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A State of suspicion: Counter-radicalization in Norway

posted by Sindre Bangstad

Norwegian rally against ISIS and the Prophet's Ummah, August 18 2014. Photo: Sindre Bangstad

Norwegian rally against ISIS and the Prophet’s Ummah, August 25, 2014.
Photo: Sindre Bangstad

At the national party congress of the governing populist right-wing Progress Party in Norway in May, the assembled party delegates adopted resolutions calling for state control of Norwegian mosques in the name of preventing “radicalization into violent extremism.” The Progress Party (FrP) also adopted resolutions calling for the Norwegian state to introduce compulsory Christian prayers in public schools, for a national ban on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf (the hijab) for pupils under the age of sixteen in public schools, and for a national ban on circumcision of male children. In other words, the run-up to the Norwegian parliamentary elections in September 2017, which will make it clear whether the right-wing coalition government of the Conservative Party and the populist right-wing Progress Party will fall or be returned to power, is in full swing. And as it has since the mid-1980s, the FrP will run this parliamentary election campaign on a platform of a politics of fear and division—targeting immigrants, in general, and Muslim minorities, in particular.

It has long been known that Muslims constitute the proverbial public enemy number one for right-wing populists across the Western world. What is new and relatively unprecedented in the Norwegian context, however, is the active embrace and instrumentalization of what Rogers Brubaker has referred to as “Christianist secularism” by Norwegian populist right-wingers in government.

Given that Norway happens to be among the most secularized countries on earth by any standard measure developed by classical secularization theory (with steadily declining Christian church membership, attendance, and baptism), what Norwegian populist right-wingers offer is, of course, a culturalized Christianity largely devoid of any substantive content relating to faith. In addition, they offer a nationalized Christianity said to embody all liberal virtues relating to gender equality, LGBT rights, secularism, freedom of expression, and children’s rights, which particular marked minorities are constitutively rendered as embodying opposition to.

The logic of securitization of Islam

We fool ourselves if we think that the governmental logic at work here is exclusive to populist right-wingers in our age. Scholars have long noted the centrality and ubiquity of the “securitization of Islam” that accompanied the onset of the disastrous Global War on Terror (GWOT) from 2001 to 2008. We live in the long shadow of that disastrous war.

Across Europe and the United States, the securitization of Islam has unleashed what Arun Kudnani has insightfully referred to as a generalized “radicalization optic.” In the present times, fraught with fears and anxieties relating to the neoliberal state’s seemingly decreasing ability to offer everything from material to existential security, the securitization of Islam and radicalization optic fixate the suspecting state and its disciplinary apparatuses on the threatening figure of the potential “radicalized Muslim.” The radicalized Muslim is most often male, but has increasingly also come to include females.

Given the lack of a stable and coherent profile of the terrorist, the net of suspect communities is often cast wide and far. In Norway, as elsewhere, the suspecting state now currently funds a plethora of initiatives at national, regional, municipal, and civil society levels designed to counter “radicalization.” Though experts would still be hard pressed to offer any conceptual or definitional clarity about what exactly radicalization entails, a significant industry of security and counter-radicalization consultants, terrorism researchers, and the proverbial courageous Muslims “standing up against extremists” have emerged with extensive funding from the state and national research foundations. In Norway, there is a particular paradox in all of this, given that the only recent terrorist attack on Norwegian soil resulting in mass casualties was perpetrated by a Norwegian right-wing extremist by the name of Anders Behring Breivik in 2011.

Though not by any means erased from national memory, these attacks have effectively been rendered inconsequential for Norwegian society through a process of selective erasure of the far-right and Islamophobic ideas that inspired Breivik. It is arguably this process of erasure and selective remembrance which led the Norwegian Police Security Services (PST) to the absurd assertion to the effect that, “so far, Norway has not suffered from violence and terrorism by Islamist groups or right-wing extremists [sic] in the same way as some other countries in Europe” (from the preamble to its latest Annual Open Threat Assessment, 2017).

Norway has seen no less than two Government Action Plans against Radicalization and Violent Extremism (2010 and 2014). It is in this context worth noting that it was salafi-jihadist extremism and not right-wing extremism which provided the impetus for both Action Plans. Since 2012, the main concern of the suspecting state and its security apparatuses has been the recruitment of Norwegian “foreign fighters” to salafi-jihadist terrorist organizations, such as ISIS, and the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat an-Nusra (now, Jabhat Fateh al-Shams) in the bloodlands of Iraq and Syria, unleashed by the onset of the war in Syria in 2011. According to current estimates from the Norwegian Police Security Services (PST), some ninety Norwegian Muslims have travelled to Syria and Iraq as foreign fighters since 2012. The PST believes eighteen have been killed in action. The per capita numbers place Norway in the medium range among Western European countries.

The specter of salafi-jihadist “foreign fighter”- recruitment since 2012, not the actual right-wing extremist terrorist attacks in 2011, led to the government-initiated introduction of parliamentary amendments to the Norwegian General Penal Code §147c and d in 2013. These amendments criminalize incitement or recruitment to a terrorist act, training for the purpose of executing a terrorist act, and financing a terrorist act, with a penalty of up to six years.

Framing radicalization

In the cross-ministerial 2014 Government Action Plan against Radicalization and Violent Extremism, radicalization is understood as “a process whereby a person to an increasing extent accepts the use of violence as a means to achieve political, ideological or religious aims.”

The definitions of radicalization adopted by the Norwegian government seem to predispose one to read and interpret radicalization in general, but particularly regarding people of Muslim background, in and through an analytical framework which emphasizes ideological rather than social and psychological factors. In my ethnographic research on cooperation between state authorities and Muslim civil society actors in Norway in the field of counter-radicalization (which I conducted under the auspices of a Norwegian Research Council (NRC)-funded international project on “Muslim diversity and Governance of Islam” through 2012), I found that coordinators in this field at both regional and municipal levels, among Muslim civil society partners and the Norwegian police, were mindful of its problematic connotations and potential for stigmatizing perfectly democratic and legitimate ideas and activities. They deliberately and consciously avoid the very term “radicalization.” In so doing, they engage in what one may refer to as a “practical refusal” of a now ubiquitous term in government and media circles in Norway.

Senior Norwegian police officials working in this field have also gone on record pointing to the present government’s greater interest in pursuing work against potential “Muslim” extremism than right-wing extremism.

With a few notable exceptions, Norwegian terrorism researchers have not had access to Norwegian salafi-jihadists as primary sources. But if the available data on the social backgrounds of individuals attracted to salafi-jihadism in Norway in recent years is anything to go by, a much stronger emphasis on processes of social marginalization, exclusion, and a criminal-jihadist nexus as vectors in radicalization seems warranted.

Counter-radicalization and the populist right-wing politics of fear

If you ask the hordes of communication advisors employed by the current Norwegian government, Norwegian counter-radicalization has been a success. Recruitment of foreign fighters reached a saturation point in 2014, and is now down to practically zero. The small salafi-jihadist nucleus which once existed in Norway in the form of the salafi-jihadi group the Prophet’s Ummah has practically disappeared from the map as a result of a series of criminal prosecutions, police surveillance operations, and Muslim civil society counter-mobilizations. To date, there has not been a terrorist attack perpetrated by salafi-jihadists in Norway. It does not detract from these achievements of those who worked systematically to counter violent extremism in Norway to note that there is, of course, no way of knowing what would have happened in the absence of the full weight of the disciplinary apparatuses of the suspecting state being brought to bear on Norwegian salafi-jihadists and their limited number of sympathizers.

The recent resolution adopted at the governing populist right-wing Progress Party’s congress, calling for increased “control” of Norwegian mosques, speaks to the illiberalism that authors have identified as an essential feature of right-wing populism in our time. It ignores the simple and by now reasonably well-documented fact that recruitment to salafi-jihadism and foreign-fighter activities in Norway has by and large happened outside of mosques. (There are many reports of salafi-jihadis having been kicked out of Norwegian mosques.) There is every reason to think that Norwegian mosques have already for quite some time been closely monitored by the state’s intelligence apparatuses, and that Norwegian mosques and Muslim civil society organizations have by and large willingly cooperated with the state on counter-radicalization.

What current standard and popular works on right-wing populism, such as those of Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser and Cas Mudde, fail to disturb, however, is the all-too facile complacency of liberalism itself. Right-wing populism may not necessarily be as antithetical to current varieties of liberalism as one would like to think, but actually already implied and invested in it. After all, the suspecting state and the myriad ways in which it constructs its constitutive “others” have a rich genealogy in liberalism itself. The defense of “liberal values” has long served as marching orders for right-wing populists across Western Europe.

Seen in this way, the “radicalization” of the suspecting state that right-wing populists and their politics of fear represent in our time may merely represent a further development of templates of othering provided in and by liberalism itself. After all, liberalism in and of itself did not prevent the routinization of a Carl Schmittian “state of exception” and the gradual unmaking of principles of due legal process in terrorism cases in the United States in the context of the Global War On Terror.

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