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Interview: Norwegian Party Leader Rejects 'Anti-Muslim' Label

The leader of Norway's Progress Party, Siv Jensen, attends a Mass for victims of the July 22 government office bombing and shooting spree at a youth camp, at the Domkirken Church in Oslo on July 24.
In the aftermath of the murderous rampage in Norway on July 22, some have pointed fingers at the Progress Party, of which accused killer Anders Behring Breivik was a member.

RFE/RL writer at large James Kirchick interviewed Siv Jensen, the party's leader, excerpts of which are below.

RFE/RL: Why is there an [immigration] problem in Norway and what does your party do to address it?

Siv Jensen:
Let me first say that the Progress Party is a classical liberal party and also a very democratic party. We've been present in the parliament for many decades. Our basic main focus areas are individual freedom, individual rights, less state and more individual freedom. We often take part in discussions on tax system, taxation, lower taxes, health-care system, we're tough on crime. And also, we're very much in favor of more competition instead of less. Because we fight state monopolies because they don't do good for competition, for price levels, for people's ability to choose between different distributors. That's our basic ideology behind the party.

Then again we have had for quite some time a lot of debate in Norway concerning immigration-policy issues. First of all, all parties agree on one thing and that is that we do have immigration to Norway and we will have immigration to Norway in the future as well. So you won't find any elected party in Norway opposing immigration or opposing Norway's [taking] our share of the responsibility for people running for their lives. And there has not been an anti-Muslim debate really here at all. What we have been talking about is radical Islam and how to fight that.

You won't find any elected party in Norway opposing immigration or opposing Norway's taking our share of the responsibility for people running for their lives.
And now we're faced with, unfortunately, the opposite of that, but radicalism nevertheless on the far-right side of the scale. Which is just as bad, just as awful, and we need to fight both, all kinds of radicalism with the same means and that is through democracy, through debate. If we try to hide debates because of its sensitivity I think that we will create more problems for our society in the future. So the best thing for Norway overall has been an open debate. And I think that's why we haven't had too many radical groups in our society.

The main debate on immigration in Norway has had two faces. One has to do with integration because we've had a lot of problems integrating people with a minority background in Norway -- language problems, education problems, job-related problems. And so a lot of our debate has had to do with how can we change our political framework in order to speed up the integration process in Norway.

So that's been one side of the debate. The other side has had to do with illegal asylum speakers, fake asylum seekers if you may. And we've had our share of them and not knowing what to do with it because there are tens of thousands of illegal immigrants living somewhere in Norway and we don't know where they are. That creates crime, creates drug sales, a lot of other problems that we have to cope with and it's been on the political agenda for a long time, even for the government, and the Norwegian authorities have tightened policy on these areas recently because of the increased problems.

RFE/RL: The party's been accused of being "anti-Muslim" in the English-language press. Why do you think that is?

Probably [because of a] lack of knowledge. Ignorance, I guess. I'm afraid most journalists throughout the world don't know much about Norwegian politics and they run to conclusions even without talking to us. Even without talking to [the] Norwegian press and political parties on the Norwegian scene.

I'm afraid most journalists throughout the world don't know much about Norwegian politics and they run to conclusions even without talking to us.
But if you see how the debate is evolving here, none of the political parties would even think about accusing us of this. We stand together. We really stand together in grief. And I receive daily, a lot of e-mails and SMSs from people on the far left of the political scale who really feel awful about [the] political accusations that have been put forward in recent days.

RFE/RL: Why do you think this man would have joined the party in the first place?

I have no idea. I wish I knew but I don't. But you have to remember, one side to Norwegian politics has to do with all political parties being open to membership to anyone and we don't control people wanting to be members.

What we actually experience these days after the horrible attacks is that all political parties, every single one of them, we are receiving new members in big numbers, which is actually makes us all feel very good in a very, very bad time for the nation because our appeal to the people that we need to strengthen democracy in a time like this is actually working.

So people are very much in favor of our democracy. They're in favor of our openness. They're in favor of free speech. They're in favor of the magnitude of political parties that we actually have. And they acknowledge that we all take part in a democratic process and they want to strengthen that in a very, very difficult time for the nation.

RFE/RL: Would you say that the debate on immigration has been largely responsible and respectable on all sides or have there been voices that are too extreme?

You may always find extreme voices but I think the most extreme voices have been found on the Internet and certain social media and stuff like that. I think on the public scene it's basically a very controlled debate, but it's a tough debate and we've had to debate several difficult issues as have the rest of Europe.

Most European countries have tightened their immigration policies over the past decade because most countries have been faced with increased problems. So it's not extraordinary. I think even a lot of people with minority backgrounds take part in the debates. We've had problems with young women with minority backgrounds, even in Norway, even in a free democracy, with forced marriages, forced circumcisions, awful things happening to Norwegian girls with a minority background in Norway in 2011.

And those are debates that we've had to have. How can we solve this? How can we provide a safer environment for these girls? Can we develop safe places for these girls to run to?

RFE/RL: Some writers have said one of the reasons that might explain why this happened is because you have a politically correct political culture or refusal to honestly address these problems so it drives it underground and you have extremists like this. Is that true in Norway?

Not really. I think it's more true to a country like Sweden. They have not really had this debate at all in public. But here we've had debates on a lot of delicate, sensitive issues for a long time. We really do have open debates and I think that has prevented us from having too big [of] extremist environments in our society and I do know that the police have been working on those environments for a long time, being able to reduce them to an absolute minimum.

And nobody saw this coming. This was a lonely wolf and we really don't know his motivations yet. I mean, it's too early to start analysis. It's too early to draw any conclusions. All we know is we have witnessed some horrible, horrible actions that have killed a lot of innocent young people and it makes us feel extremely bad....

For me it's extremely important to take away any myths that have been created through international media about our party. It's basically based on ignorance. Unfortunately, it is. I've been very dedicated doing this, but now I feel I have a major setback because certain media internationally jumped to conclusions without asking....

I think people, at least journalists, who have an important job to do, need to face facts before they write and jump to conclusions. Because it's extremely important. You have to remember we are the second-biggest party in Norwegian politics as we speak, and there are a lot of people affected by those conclusions.