Presentation at Princeton University, Oct 2, 2015


Presentation  for Conference on Xenophobia and Social Integration at the Institute For Advanced Studies (IAS)/Princeton Institute For International and Regional Studies (PIIRS), Princeton University, Oct 1 to 3 2015. Given by Sindre Bangstad (cand. Polit., PhD in Anthropology), Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo, Norway at Aaron Burr Hall, Princeton, Oct 2 2015.


«When we start asking from minorities to take away their ‘signs’ of difference in order to demonstrate that they want to function as citizens in the public sphere, we might also be reintroducing a mechanism that enables us always to find a sign of difference, the moment we decide to find such signs.»


Yolande Jansen, ‘French Secularism In Light Of The History of Assimilation’, Constellations 16 (4) 2009: 601



Let me first thank the organizers Profs John Borneman and Sergei Oushakine and the IAS’ Director Didier Fassin for their kind invitation to this conference. It is a conference which in light of the global refugee crisis and its repercussions in Europe at present could hardly have come at a more auspicious time. I strongly welcome this call for comparative and cross-disciplinary research and reflection on one of the most burning issues of our time. This presentation will deal not so much with the conceptual issues which the term xenophobia undoubtedly raises – important as they are – but with who it may be understood through some of its empirical manifestations.

Xenophobia and Islamophobia

The conference proposal underlines the need for local specificity and context in analyzing these phenomena (see also Scott 2007: 9 for this point with regard to Muslims in Western European countries). And so I will approach this from my particular vantage point – namely that of the social and political developments which has occurred in my native Norway since the 1980s. My presentation here is based on material from my two most recent monographs, namely Anders Breivik And The Rise of Islamophobia (Bangstad 2014) and The Politics of Mediated Presence: Exploring The Voices of Muslims in Norway’s Mediated Public Spheres (Bangstad 2015a). The first book explores the political and social context for the emergence of a form of Islamophobia in Norway which has so far had its most violent expression in the twin terrorist attacks by a white Norwegian right-wing extremist on July 22 2011. The second book explores the experiences of young Norwegian Muslims who have tried to engage the wider public spheres in Norway and engage in counter-speech in the face of an increasingly hostile climate for Muslims, which very much includes hostility from liberal elites of both genders otherwise prone to see themselves as living embodiments of tolerance and virtue. But this doesn’t mean that it suffices to analyze these developments in isolated nation-state contexts. For the communicative flows of globalization and the ubiquity of various social media means that xenophobia and xenophobic discourses, imaginaries and rhetorical tropes ‘travel’ like never before. In analyzing the Norwegian mass murdering terrorist Anders Breivik’s 1818 pages cut-and-paste tract 2083: A European Declaration of Independence for my 2014 monograph, I found that it was profoundly inspired by a transnational genre of popular literature and films known as the ‘Eurabia genre’ (Carr 2006; Bangstad 2013). And this genre is transnational and has multiple nodes of production and dissemination: From the autodidact far-right Swiss-Israeli Giséle Littman (‘Bat Ye’or’) to Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller and Srdja (Serge) Trifkovic in the USA, the late Oriana Fallaci in Italy to Lars Hedegaard in Denmark and Peder Are Nøstvold Jensen (‘Fjordman’) and Bruce Bawer in Norway. And it is a genre which has long since made it into the political mainstream in many countries, into the mainstream media (Bail 2015; Berry and Sobieraj 2013) and even into (qasi-) academic contexts: Watch Fox News or read Niall Ferguson, Christopher Caldwell, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Paul Cliteur any day to register its influence.  In my native Norway, the first popular book in the ‘Eurabia’ genre was written by a long-standing Conservative Member of Parliament and organizer for a Christian conservative outfit named ‘With Israel For Peace’ (‘Med Israel For Fred, MIFF’), Hallgrim Berg, and published in 2007 (Berg 2007). Norway has since October 2013 had the most right-wing government in Norwegian history, a coalition government between the populist right-wing Progress Party and the Conservative Party. The main mobilizing factor for Progress Party voters since 1987 has been the party’s policies on immigration and integration – and any balanced assessment of the party’s record on this will tell you that it has long traded on bashing both refugees, immigrants and minorities – and particularly so when these happen to be of Muslim background (ca. 4% of the total population per 2015) (Bangstad 2015b). For Muslims, who have had a significant presence in Norway only since the 1970s (first as labour migrants, then refugees), are the most deeply unpopular minority group in Norway as measured on scales of social distance, itinerant Roma from Eastern Europe excepted (HL-Center 2012). We are right now – at the time of writing this – in a situation in which thousands of Syrian refugees have arrived in Norway in recent weeks – a number of whom have in the face of a government which makes it perfectly clear that it could not care less about their plight and are unwilling to put up the resources this new flow requires – been forced to live and sleep on the streets of Oslo awaiting the state’s registration of their asylum applications. But Norway is by no means exceptional in this regard – this is part of a consistent pattern throughout much of Western Europe which has crystallized since at least the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (Borneman 1992) – if not before – and has no doubt been exacerbated by the rise of salafi-jihadist terrorism and the turmoil in the Middle East since the 1990s. What we have seen in recent weeks in Eastern Europe is also that polities in Eastern Europe – in spite of hardly having an actual Muslim presence at all –  are as prone – if not more prone to constructing nationalist boundaries anchored in racialized ideas of ‘the Muslim’ (Goldberg 2006) as their Western European counterparts are. ‘Platonic Islamophobia’ or ‘Islamophobia in the absence of actual Muslims’ are perhaps apposite terms here – but it should not be forgotten that many Eastern European countries these days are significant exporters of labour migrants to Western European countries (Norway has an estimated 250, 000 Polish workers) and that these labour migrants (who in the case of Norway tend to support populist right-wingers in their country of origin) are as much part of the global circulation of xenophobic and Islamophobic ideas and sentiments as any others. The political scientist Cas Mudde has famously declared about the (uneven) rise of far-right political formations in Western Europe that the fears they trade on and instrumentalize are not economic (‘It’s not the economy, stupid!’ Mudde 2007). At the outset, such a verdict seems applicable to Norway, in as much as it is a paradox that the first Scandinavian country to have a populist right-wing party in government was also the one country which had weathered the ongoing European financial crises best, which has the lowest level of youth unemployment of any Scandinavian country, an advanced welfare state which still enjoys widespread legitimacy and popularity, and a capacity for social integration of immigrants which is among the best in Western Europe according to the OECD. But we need to go beyond Mudde’s declaration of absolute analytical certainty in order to understand what has happened to and in Norway. And this is the question to which I will now turn.

Social Integration

I take the task of any social scientist worth his or her salt to attempt to explain various social and political phenomena in the present. This does not mean, however, that we should search for reductionist causalities or interpretative closures by which “an important question is laid to rest by a seemingly comprehensive answer (Ghassem-Fachandi 2012: 23). But we need to ask the question as to where all of this is coming from without reducing its complexities, paradoxes and contradictions. My proposition here will nevertheless be quite simple. The French political scientist Pierre Rosanvallon argues in The Society of Equals (Rosanvallon 2012) that the rise of xenophobia, nationalism and processes of social and political exclusion and stigmatization in contemporary Europe should be linked to the rise of inequality  under conditions of neo-liberal governance. Rosanvallon writes that “political citizenship has progressed, whilst social citizenship has regressed. This rending of democracy is the major phenomenon of our time and an ominous threat to our well-being…The growth of inequality is at once an index of this distress and its driving force. It is the stealthy blade that is silently severing the social bond and simultaneously undermining social solidarity” (Rosanvallon 2013: 1-2). In reviewing modern European history, Rosanvallon finds that what he terms ‘crises of equality’ generative of pathologies like nationalism, protectionism and xenophobia seems to recur (Rosanvallon op. cit.: 9).  This might of course sound like the return of a mono-causal and deterministic Marxisant theory, but it really is not.

Recall the following: It is nowadays all too often forgotten that the twinned rise of mass  popular democracy and the welfare state – which did not – as Rosanvallon reminds us – come about without long, hard and protracted struggles on the part of those excluded from the polity – whether they be working-class or women – was premised on a form of social integration which was in fact remarkably successful and led to a cross-political compact which held sway in many Western European countries after World War II. Not the least in Scandinavia – where in the case of Norway – the petroleum boom in the 1960s and onwards enabled the development of one of the most advanced welfare states in the modern world (Sejersted 2011). The late Tony Judt – in many respects a very conservative European social democrat – towards the end of his life argued that the vertical solidarity between citizens and the horizontal trust of the modern state on which the welfare state depends “pre-existed the welfare institutions which gave it public form” (Judt 2010: 71). “The welfare state is not primarily, except in Scandinavia, the work of social democrats.” (Judt 2012: 352).  And so, he notes, “the successful welfare states of northern Europe were remarkably homogeneous” and the future of the welfare state in the face of increasing heterogeneity and pluralization is grim: “A steady increase in the number of immigrants, particularly immigrants from the ‘third world’, correlates all too well in the Netherlands, not to mention the United Kingdom, with a noticeable decline in social cohesion” (Judt op. cit.: 68-70). Now, the US of course famously has not got a welfare state due to its original ‘sin’ of being a nation of and for immigrants and therefore all too heterogeneous for the kind of solidarity among citizens that the welfare state requires to find fertile soil (Alesina, Glaeser, Sacerdote 2001). And anyone reading Robert Putnam (Putnam 2000; 2015) these days is bound to conclude that too much heterogeneity – whether social, political, religious or ethnic – is corrosive of the very fabric of social relations in any given society. Modern Norwegians have as the late Norwegian social anthropologist Marianne Gullestad was very fond of pointing out – always imagined themselves to be part of a homogenous and equal society (Gullestad 2006). But that very idea was of course a proverbial modern social imaginary (Taylor 2004), achieved through a process of selective national remembrance and forgetting in as much as Norway has for centuries had an indigenous Saami, Finn and Kven population, as well as travelling Tater/Roma communities and a small Jewish community, a significant proportion of which perished in the Holocaust/Shoah with the willing assistance of the Nazified Norwegian state police from 1940-45. Norway has to date not even remotely come to terms with the brutalities and repression the attempted forced assimilation of these minority populations well into our time entailed. And so Norway has in recent years had any number of government-appointed commissions headed by leading Norwegian secular feminist sociologists of the day tasked with exploring how much immigrants from specific countries cost the Norwegian welfare state over their life spans in comparison with Norwegians born and bred here (Brochmann and Hagelund 2010). The underlying racialized logics and methodological nationalism of these scholarly exercises are very hard to miss – and it should come as no surprise to note that the conclusion is that ‘non-Western’ immigrants in particular – still more prone to unemployment, and sickness and disability in later life if employed – ‘do not pay’ and are therefore ipso facto rendered a threat against the future sustainability of the welfare state.

But this is after all only one of several possible narratives about social integration, the welfare state and immigration that it is possible to tell. And this particular narrative risks missing the point in positing ethnic and religious heterogeneity as the predominant threat against social integration and the welfare state. Judt was of course no fan of either Thatcherism or Reaganomics, but the extent to which he in the paragraphs I have cited appears to ignore the long-term consequences of the epochal economic, but also cultural, social and political, if not also epistemological shift that the ‘neo-liberal revolution’ (Hall 2011, Piketty 2014, Rosanvallon 2013, Brown 2015) of the 1980s entailed is striking. “These intellectual and cultural shifts were crucial, because they made impending changes thinkable and acceptable” (Rosanvallon op. cit.: 218). For who exactly is it who have flocked to the ranks of far and populist right-wing formations in Western Europe since the 1980s? At least in the case of Norway, the pattern is relatively clear: it is predominantly white male working-class turned service-class voters who are attracted by the anti-immigration and anti-Muslim messages of the populist right. Far right political formations across Western Europe have “capitalized on frustrations due to the diffuse feeling that reciprocity has broken down, directing their fire at both the privileged elite and immigrants said to be taking advantage of the taxpayers’ generosity” (Rosanvallon op. cit.: 275).  The Progress Party is noteworthy for having the highest number of voters living on social welfare, some of the least educated voters, and for having overwhelmingly male voters. The industrial working class in Norway is probably the most pampered and heavily unionized working-class in the world, with semi-skilled artisans earning annual salaries that academics like me in Norway can only dream of. But the situation of the service class is much more precarious and unstable. Add to this that a hidden cost of relative gender equality in Norway is that as much as 25 % of the adult male population can now never expect to marry, have children or a family of their own. In a sexual market where highly educated Norwegian females opt for partners with a similar background, social status, income levels and values, these 25 % males are not sufficiently attractive to either have sex or to procreate with. Norway has in recent years seen a spectacular and disturbing rise in the number of young people put on disability grants: These are more often than not young males with mental health problems which seem far from unrelated to their inability to cope with societal expectations regarding educational and professional attainment and success in one’s private life. And Norwegian politics, regardless of left or right political orientation, is increasingly dominated by a solidly middle-class, well-educated corps of technocrats who become professional politicians when in their teens, have well-nigh no experience with ordinary work, allow themselves salary and pension benefits well above what ordinary citizens are entitled to, and are widely seen as aloof to the concerns of ordinary Norwegians.  The paradox of the present is of course that the Progress Party has in fact aligned itself with a Conservative Party whose voters (the most well-educated, most solidly middle class and with the highest income levels of any party’s voters) have material interests which are exactly contrary to those of average Progress Party voters. And two years into the coalition government, it is the Progress Party who has lost most of the battles: They are in control of immigration and integration policies, but in spite of having the Finance Ministry, they have had to accept monumental reductions in the inheritance taxes for Norway’s richest 5% – tax reductions demanded by the corporate billionaire funders of the Conservative Party (see Bangstad 2015b). This should alert us to the perils of thinking xenophobia and Islamophobia as a domain exclusive to the proverbial ‘white male losers’ of globalization and neo-liberal governance: These phenomena have returned with full force in contemporary Europe, have long since passed the dinner table conversation test in most countries, and are all the more dangerous for having become so pervasive in liberal middle-class elites. “Everywhere, xenophobia, until recently a characteristic of the poorer sections of society, is starting to pervade the upper half of the social structure”, writes Emmanuel Todd in his controversial book about the aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris, France, earlier this year (Todd 2015: x).

Secondly, Judt’s work on this happens to be predicative – if not speculative: We simply cannot know for certain whether it is an iron law that the solidarity and trust on which the welfare state depends is bound to corrode as a result of increasing ethnic and religious heterogeneity, or whether it can find new sources of solidarity and trust under new and changing conditions. This is after all an empirical question. What we do know, is that at least in the case of Norway, the welfare state is almost universally popular (the foremost exception being perhaps some of the richest 5 % of Norwegians), and that levels of solidarity and trust remain comparatively high even if Norway is now more multicultural than ever in its modern history, and is bound to become even more so in the future (Eriksen 2014). If we were to explore this empirically, we could for example do worse than venture into the suburbs of Oslo East, where a new generation in which all form part of a ‘minority’ in some sense and thereby embody the problematic aspect of ‘minoritization’ (Appadurai 2006), have for a long time been engaged in a process of ‘vernacularization of cosmpolitanism’ (Werbner 2009). Their’s is not the ‘feel-good boutique multiculturalism’ (Fish 1997) so often decried by the far and populist right, but a reflection of an ethos of ‘conviviality’ (Gilroy 2004) born out of the concrete and everyday struggles which living together in and out of difference entails.


In an important article from 2008 on the configuration of symbolic boundaries against immigrants in Europe, the US sociologist Christopher A. Bail notes that “the macro-level forces by which certain symbolic boundaries become more salient than others remain poorly understood” (Bail 2008: 37). Furthermore, Bail argues that “the symbolic boundaries deployed by the general public do not correspond to the official “philosophies of integration” emphasized in the literature” (ibid.) In my own field of anthropology, much poststructuralist and postcolonialist ire has been directed at what is taken to be the inherent exclusionary and discriminatory properties of ‘secularism’ and the ‘secular’ in the Western and/or European context (see Asad 2003, Mahmood 2005). And here one inevitably enters the territory of French laïcité as the singularly and most spectacularly exclusionary and discriminatory variety thereof (Bowen 2006, Fernando 2014, Todd 2015). But we also need to be alert to inter- and intra-group variation in the temporal and spatial salience of ‘boundary work’: Fassin’s seminal ethnographic account of French policing in the banlieues of Paris finds much evidence of racialization of minority youth, but little overt Islamophobia (Fassin 2013: 98-99).  In a recent revisionist account, the Harvard legal scholar and historian of human rights, Samuel Moyn, stands the Asadian narrative on its head by posing the question as to whether the “renowed European devotion to a neutral state above contending religions” which is arguably “more image than reality” (Moyn 2015: 138) prevents us from seeing that “the ideal of religious freedom originated in, and long remained tethered to, the self-conscious attempt to preserve an explicitly and pervasively Christian society…against the frightening threat of secularism” (Moyn op. cit.: 164) long before it “became annexed to an exclusionary secularist agenda” (Moyn op. cit.: 167). The problem, to Moyn’s mind, is not so much secularism as such, but that European inflections of secularism as applied to Muslims in Europe have not really transcended their ‘Christian incarnation’, are not ‘secular enough’ or do represent ‘the wrong kind of secularism’ (Moyn op. cit.: 166-67). In a 2011 article, Didier Fassin has suggested that we de-essentialize borders and boundaries, the former traditionally understood as “territorial limits defining political entities and legal subjects”, and the latter as “social constructs establishing symbolic differences and producing identities” by relating these two concepts and their interlinkages in practice to one another (Fassin 2011: 214-5). This seems to me to offer a way forward and out of some of the current analytical impasses. The concept of xenophobia can – in full awareness of its historicity and ambiguities and the problems raised by the fact that it is not only a descriptive but also a normative concept – in this context perhaps be useful as a concept which allows us to explore the interlinkages between borders and boundaries not only in contemporary Europe but also elsewhere.         


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