Norway's Muslim immigrants ponder future

By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Oslo

Image caption,
Some immigrants say they did not feel welcome in Norway - even before Friday's attacks

Outside the courthouse in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, on Monday morning, amid the hordes of journalists and native Norwegians, stood several groups of immigrants from Somalia and Kenya, curious like everyone else to know what was happening inside.

Anders Behring Breivik, the man who has admitted carrying out the unprecedented killing spree last Friday in which at least 76 people died, was making his first appearance before a judge.

The car bombing in Oslo and the shooting of scores of young men and women on an island nearby, were carried out in the name of an extreme racist and Islamaphobic ideology, with the ultimate goal of reversing Muslim migration to Europe.

But instead of attacking Muslims directly, he launched his meticulously planned assault on what he saw as the root cause of the "problem" - the governing Labour party and its liberal immigration policies.

When the attack began last Friday afternoon with a huge car-bomb detonated outside the main government buildings, Norway's Muslim community braced itself for the worst, assuming that what had happened was the work of Islamist militants.

It was an assumption made by many around the world.

Short-lived relief

Mehtab Afsar, secretary-general of the Islamic Council of Norway, was leading a delegation abroad when he started receiving phone calls from Oslo from frightened members of the Muslim community.

"We heard some Muslims had already been beaten up in Oslo," he said, "and women who were scared phoned me asking for help.

"I was just hoping it was not true."

For all the Muslims in Norway - who now number more than 100,000 people in total - there was a strange sense of relief when it became clear the attacks were not part of the al-Qaeda-inspired "global jihad".

Instead it was a man with blond hair and fair skin, a thoroughbred Norwegian who had the desire and ability to kill on a scale never before seen in Norway.

And yet the respite was short-lived as the perverse ideology behind Mr Breivik's actions starting filtering through.

Standing near the courthouse for much of Monday was Hassan Ali, who arrived in Norway 12 years ago after fleeing the civil war in his home country, Somalia.

Since he arrived in the late 1990s, the number of Somalis has increased rapidly and now stands at more than 27,000.

While Hassan Ali feels more vulnerable now following the attacks, he is not at all surprised by what has happened.

He argues that hostility towards immigrants has been growing steadily in Norway over the past decade and blames the rise of right-wing parties in parliament, particularly the Progress Party, or FrP, which now holds the second-largest number of seats.

"This mad man (Anders Behring Breivik) has been brain-washed by the far right party (FrP)... and has been following its ideology... and he needed to do something," he said.

"The FrP was attacking the Labour party because they were bringing Muslims to this country and defending their rights, their workplace and social rights."

Mr Breivik was a member of the party for four years but the FrP denies it influenced him, saying his actions and beliefs are contrary to its policies and value-system.

Negative attitudes

The Somalis feel particularly vulnerable as they are not as well established as other Muslim communities such as the Pakistanis, some of whom came to Norway in search of work more than 40 years ago.

"Over the last three years we have felt we are not welcome here," says Hassan Ali.

"Every Sunday the papers are writing only negative things about the Somalis. People are leaving and more will leave as the pressure builds up."

Members of other immigrant communities are also concerned about what they say is the negative attitude towards them.

Kenneth, who came to Norway from Kenya six years ago, says he was on a plane when the attacks took place.

"The first thing someone said was that it was an immigrant and immigration should be stopped."

The government admits that opposition to immigration has been growing here as in other European countries, but holds out the hope that last Friday's attacks could bring a greater sense of unity across the nation.

On Tuesday the minister for children's equality and social inclusion, Audun Lysbakken, held meetings with Muslim community leaders in Oslo.

"I do hope that in the terrible things we now experience," he said, "we may gather some new sense of solidarity, and create an even more tolerant society."