This is one of the most placid and pleasant capitals of Europe, but Oslo is a divided city. The west of the city is rich, safe and predominantly white; the east, poorer, less safe and populated by immigrants, many of them Muslim.
Norway has recently tightened its liberal immigration and asylum rules in the midst of a longstanding debate about assimilation and multiculturalism. Despite Norway's oil wealth and low unemployment, there has been a growing concern over the increasing size of the Muslim population, especially after September 11 and the Danish crisis over the publication in late 2005 of cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad, which were published in Norway, too.
But the Muslim population is growing, and Islam is now the country's second-largest religion. The impact of an increasing, and increasingly visible, Muslim population in a relatively monoethnic, liberal and egalitarian Norway has led to a surge in popularity for the anti-immigration Progress Party, now the second-largest party in Parliament. And it appears to have been one of the triggers to the massacre carried out in Oslo on Norway's white elite. The suspect, Anders Behring Breivik, claims he was compelled to act by the failure of mainstream politicians — including those in the Progress Party — to stem the Islamic tide.
In many ways, such arguments seem absurdly inflated. Norway, with 4.9 million people, has some 5,50,000 immigrants, about 11 per cent of the population, but 42 per cent of them have Norwegian citizenship. Half of the immigrants are estimated to be white Europeans, especially Poles and Swedes, coming to get better wages in rich Norway.
But Norway's immigrant numbers nearly tripled between 1995 and 2010, and Muslims here, as elsewhere in Europe, tend to have larger families than the indigenous population.
And whether through simple economics, or the desire to live with other Muslims, or because of flawed social welfare policies, some cities have heavily migrant, informal ghettos that block easy assimilation into Norwegian language, culture and society.
In Furuset, a district nearly at the eastern end of Oslo's subway lines, immigrants outnumber native Norwegians, who are fleeing the area. A large new mosque is next to a community centre up a small hill above the subway station, which is surrounded by a little park and benches. The park features a crude statue of Trygve Lie, the former Foreign Minister in exile during World War II who became the first Secretary General of the United Nations, a symbol both of Norwegian resistance and of its embrace of international responsibility.
“When I moved here in 1976, it was a new area and there were only Norwegian people,” said Lisbeth Norloff, a teacher of Norwegian. “And now, there are very few, and some of them are leaving.” She's glad her own children are grown now and live elsewhere, she said, “so I don't have to worry about what to do myself.”
In her classes in Furuset, she said, she has only two indigenous Norwegians out of 40 students, and she has 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.
“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.”
In general, that debate is about how to integrate immigrants into a small country with its own difficult language if they are not able to learn to speak it well even in State schools.
Immigration, integration policies
Although the debate echoes that in other Western European countries, Norway is stable, rich and has little unemployment, so competition for jobs is not such a big issue. Another key difference is that Norway, given its principles, tends to take some of the poorest victims of conflict as refugees — whether Vietnamese boat people decades ago or Somalis and Eritreans now.
These refugees are not normally well-educated and many have been through terrible experiences, so they are harder to assimilate, at least until the second or third generation. For example, many Vietnamese initially had troubles, Mr. Stanghelle said, but their children and grandchildren are doing extremely well in school and entering the heart of Norwegian life.
A member of the Progress Party who did not want politics to intrude on national mourning and solidarity asked for anonymity. But he said there is more consensus now in Norway on a tougher, more restrictive policy. “Our immigration policies have been extremely naïve and our integration policies ditto, but that is something all our political parties now recognise,” he said.
In the past, any criticism of immigration or asylum was considered racist, “but that has largely been repaired by now,” he said. “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.
Arne Strand, the former political editor of the paper Dagsavisen, sees Mr. Breivik as a “lone rider,” whose jumbled manifesto is unrepresentative of any real strain of thought in Norway, except a tiny fringe right. But as much as Norwegians hate the idea, he thinks the massacre will have some impact on politics. “This attack, this mass murder will bring this debate up again, and there are local elections next month,” he said.
The debate is also real among immigrants in Furuset, who fear that the flight of ethnic Norwegians will harm their children's chances for a better life here.
Yemane Mesghina, 39, came here nine years ago as a refugee from Eritrea, and he's enormously grateful to the Norwegians for a hospitable welcome. He is a cleaner, and lives in Furuset with a young baby and his girlfriend because, he says, “it is cheap” in a very expensive city. Does he feel at home in Norway? He laughed. “It's different culturally and in language,” he said. The district is dominated by Pakistanis, he said, who came here as guest workers in the 1970s and 1980s, when Norway needed labour.
Some 90 per cent of the people in his apartment building are Pakistani, Mr. Mesghina said. And the district is also a little infamous for a Pakistani criminal gang, known as the “B Gang.”
Mr. Mesghina says there is a good aspect to the Muslim majority — “there's no alcohol here,” he said. But he worries about his child, and how he will be able to integrate into Norwegian life when there are so few Norwegians around.
“I'm worried that my boy will not learn the real Norwegian language,” he said, “including all the jokes.”
But he, like many here, was not overly 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.” (Elisa Mala contributed reporting.) — © New York Times News Service