Slandering the Progress Party
Norway’s opposition isn’t extremist.
Aug 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
In 1986, five-year-old Mazyar Kesh-vari and his family fled their native Tehran for Oslo. His parents were opponents of the Khomeini regime that took power following Iran’s 1979 revolution, and there came a point when “it was not possible to be in Iran without risking being killed or tortured and imprisoned,” he told me. Raised in a “politically active” family, he was expected to follow the path of civic engagement in his adopted country. “We have experience, on our own body and life, how political decisions make a difference in people’s life,” he says. “So when we came to Norway, it was very natural for me to go to a liberal party that worked for individual liberty.”
A march in memory of the massacre victims, outside Oslo City Hall, July 25
AP / Emilio Morenatti
For Keshvari, that party was Norway’s Progress party, whose youth wing he joined in 1999 and which he today represents on the Oslo City Council. Founded in 1973 primarily to advocate for a lower tax burden, the party was concerned mainly with economics. Calling for the legalization of private medical insurance, income tax cuts, and the privatization of government-owned monopolies, the Progress party became the third-largest party in the 1989 parliamentary election. As Muslim immigration has become a major issue in Norway (as it has across Europe), the party has taken a (relatively) hard line, calling not only for a decrease in the number of immigrants allowed into the country, but for more exacting assimilation policies as well.
Those policies, and the party’s rhetoric in defending them, have come under attack in the wake of last week’s massacre, in which anti-Muslim extremist Anders Behring Breivik murdered 76 Norwegians as part of a plan to “save Europe from Islamification.” Breivik, who was a member of the party’s youth movement from 1997 to 2007, claims to have attacked young members of the ruling Labor party because of its allegedly lax view on Muslim immigration. While the Progress party has long been a target of the country’s left-wing media and cultural elite, most Norwegians have desisted from scoring political points off of last week’s horror. Instead, the party has come under attack from -foreign media.
The New York Times refers to it as “stridently anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim.” The Sydney Morning Herald calls it “far right,” as does the Irish Times. In the New Republic, Karen J. Greenberg complains that the party’s “political pushback against Muslim populations” is “deceptively urbane” and “largely acceptable in polite company.” As early as 2002, the Guardian was warning about “Norway’s dark secret,” namely, the increasing popularity of the “far-right Progress party,” which rendered Norway “home to Europe’s most successful far-right movement.”
Others have gone so far as to lay the blame for the murders on the doorstep of the party itself. In an article for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo entitled “To You who Nourished the Killer,” former Norwegian television personality Petter Nome specifically addressed Siv Jensen, the party’s leader. While writing that “Ms. Jensen is not a supporter of violence,” and that “neither are most of her colleagues in populist and right wing parties in Europe,” Nome argued, “They carry profound responsibility for actively creating a climate where hate and violence appear as options for their most impatient followers.” (Nome has since apologized for his remarks.)
All of this is astonishing to Keshvari. “I think it’s sad that people who don’t have knowledge about our party can say something like that, because the Progress party’s ideology is classical liberalism.” Indeed, the party’s stance on immigration is doctrinaire libertarian, in that it believes in the “freest possible movement of labor,” provided “that people who take up residence in Norway do not automatically receive welfare rights, which burden the Norwegian taxpayer.” One might find this policy uncompassionate. But it’s not racist or “anti-Muslim.” As an Iranian immigrant, Keshvari says that, if anything, it is left-wing Norwegians who are obsessed with his immigrant background, attacking him for belonging to a center-right party. He likens his situation to “the problems that you have in your country with black Republicans.”
“There are too many immigrants coming here, so we have to stop that because we have to take care of those who are already here,” Farida Amin, a Norwegian of Pakistani descent who immigrated with her family in 1975, told me. She now works for the Progress party and has been a member for eight years. Its emphasis on assimilation, and its concern for the harsh treatment that many Muslim women in Norway receive at the hands of their male relatives, is what attracted her. “Many women from non-Western countries are prevented from employment and active citizenship by their husbands, so we are working for that.”
In 2009, a representative of the sexual violence division of the Oslo police reported that, in the past 3 years, every single one of the city’s 41 reported aggravated sexual assaults had been committed by immigrants who come from countries “with a very different view of women than we have in Norway.” As to accusations that the party is “anti-Muslim,” Amin says, “No one has ever discriminated against me because of my religion.”
Among immigrant Norwegians, Amin is hardly alone in her allegiance. A poll conducted in 2009, at the time of the country’s last national elections, found that while the Labor party was “by far” the most popular with immigrants, the Progress party came second. “The Progress party is gaining more members who believe in Allah,” claimed the Norwegian Dagbladet newspaper at the time. Adnan Made-sko, a self-described “liberal Muslim” from Bosnia, is cognizant of the dangers of anti-Muslim prejudice. He and his family fled the former Yugoslavia for Norway, “because of the racism we experienced towards Bosnians,” he told the paper. “The Serbs tried to exterminate us as the Germans tried to exterminate the Jews. Therefore, I am sad and angry when people call me a racist. I know what racism is.” For what it’s worth, the party’s shadow foreign minister, Morton Hoglund, is married to a Muslim woman.
It’s true that anti-immigration sentiment is on the rise in Europe, and the Progress party has certainly been able to harness that concern for electoral advantage. But unlike other Scandinavian political parties that have gained support in recent years, like the Sweden Democrats or Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the Progress party does not endorse ending immigration or asylum. “All parties agree on one thing,” Siv Jensen told me, “and that is that we do have immigration to Norway and we will have immigration to Norway in the future as well. So you won’t find any elected party in Norway opposing immigration or opposing Norway’s [taking] our share of the responsibility for people running for their lives.”
Moreover, the attempt to tar the party with Breivik’s erstwhile membership is weakened by the fact that it was, well, erstwhile. Breivik may have initially been attracted to the Progress party by its policy on immigration, but he eventually quit because it did not conform to his own, murderously paranoid views. In a 2002 entry to his manifesto, Breivik wrote, “I am going to discontinue my involvement in the Norwegian Progress party as I have lost faith in the democratic struggle to save Europe from Islamification.” Breivik complained that the party is “systematically ridiculed and isolated by all other political parties and a united media sector. This, even despite the fact that they have taken measures and gotten rid of all true nationalists ending up with only opportunistic career cynisists [sic] unwilling to take any political risks.”
One of the reasons why the attack came as such a shock is that, unlike in other European countries, Norway has no appreciable, organized far-right movement. Therefore, in order to fit a convenient media narrative, the party’s critics have simply asserted that it is the Norwegian offshoot of a continent-wide phenomenon. Even the Daily Telegraph, hardly a bastion of elite left-wing opinion, called the Progress party a “fringe group” (an odd way to describe the country’s second-largest party), though it qualified the characterization by reporting that it “denies holding neo-Nazi views,” a variation of the old “when did you stop beating your wife” chestnut.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, many commentators were quick to allege that the perpetrators were Muslim. While such a scenario was certainly plausible, it was nonetheless false. The error of that hasty assumption, however, hasn’t prevented others from making a host of assertions about the Progress party that are equally unfounded. “Journalists, who have an important job to do,” says Jensen, the party leader, “need to face facts before they write and jump to conclusions.”
Towards the end of his manifesto, Breivik wrote,
By painting the Progress party as something it is emphatically not, the media is playing right into the hands of this mass-murdering sociopath.
James Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and a contributing editor to the New Republic.
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