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.”
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.”