A prize for Edward Snowden

But will he be able to travel to Norway?

A few months ago, it was as if everybody wanted to be Charlie (Hebdo). This gesture was laudable enough (if not always credible), but who wants to be Edward Snowden? After two years, the world’s most important whistleblower is still in Moscow. His chances of returning to a normal life remain slim, in spite of the recent ruling, in the US court of appeals, that the NSA’s storage of telephone metadata is indeed illegal.

Western politicians confronted with the Snowden affair typically respond in a vague and equivocal way. If pressed, they might say that their country does not condone mass surveillance, perhaps adding that it is not in their mandate to engage directly with Snowden’s situation. However, they are wrong on both counts. Just as they criticise rights violations in other countries, they can and should support Snowden, especially now that even a high legal authority in the US has indirectly confirmed that he was right to blow the whistle. Moreover, objectionable forms of surveillance do take place, if not on the same scale as in the US, in European countries as well.

The arguments in favour of mass surveillance are surprisingly weak. As Jesselyn Radack, one of Snowden’s lawyers, recently pointed out, both the Boston bombing and the Charlie Hebdo massacre provide excellent arguments against surveillance. The authorities were unable to prevent either of these events, although they had repeatedly been warned about the perpetrators – not because of advanced surveillance methods, but through human intelligence. ‘When you keep all and sundry under surveillance, you become lazy,’ she says. ‘You stop doing the detective work and trust the algorithms to do the job.’

Recently, a Norwegian cultural academy decided to award its annual prize to Edward Snowden. The Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson Academy is named after a significant Norwegian writer, playwright and public intellectual. Bjørnson (1832–1910) was not only in favour of Norwegian independence (achieved in 1905) and democratic values, but he also emphasised the importance of the freedom of thought and speech, the value of disagreement and the need for civil society to be independent of state powers. He was, among many other things, a strong supporter of Alfred Dreyfus.

The Bjørnson Academy, of which I am a board member, awards its annual prize to a person whom we see as a strong representative of the values for which Bjørnson became famous and controversial in his time. This year, the board was unanimous in deciding that surveillance should be the topic of its annual seminar, and that Edward Snowden should be offered the prize.

In the press release sent to the Norwegian media, we explained that Snowden’s interventions did not just concern personal integrity and illegitimate state power, but were also directly relevant for the freedom of expression. If everything that is written or spoken can potentially be traced and stored by the political authorities, the free exchange of ideas will suffer owing to possible sanctions from the state. Threats to the freedom of expression may have been more visible in Bjørnson’s day, but they were less insidious and ubiquitous than today.

There is only one minor problem with the Bjørnson prize. Snowden was happy to receive it, and we duly invited him to come to Molde, Norway on 5 September for the award ceremony. However, since he is still considered a criminal by the US, his security would have to be guaranteed by the Norwegian government. We therefore wrote a letter to Prime Minister Erna Solberg (Conservative Party) and Minister of Justice Anders Anundsen (Progress Party) asking them to ensure free passage for Snowden to Norway. Several lawyers have considered the case and concluded that it would be legally possible for Norway to allow Snowden to enter the country without being extradited to the USA.

Both government parties have for years (not least in recent debates concerning Muslims and Islam) been staunch defenders of the freedom of expression. The populist Progress Party has also always been critical of the state’s tendency to interfere unduly with the lives of citizens. Unfortunately, only politicians from the Socialist Left (SV) have so far supported our demand. The government has not yet responded to our letter, but it was sent only on 1 June. We are optimistic for now, hoping that the Norwegian government will confirm loud and clear that it is uncompromising in its support of the freedom of expression and citizens’ personal integrity, and that it will not let its relationship with other countries stand in the way of the fundamental principles of democracy.

First published, with a slightly different title, on Open Democracy:

About Progress

Last Saturday, I published a post in Norwegian about the populist Progress Party, currently a junior partner in a Conservative-led government around here. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would be widely read (my blog was notoriously ignored and sadly neglected), but to my great surprise, it began to spread epidemically on Facebook within hours. The newspaper Dagbladet reproduced a distorted version of the gist (their reporter revealed a limited understanding of punctuation), stirring up a bit of controversy for a few hours. The other major media, to their considerable credit, respected my wish not to engage. I was busy (with, ironically, a conference on identity in situations of accelerated change) and had no desire, besides, to participate in political debate. Sensing a breeze brewing in a teapot, I emptied the teapot to prevent the tempest from developing; in a word, I took the post down. Notwithstanding, here it is again, with somewhat modified language (fewer colloquialisms and double entendres), and a bit of necessary context for the non-local readership – but it can doubtless be misunderstood again. Enjoy!

So, then: The Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet). Is it, as many have claimed, a soft fascist party drawing sustenance from suspicion of others and contempt for weakness in Harald Ofstad’s sense (Vår forakt for svakhet – ‘Our contempt for weakness’), of which the voters do not realise that they may end up as the next victims? That is to say, (pardon my French) a ‘white trash’ kind of party depending on its voters being lowly educated, not understanding their own good and therefore voting against their objective interests? Or is it rather, as not least many Norwegian politicians from other parties staunchly affirmed after the last elections, a perfectly respectable, democratic party in the best tradition of the Enlightenment? (The party entered into a coalition government with the Conservatives a little over a year ago.) Not a word about the fact that the terrorist Breivik, as foreign media repeatedly pointed out, had been a party member for years? (In Norway, it consistently leads to an outrage whenever this fact is merely mentioned.) Many in Norway remember that the party chairman Siv Jensen exclaimed, following the 22/7/11 explosion in the city centre, that ‘this is an attack on Norway’, but they also recall that she did not repeat that sentence when it became clear that the atrocities had not been committed by a group of Muslims, but one of her own black sheep. It is true that Breivik went from right-wing populism to right-wing extremism when he lost his belief in democratic institutions, but the boundary is not fixed once and for all. At the same time, it is doubtless true, as the party has claimed, that he left the party in 2006 because it was “too liberal”.

The answer is “none of the above”: it is a fascinating, but not a fascist party. It contains diverse elements, combining impulses from different strands of Norwegian populism, including anti-authoritarianism, scepticism of the stranger, disdain of centralised bureaucracy and a strong belief in “common sense” (but oblivious of the fact that common sense is a cultural system which varies between life-worlds.)

Norwegian politicians and commentators of nearly all hues have responded with indignation to a widespread view among foreign observers and scholars, namely that the Progress Party is a member of a political family which also includes Geert Wilders, Marine LePen, Pia Kjærsgaard and the Swedish Democrats. Scholars tend to agree that Progress is more libertarian than the others, but their general politics closely parallels that of other right-wing populists. (The major newspaper VG ran an interesting comparison between Progress and the Swedish Democrats recently (http://www.vg.no/nyheter/utenriks/sverige/frp-og-sverigedemokraterna-hvor-like-er-de/a/23295580/), which revealed that the similarities were striking, and not just concerning issues to do with minorities and immigration. Yet, spokespersons of the party are adamant in their denial of any such connections, and have even been known to deny that the party is a populist party.

It has been objected to the linking of Progress to other European anti-immigration parties that its history is different. Notably, it is said that the party founder Anders Lange (1904–1974) was a libertarian whose aim was mainly to reduce taxation dramatically in postwar social democratic Norway. But Lange supported the apartheid regime in South Africa and Ian Smith’s white supremacist state in Rhodesia, was critical of interracial marriages, and had served as secretary of the right-wing Fedrelandslaget (‘The Fatherland League) from 1930 to 1938. (He would later join the resistance against the German occupation.)

Although the Progress Party certainly has its moderate wing, represented e.g. among government ministers, as well as many moderate and committed local councillors around the country, media stories are published regularly about party members, often in official positions, making outlandish statements about foreigners as well as Norwegians of foreign parentage. One recently spoke of Norwegian jihadists as ‘half-apes’, while another expressed a wish not only to cleanse Hedmark county of Muslims, but to ‘exterminate Islam from the world, because it is such a horrid (grotesk) culture that one shivers when hearing about what they do in the countries where they rule’. Among their MPs, Mr Christian Tybring-Gjedde, who represents my hometown, is especially vocal in condemning the alleged threats to Norwegian culture represented by immigrants. He has stated that ‘Islam cannot stand freedom values’, and that integration into the society should, inter alia, be based on ‘unconditional love of Norway and our Christian heritage’ (sic). When asked about the content of the ‘Norwegian culture’ that is threatened by immigration, he nevertheless finds it difficult to respond, similarly to his party chairman Siv Jensen when asked to substantiate her allegations that ‘Islamicisation by stealth’ was taking place in the country.

Only last week, the minister of children, gender equality and inclusion, Ms Solveig Horne, expressed the desire that people (presumably men – women were not mentioned) with a medieval view of women ought to pull themselves together. Well, I assume many would agree with this particular perspective. Alhough lots of people like the Middle Ages (especially in fantasy literature), few would like to live then. But how can this kind of analysis form the basis of a political action plan? My personal anxiety concerns the future possibility of establishing a functioning community of disagreement, if we, the citizens, have to discuss politics in these terms. During the early years of this century, parallel societies, which were hardly on speaking terms, seemed to emerge in Denmark as a result of a sharp turn to the right politically and a fundamental disagreement as to the meaning of the word ‘we’. Will something similar happen in Norway? It is too early to tell. Many commentators in the media have argued that the experience of being in power has had a mitigating effect on the party’s more boisterous tendencies, while others may equally well argue that the terms of discourse are being shifted in a particular direction for exactly the same reasons.

There are people who think that academics shouldn’t have opinions. They ought, allegedly, to be engaged in objective research instead. But the premise is wrong. Objective research is a fiction. Moreover, although the snug comfort of the seminar room is, arguably, far more pleasant than the unpredictability of the public sphere, academics may occasionally morph into intellectuals, that is talking and writing about matters which are not really our business. Finally, there is something about the relationship between social anthropology – my discipline – and the Progress Party, that recalls the structuralism of my student days, where the binary, the contrast, was the seed of enlightenment. For among anthropologists, it is assumed, as a matter of basic methodology, that nothing human shall be alien to us (humani nil a me alienum puto). As regards the Progress Party, it may sometimes seem as if the situation is the exact opposite.

* * *

I’ve also written elsewhere recently, not about Progress as such, but about the discourses in Norwegian society about the terrorist attack:


Abu Nidal and his children


Some years ago, I found myself in the passenger seat of a car trying to make its way through the city centre of Lahore. The traffic was confusing. Cars and motorbikes swerved in and out of the gaps between vehicles, made sudden stops, flashed their lights unpredictably and meandered back and forth across the road, almost as if they’d had a drink too many, even if it was in the middle of Ramadan. ‘Only one piece of advice will do here,’ explained the driver, a secular Pakistani intellectual whose wry sense of humour helped him stay sane and alive. ‘Don’t look at the blinking lights and the waving arms, just watch the movements of the wheels in front of you.’ I later realised that he was not just talking about the traffic, but was commenting obliquely on the unhappy political situation in his country, where wealthy landowners, powerful officers and religious leaders competed for power, and where the middle class had never been given a proper chance. Listening to what the politicians said would only be distracting and confusing. In order to understand politics, you had to watch what they were actually doing.

During a visit in Israel and on the West Bank earlier this year, the memory of this experience kept returning to me, and it has not faded after the recent campaign in Gaza. You have to look at the wheels, not at their gesturing and palaver. Yes, it is relevant that Hamas are religious fanatics, and that Fatah are corrupt and inefficient, but in order to understand the relationship between Israel and Palestine, you must dodge the distortions of the communication agencies, avoid the lightning conductors and count dead bodies and transgressions instead.

OK, let’s start. How many walls have the Palestinians built, how many Israelis have they tortured and killed, and how many Israeli children on their way to school do they herd into narrow metal cages, where the children are sometimes forced to stand for an hour or more, in scorching heat, with no explanation? How many recently built Palestinian towns are currently to be found in Israeli territory, and how many Palestinian roads are de facto closed to Israeli vehicles?

One day, I was taken on a visit to Abu Nidal, who lives in a village near Jerusalem. The wall, or security fence, has been built in the West Bank itself, with the result that Israeli territory has, in practice, been expanded with a few square kilometres here and there, and this in turn entails that many Palestinian villages are on the ‘wrong’, Israeli side of the wall. It is unpleasant and not least time-consuming to have to pass through Israeli checkpoints and soldiers every day in order to get on with your business, but if you live in one of these villages, you have no choice.

Abu Nidal turned out to have little in common with his notorious namesake, the militant Palestinian activist who died in 2002. This Abu Nidal was a kindly man in his mid-sixties, who lived in one of the more spacious houses of the village with his daughter and two of his sons. A new Israeli settlement could be seen on a hill nearby, the apartment buildings and greenery surrounded by security fences. In the opposite direction, some of Jerusalem’s suburbs could be discerned in the distance. The security fence ran just below the property, behind it a recently built road for Israelis only. ‘I lost half of my olive trees when they built it,’ he explained. The Israeli state did offer some compensation to him and others in a similar situation, but as a matter of principle, they did not accept it. Abu Nidal speaks Arabic and Hebrew, but little English, and he was interpreted by the anthropologist Efrat Ben Ze’ev, the author of Remembering Palestine in 1948, a study of the collective memory work on both sides.

For years, Abu Nidal made good money with a construction company taking assignments largely from Israeli. He was now retired, but kept a spacious orchard where he grew olives, citrus and vegetables. We sat down in the shade in front of the house, where his unmarried, bare-headed daughter served us strong, sweet coffee. ‘This didn’t use to be a problem,’ he commented, shaking his head, ‘but she now has to cover her head just to go down to the village and do her shopping.’

Abu Nidal no longer believed that his children could make it in their home country. There are limited economic opportunities for those who live on the shrinking West Bank, and jobs in Israel are scarcer and less secure than they were only a few years ago. Increasingly, Israeli prefer to hire immigrants from countries like Thailand and China rather than Palestinians. Many wish to leave, and some succeed. One of his sons recently managed to get a permit of residence in Sweden, where he lives and works as an electrician. The situation is less promising for his other two sons. One of them suffers from damages inflicted when he was imprisoned, with his father, in Israel. He is no longer capable of working. The other son used to work in the Israeli settlement nearby, but lost his job and is now unemployed. Abu Nidal despaired over his inability to help his adult children. He rolled himself a cigarette from homegrown tobacco.

‘I hear that the Swedes now take war refugees from Syria,’ he said. ‘Why can’t they take us as well?’ I shrugged. Palestinians are not considered legitimate political refugees in Europe.

‘But what about Norway?’ he continued. ‘I hear about people who have gone there and are doing well. What if my son travels there, loses his passport and applies for asylum? He might even say that he is Syrian if necessary. He might then be able to find a job enabling him to support himself?’ Again, I had to disappoint him. I thought about the now abandoned Palestinian camp at the Jacob Church (Jakobskirken) in Oslo, which was supported by several NGOs but ignored by the authorities. This country has not been particularly understanding towards undocumented refugees, and after the change in government, it takes an even less generous stance than before.

‘If he knows people who can help him find a place to live, he might be able to get a job in the informal sector,’ I said, ‘but I wouldn’t recommend it. Sooner or later he’d be exposed; Norway is a fairly small, transparent society. The chances might be better in a large country such as the UK or France,’
Abu Nidal nodded and extinguished his cigarette. We changed the topic and talked about the Palestinian authority, the relationship between Fatah and Hamas, the internal problems of corruption, nepotism and personal rivalries, and the brutal Israeli occupation. Just as we were about to take our leave, he reminded us of what kind of society they had once dreamt of.

‘We were envisioning a society where it would be possible to live together without religion being an overriding factor, where religion was politically irrelevant. Where you had your rights and your value because you were a human being. And just look around yourself now.’ There was no need to elaborate. Yes, there has been a shift, and secular dreams now seem less realistic than ever. The change does not merely concern local life in the Palestinian territories, where Abu Nidal’s daughter and other Palestinian women now have to cover their hair when going out, but religiously conservative Jews are also becoming more influential in Israel. On both sides, the present-day territory is being read on ancient maps. Many Israeli speak of the West Bank using the Biblical designations Judea and Samaria, and at the anthropology conference in which I had just taken part, in Jaffa, an elderly Israeli colleague commented, during a plenary session, that the number of kipas seemed to have increased perceptibly in just a few years. Looking around the auditorium, I did indeed notice a fair number of kipas.

Abu Nidal’s story is a reminder of the fact that only a few decades ago, belief in a better world was still alive, even in this tormented, overheated territory wedged between Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and the Mediterranean. Today, scarcely anybody dares believe in positive changes at all.

On the plane home, a few days later, I was reading David Grossman’s The Yellow Wind from 1988, completed before the first intifada and published years before the building of the wall and the Israeli invasions in Gaza. But even then, optimism might be hard to come by. Grossman mentions a research project where several thousand Israeli and Palestinian children were invited to talk about their nightly dreams. Many had dreamt of encounters with the other group, usually of a violent nature. And, among a few thousand dreams among Jewish and Arab children, not a single one expresses a hope for peace, Grossman concludes. Alas, it is not difficult to imagine what the result could have been today. And yet, the grimness of the situation does not prevent Abu Nidal and thousands like him to hope for a better future for their children. Admittedly outside of their damaged homeland, which at the moment only seems capable of producing hatred and bitterness.