Multicultural Norway — a pragmatist approach

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Is Norway a multicultural society? The editor of Shuddhashar posed the question and asked me to reflect upon it. My simple answer is ‘that depends on the definition’.  Individual rights still are top of the league, and that’s the way it ought to be.

According to associate professor Kjetil Fosshagen, multiculturalism is both a descriptive and a normative concept. The descriptive part simply shows us that our modern, Western societies are no longer culturally uniform. At the time of the birth of the nation-state in the 18th century, categories such as “whites”, “Europeans”, or “Christians” were maybe more meaningful, easier to define and more intuitively felt as ‘true’.


Modern nationalism as boundaries

Modern nationalism has its roots in the 18th century Enlightenment and Romanticism. As a mass phenomenon, it had its heyday in the 19th century, as an ideology professing that every “civilized” people should be governed by their “own”. The social anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen writes in Store Norske Leksikon that during the industrial revolution, more people received education and the mass media, such as newspapers, helped to create common feelings of identity that embraced almost all of society. This modernization process also helped to strengthen and create clear boundaries for other peoples. This certainly was important to former colonial states, fighting for independence and self-rule.

But today, our societies are a web of culturally diverse groups, and the cultural sensitivities of our time are to see and value this. Norway used to look upon itself as a homogenous society, basically constituted by ethnic Norwegians. Later, Sami people and the Finnish minority known as ‘Kven, were taken into the fold. Very belatedly, a small Jewish minority was established in the country, but not before the infamous Jewish paragraph in the constitution was lifted in 1851. No Jews were permitted into the realm between 1814 and 1851.


New ethnicities enter

Since the 1960s, we have seen various new ethnic groups come to Norway as immigrants during great need in the labour markets. Others have come as political refugees or just as individuals seeking a better life. The Sami have fought for and claimed a new position in society, after centuries of injustice, like various indigenous minorities across the globe.

Given all these different ethnicities living within the Norwegian national territory, it is evident that we now live in a multicultural society. There is pluralism. In certain parts of Oslo, there are close to majorities of non-ethnic Norwegian citizens.


The normative part

The normative meaning of multiculturalism is somewhat more contentious. According to Fosshagen, the term questions the notion that “white” or “Western” people are the only dominant actors in world history and the only ones who have produced great works of value to all mankind. The term thereby seeks to confirm and promote diversity as a model for human life and relativize cultural value.

This has created friction in several societies, with questions like: “Is my culture losing ground? Are my values being undermined?” Segments of society seem overtly nostalgic, leaning towards a past where things were simpler. But this is maybe a past that has never existed?


Norway manages this quite well

Certain right-wing environments make use of such feelings. And there have been major incidents in Norway due to this, with lone wolves attacking symbols of multiculturalism.

In 2019 Philip Manshaus murdered his Asian stepsister and attacked a mosque. Manshaus professed the same ideology as the mass-murderer Anders Breivik, who on the 22nd of July 2011 murdered 69 young radical activists at their holiday camp just outside of Oslo. In Breivik’s published manifest, his self-professed fight against multiculturalism played a decisive role.

But as researcher Susanne Bygnes wrote a year after Brevik’s terrorist attack, multiculturalism as an ideology has rarely been advocated for by mainstream politicians or groups, although the concept is used by many.

The concept of multiculturalism, according to Bygnes, was first used in Canada back in 1971 to describe a political aim to support and keep the cultural heritage of the country’s minority groups. (This is not unlike what happened a decade later in Norway, with the opening of a Sami Parliament). Integration does not mean individual assimilation, but rather having several cultures living side by side.  Australia has followed Canada, and in Europe, three countries are often seen as having opted for some form of multicultural policies, namely Great Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden.

In some English towns and cities, you might have sharia law being practised concerning family matters, living side by side with English law. Dutch politics in the 1980s saw to it that certain official immigrant minority groups would have their needs and rights taken care of via state-financed ethnic parallel societies. That meant schools and certain social services adapted to each ethnic group.

This has served certain groups well, but it has led to unhealthy group pressure and subjugating social practices on other levels.


A pragmatic Norwegian approach

In Norway, we serve halal food for prisoners. Information about covid-19 is produced in several languages to reach out to various ethnic communities. Some practical adaptations have been made at schools, where Muslim pupils now are granted the day off during the celebration of Eid, and at the primary school level, there are multiple ways of celebrating Christmas. In the labour market, employers must make overt efforts to employ marginalized groups. Organized religious groups receive state support.

This is a pragmatic approach. But all pupils must participate in physical education classes, including swimming classes, and there are mixed classes, both girls and boys. The debate over similar issues in a Swedish, English, and Dutch context has at times been different. But specific cultural differentiation is less popular than it used to be some years back, and other issues are deemed more critical, like unemployment and social marginalization. As such, multiculturalism in this sense has lost its “fanbase” and has a weaker following than it used to.


Equality might mean less diversity

In political science, multiculturalism can be defined as a state’s capacity to deal with cultural plurality effectively and efficiently within its sovereign borders. I think Norway is quite good at that, and as I see it, we are back at my point of departure. We are a multicultural society. And this is basically a fact for all countries, be they in Europe, the Americas, Africa, or Asia. We have a lot of cultural diversity. This is not because the Norwegian Labour Party has had a master plan like the terrorist Breivik seems to think, but it is just a matter of fact.

In Norway, we have a strong emphasis on equality. The welfare state makes us all more equal than in a society like the US, with its more minimalistic state. But paradoxically, this quest for equality also leaves less room for being different. There is more cultural variety in the US than in Norway. The Amish and Silicon Valley gurus are galaxies apart, but both live well within the American national borders.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen points out that, while the actual cultural differences in any society tend to diminish over time, there is often an increased awareness of diversity, which can be expressed politically. Identity-political movements demand recognition and respect, and if they fail, the result can be increasing polarization.

There is thus no indication that identity politics and cultural differences will become less important in most states. The multicultural challenge lingers with us in the form of balancing between difference and equality.

Personally, I enjoy living in a culturally diverse society. I would like to keep it that way. A pragmatic approach to group rights is wise.  But whenever there are stories of group rights and cultural rights that harm the rights of individuals, for instance, women’s right to marry for love or choose friends, the individual’s right to determine their educational or career path, or choose to leave their religion, then group right must step down.


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