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What do the Norway attacks mean for multiculturalism?

Right-wing extremism is threatening multiculturalism in Europe EPA/JON ARE BERG JACOBSEN/AFTENPOSTE

The recent massacres by Anders Breivik in Norway drew the attention of the world to a growing reactionary element in Europe who resent the three Ms – Muslims, multiculturalism and Marxism.

So how do these attacks relate to multiculturalism in Europe? If multiculturalism is deemed to have failed by some, are the countries with the most immigrants and the most muslims the ones leading this popular shift towards anti-immigration, anti-muslim politics?

Breivik’s links to the right-wing

The assassin, Breivik was a demented and psychotic megalomaniac, showing no remorse and defending himself as saving Europe from itself. But he was also a member of the conservative anti-immigration Norwegian Progress Party – the second largest in Norway after Labor and one which scored 23 per cent in the 2009 Norwegian election.

Moreover, he had regular links with other anti-multicultural parties. These included the new English Defence League, a group who believes in controlling the streets, rather than running for office like the British National Party. Of course, the Progress Party renounced him, as did his own very respectable family.

Norway’s multiculturalism

Norway is one of the richest and most peaceful countries in the world. It gives more of its national wealth to overseas aid than anyone else and takes in refugees in preference to more adaptable migrants.

While figures for religion are unreliable in most of Europe (unlike Australia and Britain) the latest numbers show that only two percent of Norway’s 4.5 million people were Muslims.

The core of this small population was formed by Pakistanis who came over from England, because they believed Norway to be a more friendly and understanding society and have since become a prosperous and well-regarded group. However, later arrivals from wartorn societies like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia have changed the picture, as in other Scandinavian democracies.

The popular shift towards anti-immigration

There have been very large shifts towards anti-immigrant parties in Europe. The largest votes have been in Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland. Sweden surprised everyone last year by giving nearly six percent of its vote to the far right party, the Swedish Democrats and turning out a Social Democratic government which had ruled for most of the last thirty years.

In all cases, these were rich and liberal democracies, most but not all of which had endorsed and practised multiculturalism for many years. Similar results were not recorded in the larger states of Germany and Britain, but there are well-established right-wing parties in Italy, France and Spain.

In this political environment the conservative leaders of Britain, France and Germany all announced that “multiculturalism has failed”. This aroused some amusement among those who noted that it had never been tried in France and Germany and had largely been left to local authorities in Britain and Italy.

What has failed is not so much multiculturalism as the European Union management of immigration and the collapse of political and social systems outside Europe and especially in Africa, the former Soviet block and the Middle East.

Little relationship between number of immigrants and right-wing parties

One feature of the resentment against diversity has been the fear of the smaller European Union states that they are losing their characteristic and unique local cultures in a vast, borderless Europe dominated by larger states.

There is the perception that they are being swamped by Muslims, Africans and Asians. As most European Union states have smaller populations than Australia there is some basis to these fears.

However, there is little relationship between the size of Muslim communities and the degree of voting support for anti-Muslim parties. In recent national elections the greatest support was registered in Austria (29%), Denmark (25%), Finland (19.1%), Norway (22.9%), Spain (39.9%), and Switzerland (28.9%).

The percentage of Muslims in the smaller states range from 0.1 per cent in Finland, through two percent in Norway to a high point of 5.9 percent in Belgium. The latest Australian level was 1.5 per cent in 2006, less than one third of that in Britain.

There is no comparable support in the English-speaking democracies, with only 1.9 per cent supporting the British National Party in 2010.

Are there anti-Muslim parties elsewhere?

Several conservative parties which call for reductions or tighter controls over immigration do not make hostility to Islam a major issue. Those which do, no longer have much of a following in Germany, Britain, New Zealand, Canada or Australia.

However, it remains true that multiculturalism has been associated with the moderate Left side of politics for many years and that most of these parties (including the Labor party in Australia) have not been doing well in recent elections.

Comparisons with the United States are difficult as the party system is different and much more strictly two-party than in Europe. Many American conservative and business interests are not hostile to a continuing high level of immigration, while few politicians endorse multiculturalism.

What has all this to do with Australia?

Not that much. Lone mass murderers can arise anywhere and did in 1996 at Port Arthur without warning. The same year saw the election of Pauline Hanson and the rise of what became One Nation, followed by its collapse by 2007.

However, there is a network of racist and extremist groups and individuals here as elsewhere. Many sustain internet links with overseas organisations like Stormfront or the English Defence League and many more are hostile to Muslims, Jews or non-Aryans in general.

The Australia First party inherits a long line of such groups and was said to be active at the Cronulla riot in 2005. The difference does not lie in the greater decency and common sense of Australians, so much as in isolation from the massive movements which have swept over Europe in the last decade.

Australia has absorbed a large population of overseas immigrants since 1947, numbering 26.5 per cent of the population. Of these, at least one quarter are from English-speaking sources. Only one in eighteen is Muslim.

In Europe, virtually all immigrants since 2000 have been from a different culture and religion and the majority have been refugees from poorer and more unstable societies in Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans.

Moreover, despite the “common barrier” erected by the Schengen agreements and the “borderless society” behind those barriers, not all states exercised tight control, especially Spain, Italy and Greece with long coastlines facing Africa.

Asylum seeker applications escalated in the late 1990s and Europe is much more accessible to Iraq, North Africa, the Horn of Africa or even Afghanistan when compared with Australia. The overall result of all this has been widespread anxiety and hostility. Australia has also become anxious about immigration but with fewer reasons.

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