Norway - a multi-ethnic country

Norway is generally regarded as a homogeneous country with a small, scattered population who speak the same language and belong to the same culture. Nevertheless, - like almost every other country � it has always consisted of an ethnic and cultural mix of peoples.

By Thomas Hylland Eriksen

The Sami and Finnish- speaking groups in the north are the best- known minorities, but the gipsies and the so-called taters (a group related to the gipsies) have been a permanent component of Norwegian society for hundreds of years. One should not forget either that immigration from Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Finland has in certain periods been both important and of considerable proportions, right since the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, it is only in the last ten years that the issue of ethnic minorities has appeared on the agenda in the Norwegian community. This is due to a number of factors, among them the growth of the Sami movement. But the most important is the immigration from non-European countries. Up to the late 1960s, there were virtually no immigrants in Norway from countries outside Europe. This year there are more than 100,000 immigrants and they constitute two and a half per cent of the population. In comparison with other countries like Sweden and Great Britain Norway has few immigrants, but immigration and the new, multi-ethnic nature of the community have nevertheless a central place in popular debate.

The first and still the largest group of non-European immigrants were the Pakistanis. They were initially invited to Norway as "guest workers" in 1969 and within a few years were followed by others from the same parts of Pakistan, often relatives. During this same period immigrants also came from other countries, most importantly Turkey.

Like many other West European countries, Norway imposed a ban on immigration in 1975. The economy had deteriorated and unemployment was on the rise. There was no longer a need for unskilled labour. But immigration from these same countries continued in the 1970s and into the 80s as a result of factors such as family reunion.

Many immigrants came to Norway in the 1980s and 90s too.. This was no longer a question of imported labour but human rights put into practice. The immigrants of this period were mainly political refugees, coming from countries like Pinochet's Chile, Khomeini's Iran, Sri Lanka, where civil was raged, Vietnam, Turkish Kurdistan, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia.

A Norwegian integration policy is formulated

Strictly speaking an immigrant is a person who was born in a different country to the one where he or she now lives. Thus, both Swedes, Britons and North Americans who live in Norway are just as much immigrants as are the Pakistanis and Kurds. Most immigrants from other rich countries � who comprise about half of the total immigrant population (about 100,000) come to Norway either as students, in order to marry a Norwegian or because they possess some special skill. These are not regarded as immigrants by the Norwegian authorities and will therefore not be dealt with in this article.

The circumstances of life for the various types of immigrant vary considerably. The first wave of immigrants from countries such as Pakistan and Turkey consisted mainly of young men without much education. The big majority of Pakistani immigrants in Norway come from a small cluster of villages near Lahore in the Pakistani Punjab. They have largely settled down and have homes, families and jobs in the Oslo region (including Drammen) some miles to the southwest. They have a number of organisations, religious communities, family networks, publications and other links which give them deep social roots. Many of them have children who are nearing adulthood and who have lived all their lives in Norway.

From the beginning the situation for refugees differed from that of persons who came to Norway to work. Many came alone and were placed in reception centres that were often far from the nearest urban centres. Many experienced, and still do, great difficulty in procuring a job and a home. Some of those who had fled from political oppression waited for the first opportunity to return home and never put down roots in Norway. For others the move to Norway meant a fresh beginning. Refugees are generally better educated than immigrants who come to seek work, who as a rule come from country districts.

Norwegian policy as regards asylum seekers is the subject of many debates. Some say it is too strict, others too lenient. In certain periods, such as during the civil war in Yugoslavia, Norway has accepted a large number of refugees: in other periods very few. By percentage, Norway has far fewer immigrants and refugees than Sweden, about the same number as in Denmark and many more than Finland and Iceland.

As in other European countries, immigration to Norway has posed many political and social challenges. The building of Norway as a nation and the development of the welfare state in the twentieth century placed great emphasis on cultural equality as the national cornerstone. Many believed that it was not citizenship as such but a common history and origins that defined the national fellowship. During the first years of "labour" immigration many reckoned that the so-called guest workers would return to their homelands after a few years. Many were likely to have planned a return, but few did so. As the 80s progressed, it became clear that Norway now had a permanent minority of people with a non-European background. They looked different to ethnic Norwegians and in many very important areas they were quite different from a cultural viewpoint. It became necessary to formulate an integration policy. Ideally speaking, integration is not the same as either assimilation or segregation. Assimilation implies that the minorities gradually become culturally identical with the majority and melt into this community. Segregation is the opposite of this: when groups are kept strictly separated as in South Africa under apartheid. Integration means that minority groups participate in the common activities of the community - work, school, politics � but reserve the right to remain culturally separate from this majority.

Discrimination and racism

The many challenges to society that result from immigration can be divided into two types. Those linked with discrimination and racism and those connected to cultural differences.

As regards discrimination.there is no doubt that it is still widespread. There is thorough documentation for the assertion that immigrants have bigger problems than others do in procuring jobs and homes. A number of discotheques and nightclubs refuse to admit persons who look as though they come from a non- European country. It has even been known for people to change their names � for example from Arabic-sounding to West European � and to be suddenly called in for job interviews for the first time in their lives. It is also on record that the police treat people differently on the basis of their appearance. Those who do not look like Norwegians, risk being stopped on the street and asked for proof of identity. A similar situation would never occur in the case of a pale-skinned immigrant from Germany, for example.

There are a number of organisations that work for the immigrants' right to equal treatment. In 1998, the state established the Centre For Combatting Ethnic Discrimination, but voluntary organisations (NGO's) like the Anti-Racist Centre and the Institution Against Public Discrimination are still the main players in the debate on the rights of minorities.

Extreme right-wing groups exist in Norway as they do in other North European countries. These groups, which from time to time incite violence to "make Norway white again" are small but they create fear in certain immigrant circles. Parties that are closer to the political centre have used criticism against immigrants strategically in election campaigns; primarily the Progress Party, which in the 1990s was one of the country's two or three biggest parties.

Cultural differences

Discrimination is a major obstacle in the way of integration of minorities. When immigrants are not treated as equals, it is difficult for them to feel at home in Norway. The other set of prob lems connected with culture is more difficult to tackle politically. There is no political party that proclaims that it is against equal treatment of immigrants and the rest of the population though the gap between theory to practice can be considerable.

Many of the immigrants to Norway (around 70,000) are Muslims. Many more have another mother tongue than Norwegian: There are also factors such as way of life, fundamental values, habits and customs, that separate a number of immigrant groups from most ethnic Norwegians. Many come from strongly male-dominated societies where men decide over women and fathers over children. These values, which dominate in many parts of the world, come into sharp conflict with the Norwegian ideal of equality. Many would say that Norway is obsessed with equality, which must make it even more confusing for immigrants to experience that they do not get the equal treatment they have a right to.

Sex roles in Norway are characterised by a higher degree of equality between men and women than in most other countries. It is an express political goal, particularly in the Labour Party and the Socialist Left, that men and women are to have the same opportunities with regard to education and profession. Marriage is based on a free choice of partner and most people consider it acceptable for couples to live together without being married. Serial monogamy � changing of partners after a number of years � is widespread. Both partners are responsible for children's upbringing, which is liberal in Norway. Children's rights have been on the political agenda for a couple of decades and fundamental values such as freedom and independence hold a central position both in the home and in the schools.

Among many immigrants, not least from the western parts of Asia and the Indian subcontinent, fundamental values are different. Marriages are arranged between the two families. They are for life and the man has supreme authority in the home. Ideally, the woman should stay at home and she has main responsibility both for housework and the upbringing of the children.

The practice of arranged marriages in particular has aroused the ire of many Norwegians as it so clearly conflicts with the ideals of individuality and equality that the Norwegians hold so dear. Arranged marriages are not forbidden in Norway though forced marriages are. But obviously, the Norwegians are unlikely to understand an ideology which puts the interests of the family before those of the individual in a society where many parents, if not most, breathe a sigh of relief when sons and daughters finally leave the nest at the age of 19-20.

Another thorny issue is language and language teaching. While some maintain that Norwegian should be the only teaching language in the schools, others say that children from non-Norwegian backgrounds have a right to be taught in their mother tongue at the same time as they learn Norwegian. In municipalities with many immigrants, children are taught in several dozen languages, from Farsi to Somali. Whether this makes integration any easier for the pupils is a complicated question to which experts have no easy answer.

Religion is another controversial theme. Norwegian Muslims have long wished to build mosques in districts where there are many Muslims (mainly Oslo and Drammen), but they have met powerful protests. In Drammen, the town council has since 1975 regularly turned down applications to build a mosque. In Oslo there is now large mosque built in Arab style. Debate raged long over whether the Muslim communities should be allowed to call believers to prayer over a loudspeaker system. Those who supported this pointed out that there is no ban on church bells. This issue has now been settled. Calls to prayer over loudspeakers are permitted, on a line with church bells.

Different or the same?

In these and a number of other sectors, the dividing line in the population in general goes between those who say that successful integration involves immigrants becoming as much like Norwegians as possible, and those who maintain that a condition for integration is the right to be different. The latter group point out that minorities who are deprived of the right to preserve much of their cultural heritage will never feel like fully accepted citizens.

This is a complicated problem to which there is no simple answer. If minorities are given extensive cultural rights, one risks violations of basic human rights. Also, a few prominent leaders could put obstacles in the way of others' full participation in Norwegian society. On the other hand, if one refuses to acknowledge cultural differences, there is a risk that the minorities will feel they are not respected and are being forced to live in a "Norwegian" culture in which they have no interest.

Among immigrants themselves opinions are divided on which integration policy is best. There are both modernists who advocate equality for women and traditionalists who insist on continued adherence to the age-old values.

A balance must be struck between the right to equal treatment and the right to be different if integration is to work. The law stipulates that all those living in Norway are to have an equal right to work and education and few in Norway openly defend differential treatment. Laws also govern religious tolerance. In other words it is an area in which differences must be accepted in accordance with the law, and citizens also have a right to a mother tongue other than Norwegian.

During the last two to three years, classical conceptions of Norway and what it means to be Norwegian have been challenged. This is due not least to the multi-ethnic society. Being Norwegian no longer implies being culturally the same: the integration of immigrants requires equality in some areas but not all. What degree of difference can be accepted and what constitutes a violation of society's most basic values.

One side effect of immigration and the accompanying debate on integration is that many have become aware of the considerable variations among "native" Norwegians . Views on religion, marriage, the rearing of children and even language � where the conflict between standard Norwegian and new Norwegian still rages � create deep rifts among ethnic Norwegians.This should serve as a reminder that total uniformity is not necessary in order to create national unity.

Second and third generation

Norway has a much shorter history as a goal for immigrants than for example, Great Britain and France, which on account of their history as colonial powers have had an inflow of immigrants for several generations. As opposed to countries like the Netherlands and Italy, Norway, with the possible exception of Bergen, has never had major centres of international trade. This illustrates the new aspects of the present multi-ethnic situation. Norway has few historical experiences to draw on in its handling of immigrant minorities and the influx of non-Europeans has markedly changed society. Against this background there is reason to view the future with optimism. Although complete equality between immigrants and ethnic Norwegians has not yet been achieved, and although both Norwegians and immigrants are responsible for the conflicts that arise, there is general agreement that the immigrants are here to stay. Furthermore, there is no doubt whatsoever that their culture and way of living have changed dramatically since they came to Norway. This is most clearly evident among the children who strictly speaking should be described as first generation Norwegians, but who are nevertheless called second generation immigrants.

Many of those who were born of immigrant parents and grew up in Norway are now young adults. Several of them have made positive contributions to society, as politicians, debaters, writers, programme leaders in television, etc. Fairly recently the first-stand-up comedian with a Pakistani background has appeared on the scene. To add to the novelty, she is a young woman. This generation is in many respects totally different from the ones that preceded it. These young people speak Norwegian without an accent and consequently can scarcely be described as coming from an alien culture by those who oppose immigration. They are far more familiar with Norwegian society than their parents are and know how to promote their interests and safeguard their rights. They are familiar with both worlds and this fact creates special problems for the group as a whole. On the one hand Norwegians have told them since childhood that they are different, while they in fact know no other homeland than Norway. On the other hand they often feel pressured by their parent generation to remain faithful to the traditional values and not become "too Norwegian". Studies indicate that many of this generation, not unexpectedly, want to get the best of both worlds: personal freedom and treatment as equals in Norwegian society but also security through the cultural heritage of their parents and their country of origin. Many continue to be practising Muslims, to speak Punjabi or a similar language at home and to follow customary traditions at the same time as they demand to be treated as Norwegians on a par with all others in society.

Successful integration must provide people with the possibility to get the best of both worlds and not the worst. Everyone has their own destiny and it is possible to find examples of both of these things today. The true test of whether Norway is managing to integrate its immigrants without excluding them or eradicating their special identity will show in the second generation and in their children in turn. If they too are not treated as equals on the jobs market and in the search for a place to live, Norway will have in reality introduced a caste system. There is good reason to be optimistic, but if integration is to be successful on the long-term, the immigrants, their children, ethnic Norwegians and not least the state must be willing to make a very special effort.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen is professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo and editor of the periodical Samtiden (Our Times).


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