CAIRO – The mass killing of scores of people by a Christian fanatic has reignited a fierce debate on the Muslim immigration into Norway, a debate which is expected to heat up as election approaches.
“Our immigration policies have been extremely naive and our integration policies ditto,” a member of the anti-immigration Progress Party told The New York Times on condition of anonymity.
“But that is something all our political parties now recognize.”
At least 90 people were killed and scores injured in twin attacks on a government building and a youth training camp in Oslo on Friday.
The attacker, Anders Behring Breivik, said his assault was a self-styled mission to save European “Christendom” from Islam.
He said that his actions aimed to "change Norwegian society" which he saw as being undermined by immigration and multi-culturalism.
The number of immigrants, who make up nearly 11 percent of Norway’s 4.9 million population, nearly tripled between 1995 and 2010.
Half of the immigrants are believed to be coming to get better wages in rich Norway.
The number of asylum-seekers hit record highs at the end of the previous decade, fuelling concern among a section of the electorate unhappy about an influx of immigrants they felt were drawn by Norway's generous welfare handouts and high living standards.
As a result, the Labour government moved to toughen some of Europe's most liberal immigration policies, under pressure from the populist Progress Party whose anti-immigration platform struck a chord and won it the support of one in five Norwegians.
The Progress Party official said that in the past any criticism of immigration or asylum into Norway was considered racist.
“But that has largely been repaired by now,” he added.
“We’re having a real debate on immigration and integration and an election every four years.
“We are a country of consensus, this is Norway, and we’re together in this,” he said.
As election approaches, the immigration debate in expected to heat up in the coming weeks.
“This attack, this mass murder will bring this debate up again, and there are local elections next month,” Arne Strand, the former political editor of the paper Dagsavisen, said.
Some Norwegians argue that the influx of immigrants is changing their society.
“Here in Oslo there are a lot of schools now where the majority of students are not coming from Norwegian-speaking families,” said Harald Stanghelle, the political editor of the newspaper Aftenposten.
“It’s a new phenomenon in Norway, and it has raised a new kind of debate.”
Lisbeth Norloff, a teacher of Norwegian in Furuset, a district nearly at the eastern end of Oslo’s subway lines, agrees.
“When I moved here in 1976, it was a new area and there were only Norwegian people,” she said.
“And now, there are very few, and some of them are leaving.”
Norloff says that she has only two indigenous Norwegians out of 40 students in her classes in Furuset.
She argues that she had to lower the teaching standards, since many of her students do not speak Norwegian at home.
“I think both sides are losing,” she said.
The debate is also echoing among immigrants themselves.
Yemane Mesghina, 39, a cleaner who migrated from Eritrea nine years ago, is worried that the debate could affect his children’s chances for a better future.
“I’m worried that my boy will not learn the real Norwegian language,” he said, “including all the jokes.”
Mesghania, like many in Norway, is not worried that the killings would mean new pressure on Muslims.
“The most important thing is what the majority thinks,” he said. “And the majority is fine with us.”The Muslim community in Norway is estimated at 150,000. The majority of Muslims are of Pakistan, Somali, Iraqi and Moroccan backgrounds.
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