Norway ten years after the Utøya massacre

Multicultural and multireligious Norway is here to stay, and undefeatedly so.

People lay flowers following a vigil walk near Utoya Island on July 26, 2011 in Sundvolden, Norway. [Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images]

Last week, Norway marked 10 years since the darkest day in its recent history. On July 22, 2011, a white Norwegian right-wing extremist set off a bomb that killed eight people at Government Headquarters in Oslo. Then, he proceeded to the small island of Utøya, some 60km from the capital, where he massacred 69 people, most of them teenagers attending the annual summer camp of the social-democratic Labour Party Youth (AUF), in a shooting spree that lasted well over an hour.

A decade after the events of July 22, 2011, the question of a true reckoning with what happened on that day remains unsettled. Norwegian society has to confront the reality that led to the terror attack so this tragedy never repeats.

From conspiracy to terror

The post-July 22 political rhetoric was dominated by a unifying message that those were attacks on all “Norwegians” and on “Norwegian democracy”, but this claim was not entirely true. Those were politically motivated attacks on a particular group of Norwegians – namely Norwegian social democrats, and more specifically the Norwegian Labour Party, which was then in power, and its youth organisation, the AUF.

The perpetrator, a déclassé son of a senior Norwegian social democrat diplomat who had left him in the hands of a single mother with psychological problems, bore particular resentment for this group. After a 10-year stint as a member of the populist right-wing Progress Party, he had self-radicalised in the online swamp of far-right, racist websites.

The conspiratorial “Eurabia” writings of Norwegian far-right blogger Peder Are Nøstvold Jensen (aka Fjordman) and his ideological predecessor, Swiss-Israeli doyenne of the “counter-jihadist” ideology Gisele Littmann (aka Bat Ye’or) had convinced the perpetrator that Norway and Europe as a whole could only be “saved” from civilisational decline if they were ethnically cleansed of Muslims by means of violence and terror.

He came to believe that Norway’s small population of Muslims who had come to Norway in the 1960s and 1970s as labour migrants from countries like Pakistan, Turkey and Morocco, were actually an “Islamic fifth column” hellbent on turning Norway into an Islamic state. And that political elites in power, from the EU bureaucrats in Brussels to Norwegian social democrats, had secretly been working hand-in-hand with Muslim countries in order to achieve this very objective.

The fact that it was actually the social-democratic Labour Party that engineered the 1975 parliamentary Immigration Stop policy, which amid white trade union panic over the arrival of Muslim labour migrants sought to halt “non-Western labour migration” to Norway, did not matter to him. The perpetrator held his diplomat father’s social-democratic Labour Party responsible for the “breach” that had made it possible for Muslims to settle in Norway in the first place.

The perpetrator’s ultimate goal had been to unleash a continent-wide civil war in Europe which would lead to the ethnic cleansing of Muslims. In this, he looked up to the Bosnian Serb war criminals who committed genocide against the Bosniak Muslim population.

While no war broke out, his terrorism certainly inspired others. The idea of a direct attack on the Muslim community, which he had abandoned fearing it would generate public sympathy for Norwegian Muslims, would resonate with an Australian terrorist who shot 51 people attending prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019. Another white Norwegian right-wing extremist also tried to attack a mosque in Bærum outside of Oslo in August 2019, but was stopped by worshippers.

Beyond remembrance

Ten years ago, I was among those who called for a broader reckoning with the right-wing extremist and Islamophobic ideology behind the July 22 terror attacks. For this ideology was and remains much more widely shared across a far-right ideological continuum which ranges from right-wing extremism to right-wing populism in Norway and other European countries.

This reckoning, however, did not materialise, as media and political debates focused on the perpetrator’s psychological state and technical questions about Norway’s preparedness for terrorist attacks. The coming into government power of the populist right-wing Progress Party in 2013 made such a reckoning even harder to carry out.

Nevertheless, survivors of the Utøya massacre, in spite of their substantial psychological trauma and the continuing barrage of hate messages and death threats they have been receiving, have worked tirelessly to put this reckoning on the social and political agenda in Norway.

There are several steps that need to be taken in order for Norwegian society to deal with the painful legacy of the terrorist attacks.

First and foremost, the duty to remember has to be upheld. As many survivors have pointed out, a reckoning with right-wing extremism and white supremacy requires unyielding commitment to historical truth and a willingness to confront the darkest sides of national history. Above all, it requires a realisation that fascism and the fascist yearning for cultural and religious purity and homogeneity are to be constantly confronted, and never appeased or instrumentalised. The German idea of vergangenheitsbewältigung or “working through the past” can offer a working model for this process.

We know from academic research undertaken by Trine Anker and Marie von der Lippe that there has been a reluctance to teach challenging topics related to the July 22 attacks in Norwegian schools at various levels: this has to change. It is crucially important that future generations of Norwegians who are too young to remember what happened in 2011 be taught about it.

Second, elected political leaders need to heed their responsibility to confront dangerous white supremacy ideologies. Over the past eight years, Norway has had right-wing forces in government who have at times ignored their responsibility to challenge far-right ideas and sentiments about racialised minorities, immigrants and asylum seekers. A reckoning would entail a commitment on the part of our elected political leaders to live up to the standards set in international human rights law against racism and discrimination.

Third, combatting hate crimes needs to be taken even more seriously. One of the most harmful myths peddled by Norwegian free speech absolutists after the July 22 terror attacks was that there is no link between words and acts. A reckoning would involve acknowledging the harm hate speech can do and prioritising work against hate crimes, racism, intolerance and discrimination.

Fourth, multicultural co-existence has to be defended. In the racist imaginaries of white supremacists worldwide, Norway and its Nordic neighbours have long been cast as proverbially “white” countries. This has always been something of a myth, given the diversity of these societies. Today, some 18 percent of the Norwegian population and close to 37 percent of Oslo’s residents have an immigrant background, according to Statistics Norway (SSB).

In large areas of Oslo and other cities across Norway, multicultural co-existence or living together in and through difference is an everyday reality. That reality, and society as it actually is, looks and feels, has to be defended against politicians seeking to exploit fears and feed hatred for their own narrow political interests.

Fifth, inclusive and egalitarian societies need to be created and sustained. The utopia of fascism and white supremacism is one premised on clear hierarchies relating to race, status and gender. It matters little how much funding is spent on counterterrorism and the terrorism research industry if one continues to allow increasingly racialised socioeconomic and gender inequalities to grow unchecked. A reckoning also involves taking in the transnational character and the harms posed by global Islamophobia.

“For our fallen comrades; not a minute’s silence, but a life of struggle” runs a favourite memorial line penned by AUF survivors from Utøya. The July 22, 2011 terror attacks were against a multicultural and multireligious Norway – that country is here to stay forever, and undefeatedly so.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.