable

Figures show that Norway has a Muslim population of 120,000 to 150,000, yet there are no ghetto-like neighbourhoods such as in London and Bradford

Tuesday 26 July 2011 00:00 BST

How could such a tragedy take place in Norway? These attacks have changed my country and how the rest of the world perceives an ordinarily peaceful, beautiful and harmonious nation that often tops the UN's quality of life rankings.

These attacks were, according to Anders Behring Breivik, because of the nature of Norwegian society: open, progressive and – most importantly – multicultural. In his bizarre and Islamophobic 1,500-plus page manifesto and video, he expressed his desire for "genuine Europeans" to fight multicultural society and cleanse the continent of Muslims. He argues that those who make multiculturalism happen should be exterminated. In his mind, these people include the political establishment, the mainstream media and what he characterises as "politically correct" Norwegians as a whole. Moreover, he emphasises the myth of Eurabia, the outlandish conspiracy theory of a Muslim takeover of Europe.

These ideas are not unique to Norway, or Europe. But what had not been anticipated was that Norway would be the first European country to be attacked in such a way by an anti-multiculturalist extremist. For Norway is a well-functioning, multicultural society. The political attitude towards minorities here has been integrationist and inclusive.

In our capital Oslo, 20-25 per cent of the population, has a non-Norwegian background. Immigrants from Pakistan, Turkey and Morocco in the late 1960s and early 1970s introduced Islam to Norway, and reflect the current composition of the Muslim population. Recent figures show that the total Muslim population of Norway is 120,000 to 150,000, yet there are no challenging ghetto-like neighbourhoods as in London and Bradford. The second generation of immigrants who were restaurant owners, cab drivers and factory workers have proven to be academically ambitious. Compared to other European countries they are well-integrated and have a sense of belonging.

There have only been isolated tensions between anti-Muslim groups and Norwegian Muslims. Anti-Muslim interest groups have not got any political stronghold because of the country's responsible political classes who have defended the liberal state for all. On the non-socialist side of the spectrum, the Norwegian Conservative Party, which has similarities with the Tories in Britain, has played a key role in making the more populist and right-wing Progress Party less powerful.

Norway differs from countries like Denmark, Holland, Switzerland and France where anti-multiculturalism has gained political power and where tensions between minorities and the majority are greater. So we need to look beyond Norway. Experts and academics have pointed to the fact that Breivik is part of a growing and modern Western European right-wing, anti-Islamic movement. The internet and blogosphere have become the main arena for exchanging ideas and for recruitment.

Unsurprisingly, Breivik in his manifesto refers to leading non-Norwegian critics of Islam like Daniel Pipes, Robert Spencer and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as well as local ones: Hans Rustad – the founder of a right-wing website – and the anonymous blogger "Fjordman".

This does not imply that being a critic of Islam equals being a terrorist or supporting terrorism. Nevertheless, as Muslims must analyse why some Muslim extremists misuse Islam to commit terrorism, anti-Muslim and right-wing thinkers carefully have to examine whether their ideologies, conspiracy theories and demonization of Muslims have the potential of radicalizing individuals.

The Norwegian democracy had been one where, until Friday, politicians could meet ordinary people without bodyguards. This openness had made us more vulnerable. And with this attack, more united.

Mohammad Usman Rana is a doctor and columnist for Norway's 'Aftenposten' newspaper

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