Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: In conversation with Sindre Bangstad

Paul Gilroy: Good morning everybody, I'm Paul Gilroy, the Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation at UCL in London. My guest this morning, I'm delighted to be able to welcome, is Sindre Bangstad, social anthropologist, research professor at KIFO the Institute for Church, Religion and Worldview Research in Oslo. Sindre's well-known as a public anthropologist, an anti-racist activist, a prolific writer and commentator on the broadly defined politics of race and questions of free speech, on questions of Islamophobia, and on the nature of anti-racism and anti-fascist struggles today. And when we sat down to think about who we could talk to in the Nordic world about the condition of anti-racism and anti-fascism in the present moment, Sindre's name was really at the top of that list. So, thank you so much for making time this morning to have this conversation with me.

Sindre Bangstad: Thank you very much, Paul. I'm very honoured to be on this podcast.
Paul: Well, let's begin to talk about the situation in the Nordic countries, not only in Norway, although primarily in Norway at the moment. It seems to me that you've been arguing for a long time that the mainstream current of political culture in all the countries, starting in Denmark and then extending outwards, has drifted significantly to the right in the last period of time. So, maybe we could begin by talking about that and thinking a little bit about the particular place of Islamophobia, free speech questions and other areas of political discourse which are really coded ways of speaking about race in that environment.
Sindre: If we take the long perspective - because these political formations and these racial formations are grounded somewhere at particular historical conjunctures - in the Nordic countries we have arguably since the 1970s- and Denmark was really the pioneer in the kind of populist right-wing political formations that all the Nordic countries have to varying degrees experienced over the past 30 to 40 years. So, even though the Nordic countries, and I can only speak with confidence about Norway, but Norway has historically been, in comparative terms, a relatively homogeneous society in ethnic and cultural terms. And that is part of the formative national imaginary as well. But we do know for certain, not the least through the work of the late Norwegian anthropologist Marianne Gullestad, that this was also part fiction because Norway had a significant indigenous population - the Sámi population - which were exposed to brutal assimilation policies; and there were Jewish people, there were Jesuits, and there were other national minorities. But the really dramatic shift here, also in terms of significant challenge to this national imaginary was the arrival of immigration from so-called Third World countries starting in the late '60s and onwards. So, these were in the first wave labour migrants; in the Norwegian case coming from countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, but also India. And in sheer demographic terms, this has obviously also been a dramatic shift; in the Norwegian context we're looking at a population of estimated 5.2 million, of which now an estimated 17.8% according to Statistics Norway have an immigrant background or are descendants of immigrants. That rises to 36% in Oslo, the capital of Norway. And for xenophobia and racism to emerge out of this shifting demographic, it obviously required someone to decide actively and consciously to mobilise on the basis of racism and Islamophobia. And so the first party in the Norwegian context to do so was the populist right-wing Progress Party; and they did so from the mid-1980s onwards; 1987 marks the breakthrough election of the Progress Party and this was founded back in 1973 as a sort of anti-bureaucratic libertarian fringe party. But it moved into the political mainstream in Norway by adopting nationalist rhetoric and a fixation on the figure of the threatening Muslim, and so channelled this popular sentiment from the 1987 municipal elections and onwards. And this became the main plank of their political platform, and it has had the effect of mainstreaming a great deal of racism and Islamophobia in Norway since then. And the Nordic countries have had quite similar experiences. The last outpost, so to speak, to form would probably be Sweden, where the Swedish Democrats, which started out as a party founded by people with links to the Swedish neo-Nazi movement in the 1990s, has moved gradually into the political mainstream; and is now, as we speak, I think, Sweden's third largest party in terms of popular support. In Norway we've had a bit of back and forth; the Progress Party entered government back in 2013 for the first time in its 40 year history in a governing coalition with the Norwegian conservatives; they left the government earlier this year, but has since then sort of recovered significantly in the polls.
Paul: That's very, very helpful for background. It's interesting that you go back to the late '80s, because I'm not a careful student of this at all, but I hadn't appreciated that that process was under way as early as you suggest, and I'd always imagined that it was really something that took off to another level in the context of the post-September 11th 2001 environment in which a kind of culturalist or civilisationist perspective on the nature of these threats became so loudly, loudly audible.
Sindre: I do think there's some very long historical lines here. And you can also see how this latches on to prior forms and articulations of racism. So, it really doesn't seem for researchers in this field like myself, that Norwegian Somalis are at the bottom of any racial hierarchy in Norway, as it were, because they carry the double weight of having black skin, but also being widely perceived to be of Muslim background in the Norwegian public at large.
Paul: Yeah, I suppose one other factor that I know you've written about before, and you spoke earlier of the national imaginary, are the particular sensibilities bound up in the history of the Second World War in the Norwegian polity. And that, of course, becomes an issue where there's a great deal of difficulty in identifying the resurgence of explicitly racist, ultra-nationalist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic forms of political organising as neo-Nazi or neo-fascist elements.
Sindre: Obviously, a part of the risk in doing research on right-wing extremism is that it risks distracting one from more popular and common forms of racism in any society. And that has especially been the case in Norway, because for as long as you can imagine that racism is a question of the political fringes, then it becomes very comfortable for anyone who places themselves within the political mainstream. You can think of this as kind of an exception, and I think arguably that is, to my regret, what has happened in the ways in which ordinary Norwegians tend to think about, say, this right-wing extremist attack, Anders Behring Breivik back in 2011, or the latest mosque attack by Philip Manshaus on August 10th 2019, where he basically tried to shoot up a mosque but failed spectacularly to do so. And if we look at the wider political history in Norway - people of my generation, I'm approaching my late 40s, I grew up with a national narrative about the Second World War in Norway and the German Nazi occupation of Norway from 1940 to 1945, which was a narrative of heroic Norwegians fighting the German Nazis in the woods. And we know, of course, that the story of the German Nazi occupation in any country and also in Norway during the Second World War was far more complicated than that. We know that the Nazified Norwegian state police took an active part in the rounding up of Norway's small Jewish community for deportation to the Holocaust. And there was no public reckoning concerning these crimes committed by Norwegian police officers in Norway after the World War. In fact, the Oslo chief police officer directly responsible for the rounding up of Norwegian Jews in 1942 and '43, a person by the name of Knut Rød, he was acquitted after the war for what he had been part of.
Paul: Yeah, interesting that you mention the murderer of Utøya and the murderer who attacked the Bærum mosque. Obviously, I'm grateful to you in particular for your study of the Utøya murderer, which was one of several really important books examining that case. But I suppose it's tempting from this distance to look at these figures as belonging to a different set of problems and saying, well, these are people for whom the radicalisation process, the culture of white supremacy that they subscribe to is something they've really absorbed through the computer and something that they have shaped from what nowadays people call content- the content which has been exported into the Norwegian environment from countries like my own and the United States, which are great sources of online white supremacist thinking and provocation for the lone wolves; and there are many lone wolves, as we have been discovering, scattered across the planet. So, I'm wondering how you see that? Of course, we are exporters of that content; in a way, the Nordic countries are burdened with the idea that somehow the inhabitants of that area are the kind of living embodiment of the Aryan myth; you get saddled with that, and we get saddled with generating the justification for the violence that can emerge from it. So, I'm wondering really about where you would draw a line and say, well, actually those figures represent a new kind of problem; the extent that the pattern of information, the violence, the nature of the violence, their filming with the camcorders and phones and so on. And they're really operating with a different script which has come into their lives from the outside, usually generated in the UK or the United States. Do you see a break there? Do you see these as different kinds of figures as well as people who are, in a way, given permission by the mainstreaming of these ideas within the political culture?
Sindre: Well, arguably I would take a middle ground here. So, there's obvious historical continuities, but also ruptures if we look at the historical continuities. And this has been striking to me also with the Trump presidency in the United States; I don't know how many people in the international audience caught on to that, but the Norwegian prime minister is a conservative party politician, Erna Solberg, who visited the White House in early 2018, and this led to a comment from President Trump in which he is reported to have said to his staff, according to US media reports, that he would like for the US to have more immigrants from countries like Norway. And he was also reported to have contrasted Norway with immigrants from places like Haiti and the African continent. So, there's a deep racialised grammar to that particular imaginary of what Norway is. Now, in the Norwegian media commentators who responded to that comment, it was striking the extent to which they were mainly concerned with defending Norway from that very imaginary; so, 'we're multicultural, this country has changed, President Trump is wrong in conceiving of Norway and Norwegians as this homogeneous white space'. But, of course, if you look at international racial and racist imaginaries, going back to, say, Madison Grant, and The Passing of the Great Race, and so forth, the very idea of Norway and Nordic as the very embodiment of a 'white, racially pure, homogeneous space', has been there all along, right?
Paul: Yeah, it has.
Sindre: And it is at the ready disposal of anyone who wants to mobilise that particular imaginary. So, we see in these Norwegian right-wing extremists and white supremacists that they draw on this particular historical notion of what Norway is. And this becomes a kind of mobilising ideal.
Paul: Yeah, it's interesting. I mean, I don't want to oversimplify this, and of course everywhere is divided; everywhere is divided, everywhere is split. And I'm really sitting from a place of comfort where I can speculate about these things, because we are in real deep trouble here. But I suppose I'm interested in what that legacy turns into in the context of the international uprising in response to the killing of George Floyd, which I know has been very resonant with people in that part of the world- as everywhere else. And I was thinking when I was wondering what to ask you about that, you know I've had a long interest in the case of Eugene Obiora who was killed in Trondheim some years ago; and he, I think, was also the victim of a chokehold from a police officer if I remember correctly-  I haven't checked that unfortunately, but I seem to remember this question of the compression of the neck was a very big factor in the legal discussion of what had happened to him. So, I'm sort of wondering whether the local memories of these kinds of things come back? And the other reason I ask this question is because I know that for some years you've been working on the importance of the case of the killing of Benjamin Hermansen in early 2001; so, we're coming up now to a 20-year anniversary. So, I'm also wondering about the forms of political memory that surround these issues in their local iteration and their local manifestation.
Sindre: I think one of the things that was striking about the global protests in support of Black Lives Matter and in protest against the US police killings of African-American men and women in last spring was that these also resonated with a lot of people of racialised minority background in Norway, and even beyond that. So, there was this big demo in Oslo outside the parliament in June, I think it was, in which some 15,000 Norwegians gathered in support of Black Lives Matter and in protest against the killing of George Floyd in particular. And this was an entirely peaceful demonstration, cross-cultural; and it seemed to gather a lot of Norwegians who have grown up in a context of an urban space like Oslo, and especially in Oslo East, having grown in the past couple of decades into a place of what you yourself would refer to as multicultural conviviality; which is a question not of romanticising the sheer living together, the good and the bad. And this was, in the Norwegian context, quite an impressive turnout. And the reason why this resonates is, of course, that we know from the limited amount of research we have on policing in Norway, and I know this personally through my many encounters with Norwegian Jews of racialised minority background, that they experience much more ethnic or racial profiling from police officers than other Norwegians happen to do. And you mentioned the death of Eugene Obiora, this Norwegian-Nigerian man who lost his life; he had gone to a social welfare office to make a claim, was turned down by a local welfare officer and got into some kind of heated argument, which basically resulted in the local welfare office calling the police on him. And he died in a chokehold, which was later declared, as a result of all kinds of investigations, to be something Norwegian police shouldn't be using - that chokehold - because of the dangers involved. But we also know for a fact that there was no prosecution resulting from Mr Obiora's death; we know that one of the police officers involved in his death has operational and senior managerial responsibilities in the police district of Trondheim as we speak. There is also, of course, what you mentioned, the memory of the murder of Benjamin Hermansen, a 15-year-old boy whose father was from Ghana and his mother Norwegian, who was brutally murdered by Norwegian neo-Nazis at Holmlia in Oslo East on January 26th 2001. And in the context of these demos, it was quite striking to me as an observer, I attended this main demo in Oslo, to see the extent to which these memories were also mobilised in the context of the anti-racist mobilisation in support of Black Lives Matter and in protest against the killing of George Floyd. So, these are really memories that resonate with Norwegians of a very particular background.
Paul: Well, maybe we could turn towards the Hermansen story, because I know you've been working for a long time on that, and I know that it's extremely important for people outside the country to understand the pivotal nature of what happened. I mean, I haven't looked into it, I'm waiting really eagerly for the publication of your new book on this, but I assume that the neo-Nazi perpetrators of that killing nearly almost 20 years ago must have been released now; and I wonder really what difference the present climate makes to that process of recovery. I remember seeing some years ago that one of them was attending neo-Nazi rallies all over the place, so obviously in his case - and I'm not maligning him in saying this, I think this is established, perhaps you'll know more about it than I do - but it seems to me that the issue of rehabilitation didn't necessarily seem to have transformed his political outlook while he was incarcerated. So, what's important about the Hermansen story today for you?
Sindre: In working on this story - and I have to say my wanting to do a book on this came about through the fact that I work with youth of Muslim minority background in the very community in which Benjamin Hermansen lived as a child and as a teenager - and it struck me the extent to which this was a memory that was forever present. And if you grow up in that particular neighbourhood in Oslo East at Holmlia, it's a memory that is hard to miss because there is a memorial statue which stands only a few metres from where he died, close to a bus stop, so if you happen to live there you pass by this statue every day of the year virtually. But I do think it's also a story about missed opportunities, right? Because we had this significant anti-racist mobilisation following in the wake of the Hermansen murder in which some 40,000 Norwegians marched in torchlight procession through the streets of Oslo; and the then prime minister Jens Stoltenberg held a speech, as did the crown prince of Norway, Haakon Magnus. But it struck me in my first meeting with Benjamin's mother, the late Marit Hermansen, who unfortunately passed away in 2019, much too early; and she pointed me to this, because there is a way of thinking about right-wing extremist terror in this country, and arguably the killing of Benjamin Hermansen qualifies as terror- it doesn't appear in any relevant statistics on terrorism in Norway, and that also tells you a great deal about how terrorism statistics in this country and in other countries, I presume, are collected and the kind of biases that goes into the conceptualisation of what constitutes an act of terrorism; because this was an act which had serious local repercussions. I've spoken to people who carried knives for months after this murder in the same generational cohort as Benjamin; it terrorised and traumatised an entire generational cohort. And some of the people in that particular cohort are living with the consequences to this very day; I know this very well. So, one of the missed opportunities that the late Marit Hermansen pointed me to was the fact that in the ensuing trial - there were three Norwegian neo-Nazis who were put on trial - and in the ensuing trial, they were sort of typecast much as Breivik would 10 years later, as a socially pathological person, as a marginal person driven by their own personal failures, right? And if I look closely at the trajectories of Benjamin Hermansen's murderers, it is quite strikingly clear to me that the main architect of the murder, Ole Nicolai Kvisler, who was released back in 2013, was intensively ideologically motivated in his actions. The two others convicted for the murder were released earlier and they both recanted their acts; they are living under new names somewhere in Norway. Kvisler doesn't, he lives outside of Oslo under his full name. We know for a fact that throughout his prison sentence he remained a steadfast neo-Nazi; the first thing he did upon his release was to travel to Sweden to attend a training camp for the Nordic Resistance Movement, which is the largest neo-Nazi movement operating in Scandinavia today. So, there were a lot of missed opportunities there. And I think arguably also the Hermansen murder, as Breivik's acts, were folded into this national narrative of these being exceptional acts. And the underlying idea here is one of Nordic exceptionalism, right? So, Norway and Norwegians often conceive of themselves as being innocent; and this is what Gloria Wekker refers to insightfully as 'white innocence'; we're innocent of the crimes of colonialism and its attendant racism. In international press coverage of the Hermansen murder, you have international media, the Guardian, writes this up through its correspondent in Oslo, and he makes the startling claim that this is the first racist murder in Norwegian history. And I mean, if you know anything about Norwegian history, that's absolutely nonsensical, right?
Paul: Well, that's great to know that your new research into that whole case and its consequences, its political afterlife and so on will be with us soon. The last thing that I wanted to raise with you, and maybe it connects up to what you just said, is how the so-called alt-right and the identitarians, whether their new influence and their version of the exceptionalism, of northern European exceptionalism, is now defined through different tropes which have a power in, one fears, a younger group of people who are coming into the kind of culturalist landscape of race politics from a different direction; the very idea, actually, of the alt-right. Are these significant factors in the situation that's unfolding around you now?
Sindre: I think it's important to underline again this - and my writing on these issues have for a long time been a way of resisting the narrative of Norwegian and Nordic exceptionalism - the idea that Norwegians are so virtuous that this doesn't apply in our societies. But as far as the international influences are concerned, the identititarian movement and its tropes, I don't think has gained all that much traction within the sort of far-right continuum in the Norwegian context. I know for a fact that there has been attempts at playing the card of eco-fascism, some identitarians who are strikingly also in the Norwegian context; they all for some reason or other happen to have a background in the neo-Nazi milliers of the 1990s. And the rebranding here, the rebranding exercise is obviously also something they had caught on; so, let's call it 'differentialism' instead of racism- the ideas are still racist, but the kind of meta-politics involved also entails taking a distance from the most obvious forms of biological racism, if you like. And we know for a fact that identitarianism played a part as a source of inspiration for Manshaus, this attempted mosque killer in Bærum in August 2019, but then mainly in the form of inspiration, not only from Breivik but also from the Christchurch killer.
Paul: The way in which the political morality of anti-racism is processed, politically, in the governmental and juridical aspects doesn't seem to be changed. From what you're saying, it seems as though this exceptionist narrative is intact; that when these events occur they're always isolated, they're always the product of individual pathology; the larger picture of the ideological motivation remains obscure; and that our attempts to track it through these different iterations over time, through different political generations and so on, is really essentially peripheral to the way these things are spoken about and understood more broadly.
Sindre: Yeah, and it is with a sense of deep regret that I have to say this, but I don't think that there is a significant level of political and social reckoning with these critical events relating to right-wing extremism, white supremacism and racism in this country. And that applies to this very date. If we look at the political discourse, Norway still has a right-wing government which actually funds racism through state support of a far-right and racist outfit, Human Rights Service, based in Oslo. This is in violation with Norway's statutory commitments under relevant international human rights and anti-racist legislation, such as the UN said 1965, but this has become part of a political calculation. The Conservative Party in power desperately wants to get the Progress Party back in the coalition government, and so it is willing to quite cynically continue to actively fund and support these organisations. And I'm afraid the Norwegian anti-racist movement, for all its mobilisation on this particular issue, hasn't really been able to shift significant ground. We also have, if you look at hate speech legislation in Norway, and part of my problem with that is, of course, that if you reduce state responsibilities for all citizens to a question of legislating and enforcing laws directed at individual statements that may or may not be particularly important, it is not the people I see in the courts being prosecuted for hate speech that constitute the main threat as far as racism and white supremacy in Norway is concerned; these are mainly people with marginal influence. And part of the logic of neo-liberalism is of course to reduce racism to the matter of individual attitudes.
Paul: Yes. Well, what then of the anti-racist movement do you think that the impact of the uprisings in America around the killings of African-Americans at the hands of the police-and here one must also acknowledge the effects of the pandemic and the forms of violence, of slower violence, the forms of inequality and injustice that have been revealed in the picture of the impact of the disease, differential impact of the disease and the differential ability of the disease along readily racialised lines. Do you see the anti-racist movement locally as being able to move up through that exposure and encounter? Is it a growing phenomenon at the moment? Are you optimistic about its condition?
Sindre: Well, as far as the wider anti-racist movement is concerned, I'm quite optimistic. And I have to say that my main reason for this optimism has to do with the fact that in the context of these mobilisations in support of Black Lives Matter and against police killings in the US that we saw in Norway last year, I have for the first time in my life and I'm approaching my late 40s, seen the public conversation about racism in this country being dominated by people who have experience themselves. In other words, people of racialised minority background. Part of the structural problem in Norway, as in many other countries, is that public conversations about racism are all too often dominated by people like me. And I get my fair amount of hate mail, but I never get the kind of vile, racist statements that many people of racialised minority background in Norway actually experience. And one of the takeaways from the Norwegian mobilisations has also been that anti-racism has always been global and it has always drawn on international imaginaries and ideals, as you yourself have demonstrated so eloquently in The Black Atlantic and other works. But that very fact is, of course, also used in the counterattacks that we've seen coming from the media establishment and quite a few liberal conservative academics in this country in the past couple of months, which have constituted a veritable backlash against anti-racism. So, the idea here is that the anti-racist movement have imported their framework from the US and that framework is not applicable in Norway because Americans talk way too much about race, and we don't, right?
Paul: Yeah, well, no doubt it won't be long before your political foes are seeking to criminalise and ridicule the practice of critical race theory as our politicians are.
Sindre: We're expecting that to be coming up soon.
Paul: It won't be long; we've just got that.
Sindre: But anyway, there's certainly an infusion of new energy and a lot of people of - and this is something I and people who stand in this anti-racist tradition in Norway are extremely grateful for - there's a great infusion of energy, dynamism and original ideas from racialised minority youth that have really been mobilised by these global protests. So, the challenge for the established anti-racist movement is how to channel that vital energy and how to continue to mobilise these very promising trends.
Paul: Well, Sindre, that's a very pleasantly optimistic note on which to draw our conversation to a close. Thank you very much for giving us your time. And we're really all very excited to see your new book on the Benjamin Hermansen murder and its afterlife. So, thank you very, very much for joining me today.
Sindre: Thank you so much, Paul.