Norway: The Two Faces of Extremism

“The most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom among us is the compact majority.”

—Dr. Stockmann in Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People


More Democracy, More Extremism?

Last summer, on the evening of August 16, 2014, Norway’s largest tabloid, Verdens Gang, posted on its website an extended videotaped interview with Ubaydullah Hussain, the spokesman of a small Islamist fringe group called the Prophet’s Umma (umma refers to the community of believers in Islam). A twenty-nine-year-old Norwegian of Pakistani descent, Hussain grew up in a successful immigrant household in an Oslo suburb and had begun a promising career as a soccer referee in the Norwegian leagues—one newspaper described him as “bland and sociable.” Around 2011, however, he began associating with radical Islamists and was later expelled from the sport for making extremist comments on social media. In the VG interview, appearing in a black skullcap and dark tunic with a Taliban-style beard, he declared his “absolute” support for ISIS and his belief that Norway should be governed by sharia law.

Scanpix/AP Images
Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing extremist who killed seventy-seven people in a bombing and shooting rampage on July 22, 2011

What made these comments particularly startling, however, was the way Hussain was able to frame them in reference to Norwegian concepts of political rights. Largely unchallenged by the VG journalist, he used the forty-three- minute interview to argue calmly against Western “propaganda” about the Islamic State and to assert the right of Norwegians to travel to Syria to join it. He also defended ISIS’s practice of decapitating nonbelievers. “Beheading is not torture, people die instantly,” he said, “as opposed to what the West does with Muslim prisoners.” Three days later, on August 19, ISIS announced the beheading of the American journalist James Foley.

Norway seems an unlikely place for Islamist extremism. Exceptionally wealthy, this small Nordic country has an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent and offers enviable welfare benefits to citizens and new immigrants alike. Though Muslims account for less than 5 percent of the country’s five million citizens, there are both Shias and Sunnis, including sizable Pakistani and Somali communities, as well as smaller numbers with Iranian, Turkish, and North African backgrounds. This diverse population is comparatively well integrated. Norway does not have radical mosques and several Muslims serve in Parliament. On the main street of Grønland, the central Oslo neighborhood that is the epicenter of the Muslim community, there are Islamic centers and halal butchers, but also an upscale bar serving high-end beer from a local brewery.

In recent months, however, European governments have become alarmed by the flow of more than three thousand of their citizens to Syria to join jihadist groups there; and following the tragic Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in early January, new questions have emerged about the ability of European nations to cope with terror threats from…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.