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8. “Muslims Are…”

Contextualising Survey Answers

Cora Alexa Døving (b. 1966) is a Research Professor at the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies. Her research areas are within the fields of minority studies, racism and Islamophobia. Her latest publications include: “Homeland Ritualized: An Analysis of Written Messages Placed at Temporary Memorials after the Terrorist Attacks on 22 July 2011 in Norway”, Mortality 23: 3 (2018) and “Jews in the News – Representations of Judaism and the Jewish Minority in the Norwegian Contemporary Press”, Journal of Media and Religion 15:1 (2016).

Negative stereotypes of Muslims are widespread in Norway: 34 per cent of the population displays marked prejudices against Muslims and 28 per cent also dislike and show hostility towards Muslims. The fact that these numbers are from a population survey and not from a survey conducted in established anti-Muslim milieus shows a disturbing degree of anti-Muslim attitudes among “ordinary Norwegians”. This chapter consists of an analysis of the answers to an open-ended question that was part of the population survey: “What do you think might be the reasons for existing negative attitudes to Muslims?” The findings are interpreted in light both of claims about Muslims found in the quantitative part of the survey and of different public discourses that took place the same year as the survey was conducted. I argue that the increase in anti-Muslim discourses that has developed at the margins of the public sphere cannot be understood as fully separated from the public mainstream, and that it has affected attitudes in the general population. The chapter also discusses whether the results from the survey can be explained by a lack of recognition of the racist elements in Islamophobia. Islamophobia is commonly understood as “fear of a Muslim takeover” or as something similar to a critique of Islam. This understanding has concealed the racist elements in Islamophobia: Would Islamophobic statements be met with stronger self-sanctioning if they were understood as varieties of racism?

Keywords: Islamophobia, population survey, stereotypes, social media, racism, Norway

1. Introduction

In 2017, for the first time in Norway, a population survey (hereby referred to as the CHM survey) was conducted on attitudes towards Muslims.1 Although prejudices towards Muslims proved widespread, the total picture of attitudes towards Muslims is multi-faceted: 52% agree with the statement “Muslims are good Norwegian citizens”. Moreover, annual population surveys show that a larger majority is positive towards a multicultural society and to immigrants having the same rights as the rest of the population.2 Seventy-three per cent would not mind having a Muslim in their circle of friends, and a survey by the Pew Research Center in 2018 shows that 82% of the Norwegian respondents are willing to accept a Muslim as a member of their family.3 These results may caution against an alarmist view. They illustrate the importance of measuring attitudes along different dimensions: Stereotyping and prejudice is often far more prevalent than the wish for social distance. An illustrative example is that at the same time as 39% agree with the statement “Muslims pose a threat to Norwegian culture”, more than 80% would like to have a Muslim as a friend or neighbour. One third of the respondents, however, score high on all three dimensions measured: cognitive, affective, and degree of social distance.

Similar to other Western European countries, Norway is undergoing demographic and social change, and increasingly Islam and Islamist extremism are subjects of intense politicisation and debate. Public scrutiny on this topic is very likely one of the factors that may explain the degree of negative attitudes towards Muslims. Nevertheless, different dimensions of xenophobia, fear of terrorism, or a general feeling of loss or anxiety are only part of the explanation. Norway is a country that has not experienced terror or violent riots conducted in the name of Islam; furthermore, it is a country with relatively low unemployment and a good welfare system. The integration of Muslims into Norwegian society on a general level has been successful.4 Socio-economic factors alone cannot therefore explain why negative stereotypes of Muslims are so widespread in one of the world’s most stable countries. In the following, I argue that it is an increase in ideological anti-Muslim discourses has affected attitudes in the general population.

This chapter analyses answers to the open-ended question, “What do you think might be the reasons for existing negative attitudes to Muslims?” Focusing on the content of this qualitative part of the survey, it asks to what extent the answers of the respondents correlate with well-known stereotypes from established Islamophobic discourses prevalent in what is often described as marginalised or extreme milieus. One third of the answers name fear of terrorism as a reason for negative attitudes, but most common are references to “harmful” cultural and religious values. Some of these answers illustrate, I will argue, how Islamophobia is not only an expression of hate or fear of Muslims, but also includes racist elements. I therefore find it useful to explore the answers to this open-ended question in light of theories on racism.

Until some recent changes in political debates on Islamophobia (2019), Norwegian debates on anti-Muslim sentiments was marked by an absence of references to racism.5 Racist elements, such as hierarchy of groups, essentialisation of the mentality of individual members of a group, and support for discrimination – often couched in Islamophobic statements – are rarely recognised as racist. This absence, I will argue, has created a public space in which Islamophobic statements are able to pass for “dislike” or legitimate critique of Islam. Racism – when recognised – is strongly sanctioned against in the Norwegian public sphere; it is therefore interesting to ask whether Islamophobic claims would have been met with stronger self-sanction if the respondents had recognised them as racism. In a similar way to antisemitism, expressions of racism have become what Werner Bergman describes as communicative latency (see chapter 7): expressions of attitudes that are very clearly not acceptable in the public sphere.6 Racism as a phenomenon is therefore surrounded by stronger boundaries for what can be said than in comparison to Islamophobia.

In accordance with the introduction of this book and chapter 3, the term Islamophobia is used to describe widespread prejudice, acts and practices that attack, exclude or discriminate against people on the ground that they are – or are assumed to be – Muslim.7 How Islamophobia is related to racism, and what we mean by the term racism, will be explained in the last section of the article.

2. Muslims in Norway – a short background

Islam is the biggest minority religion is Norway and Statistics Norway estimates that around 200,000 inhabitants in Norway are Muslims (4 per cent of the population). Most Muslims still have an immigrant background; i.e., the first immigrants from Muslim societies were men coming as labour migrants in 1967. Until the early 1970s, labour shortages functioned as a pull factor, and there were few restrictions on immigration to Norway. The Pakistani group of immigrants grew rapidly, and even when immigration policies were tightened in 1975, family reunification led to further immigration of Pakistanis to the major Norwegian cities. Pakistani immigration was a typical chain migration, meaning a type of migration where new jobseekers already have relatives and friends in the country. Chain migration, in contrast to individual migration, contributes to close networks and the maintenance of Pakistani traditions in the new country. Chain migration has also created a relatively homogenous community among the majority of Pakistanis in Oslo.

Today, Norwegian Muslims form a heterogeneous group in terms of country background, religious tradition, and degree of religiosity. The majority comes from Somalia, followed by Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, and Turkey. In addition to linguistic and ethnic diversity, Islam is represented by different orientations and interpretive traditions. Different immigrant groups have achieved varying levels of success in education and the labour market; nonetheless, the integration of Muslims into Norwegian society has generally been successful.8

One characteristic of Islam in Europe is the emergence of new Muslim spokespersons, which is to say new interpreters of Islam. Professor in Islamic Studies Birgitte Maréchal calls those who achieve such a position “producers of discourse on Islamic praxis” or “new mediators”.9 In Norway, too, there has been a surge of a string of reform-oriented and highly educated Muslims in leadership positions in different student organisations, and they are also well-known contributors to public debates. Maréchal also points to the many arenas outside of the mosque where Islam is thematised by the modern Muslim elite. This development is relevant in explaining attitudes towards Muslims because it has resulted in a multiplicity of sources of “what Muslims believe” and “who they are”. It is, for example, possible that the positive answers regarding having Muslims as friends can be explained by the increase in multi-faceted representations of Islam and Muslims.

3. Survey data: the open-ended questions

In the CHM survey of 2017, 48% of respondents agree with the statement “Muslims largely have themselves to blame for the increase in anti-Muslim harassment”; 42% agree with the statement “Muslims do not want to integrate into Norwegian society”; and 31% with the statement “Muslims want to take over Europe”. A relatively large proportion of respondents also expressed negative feelings towards Muslims and a desire for social distance: 27.8% score high on all dimensions, and can be categorised as Islamophobic.10 Islamophobia assumes a level of group construction and hostility concerning Muslims that is not necessarily present in all negative attitudes towards Muslims: Islamophobia is an ideology that attributes inherent, negative traits to Muslims solely by virtue of being Muslim. Islamophobia can be defined as widespread prejudice, acts and practices that attack, exclude or discriminate against people on the ground that they are – or are assumed to be – Muslim.11

Population surveys seldom explain the motives or ideas behind the numbers. The CHM survey, however, included an open-ended question. Those answers provide certain insight into the respondents’ reasons as to why they answered the way they did. In the survey, respondents were asked whether they thought negative attitudes to Muslims were widespread. If their answer was “yes” (as it was for 81% of the respondents), they were asked to elaborate on what they believed was the reason for this: “What do you think might be the reasons for existing negative attitudes to Muslims?” The formulation of the question opens up for describing what might explain negative attitudes “out there”, independent of their own beliefs. Still, many of the responses were formulated as expressions of the respondents’ own opinions about Muslims. Answers very often lacked expressions of distance, such as “Many believe that Muslims...”; instead, the majority of them consisted of essentialised assertions about how Muslims are.12

Methodologically, the data from the open-ended questions were read in two different ways. First, I collected the main arguments in the individual responses (one response often contained several themes, such as “the media”, “oppression of women” and “terrorism”). Next, I counted the number of times the main themes and terms occurred across the different responses. I then read the responses in light of how ideas on power relations, issues of belonging, good vs. bad etc. were expressed in the language of the respondents. The themes and expressions in the responses were then compared with those in other arenas of discourse about Islam and Muslims, such as media depictions of Muslims.

The answers to the open-ended questions (n = 1,026) were grouped into two different sets as follows: 1) the reasons for negative attitudes were placed within the respective categories “Muslims” (as if these were designations of groups, e.g. “It is because of their culture”); and 2) the reasons were placed in external factors (for example, in stereotypical media representations in Norwegian society). One-third of the respondents stated that the reasons for negative attitudes lay solely with Muslims themselves.13 Only the answers from the first category, those that explain negative attitudes towards Muslims by pointing to specific group characteristics of Muslims, are analysed in the following.

4. Themes and Patterns

Religion and culture

In a simple word search, the term “terrorism” generates the most hits (using Words, “find” function)14, but if value-related words like “culture”, “mentality” and “religion” where counted together they clearly dominated as explanations of the reasons for negative attitudes.15 “Their religion” is commonly referred to as fundamentalism and Islam is often described as a tool used to exploit others – or it is characterised as plain stupidity. Irrationality seems to be fairly directly connected to an understanding of how Muslims are religious. As a religion, Islam is seen as responsible for the collective mentality of Muslims and characterised by authoritarian structures. Typical examples referring to religion are:

  • “They have an incomprehensible religion that does not fit in here.”

  • “They have a totally different religion, which prescribes revenge and hostilities.”

  • “It is a religion that puts fanatical religious orders before the society they live in.”

  • “They live at least 500 years behind us.”

  • “They say the Quran gives them the right to make hell [gjøre faenskap].”

Expressions like “incomprehensible”, “does not fit”, “totally different”, “behind us” “the right to make hell” illustrates a “language of othering”.16 The use of the word “they”, which occurs in almost all of the answers referring to religion and culture, illustrates the degree of generalising (they have, they are, they say etc.). The focus on values illustrates that Norwegian citizenship alone does not make a person Norwegian.

When anger was revealed in the answers, it was usually with references to Islam. The quote below also illustrates how de-humanising expressions such as “virus”, “bastards” and “crazy” occur:

They want to force Islam into every society they come to. They behave like a virus. The majority has to show a lot of consideration towards those bastards. Call for prayers, screaming from the mosques, pork, Ramadan etc. Laws and rules that are crazy in a contemporary society, for example stoning, and they are not interested in adjusting to the society they come to, only interested in the money…

The use of de-humanising expressions is well known in the history of racist rhetoric. (Words such as “monkeys”, “barbarians”, “cockroaches” and “rats” are examples from antisemitism as well as racism against black people). The quote above is clearly hierarchising all Muslims as subordinates as it states that Muslims behave like a virus, are bastards and that their traditions “are crazy” in modern society. In addition to this, Muslims have the intention of exploiting our resources (money).

Integration and threat

Another central theme in the answers is the supposedly lack of Muslims’ will to integrate. This corresponds with the quantitative data from the same survey: 42 per cent agree with the statement “Muslims do not want to integrate into Norwegian society.” Examples from part of the freely written answers that refers to integration and culture are:

  • “They don’t really want to become Norwegian.”

  • “They expect us to adapt to them instead of them having to adapt to Norwegian society.”

  • “They do not respect our values and culture and way of living. They believe they have the right to force us to live like them (…) our culture is being watered down and Muslims are the people [folkegruppen] that are doing most harm to our way of living and to our culture”.

  • “They have little understanding of democracy and are responsible for very much of what is going on of wars in Europe. They use violence to convert people to their religion. If you read the history of their prophet Muhammad, it does not give you much confidence.”

The unwillingness to integrate is often put together with “they” showing resistance against democracy, as the last quote above illustrates. Expressions like “don’t really want to”, “expect us to adapt”, “the right to force”, “our culture is being watered down”, “harm”, “war”, “violence” all point to something threatening. A group being construed as having bad intentions – or a will they seek to conceal – is also well known from the literature on how fear of minorities can be part of a racist worldview.17 The idea of Muslims not respecting the values of the majority and putting pressure on the host society to change is a well-known trope from Islamophobic discourses. I will return to the sources of ideas about the threatening Muslims in the section on social media.


The word “woman” was the second most used (again using Word’s “find” function). Phrases such as “the way they treat women” show that Muslims (“they”) are largely understood as a community of men; men represent Muslimness/Islam, while women are victims of it. The construal of Muslims as having a violent mentality was often part of the answers concerning women:

  • “They are responsible for far too much violence, crime and lack of equality.”

  • “Islam and everything it involves, like oppression of women, child brides, rape of women, children and animals, beheading […] and harassment of ethnic Norwegians.”

  • “Muslims hostile attitude, being extremely demanding, provocative – criminals and fortune hungers, liars”.

  • “Oppression of women, child abuse, honour killings, poor integration, religious fanatics, sharia taking over Norwegian law, crime, rape, other acts of violence, identity falsification, terror – do not fit into a Norwegian society!”

To some extent, the frequency of references to “women” mirrors Norwegian public debate about Islam in which the theme of suppression of women has been prevalent.18 This interest in Muslims’ lack of gender equality can be explained by the facts that Islam as a religion holds a clear gender ideology which in several ways is in opposition to Norwegian political values: Gender equality as a national core value is hegemonic in the Norwegian political discourse. In other words, both aspects of Islam and aspects of the majority society may explain why the theme of women is so prominent in the responses. However, even if we can explain the extent of references to women by pointing to public discourse, public discourse does not sufficiently explain the harshness and degree of generalisations in the allegations. See how the responses relating to women quoted above include terms such as “rape”, “child bride”, “abuse”… It is difficult to explain the character of these formulations without linking them to the more marginal but well-established anti-Muslim discourses.

The parts of the answers that refer to gender equality is especially interesting in the light of Gordon Allport’s pioneering work on prejudices and how they seem to be ethnocentrically organised (the making of prejudice reflects a social and national identity)19. Gender equality is an important theme in a Norwegian national self-image, and this renders the subject very forceful when being employed in the making of prejudice: References to “women” effectively explains why “Muslims do not fit in”.

Exploiting the welfare system

Politicians’ “preferential treatment” of Muslims and other references to a conflict of interest over the use of resources was also quite common in the answers to the open-ended questions. Muslims are said to have easier access to welfare benefits and are favoured by the authorities:

  • “The way politicians squander money on them (Muslims). It is the elderly in nursing homes here in NORWAY who are suffering.”

  • “Many came to Norway to exploit our welfare system and without an intention of contributing themselves. In addition to this, they look upon persons who are not Muslims in a negative way and they have a low degree of willingness to adapt to Norwegian values.”

  • “They have no respect. They get great benefits from the state compared to our elderly at nursing homes. If a Norwegian worker needs help from the social office for a short period it is a lot of paper work and always ends up with an offer of a loan…”

The answers show traits of the respondents perceiving themselves as victims: Victimised by politicians who “give priority to Muslims”, and victimised by Muslims because they have a “will to dominate”.


In general, one third of the answers to the open-ended question include nationalistic (protectionist) elements. The nation is seen as threatened by Muslims. This threat is not only due to their numbers, but also to a fear of a value-related takeover in which “they” are subverting society’s traditional morality, religion, and way of life. “They are too different” is the essential message: “They have a religion which is not compatible with how we live in Norway … if they cannot live the same way as we do here in Norway they should not be here”.

The last sentence from the quote above they should not be here, is a direct call for the expulsion of Muslims. Stuart Hall’s expression “the spectacle of the Other” – that is, gazing at representations of racialised others – fits well with how the answers operate with an “us” (the imagined community in which those who are the perceived normal are bound together) who are very different from the others who are sent into “symbolic exile”.20 By “symbolic exile”, Hall referred to the language and practices that were used to legitimise the exclusion of others. It is primarily the open-ended answers’ “sending of Muslims to a symbolic exile” through formulas of not fitting in that renders the answers as vehicles of elements of racism.

5. The general public – politicians and the media

Turning to those respondents who put the explanation for negative attitudes to Muslims on external factors, many referred to the media as a reason. They argued that the media focuses too much on Islam/Muslims as a problem, and that one-sided portrayals in the media explain why prejudices are widespread.21 According to research on correlations between depictions of Muslims in the media and attitudes towards Muslims, they might be right.22

Research has shown that when Islam is in the news, it is very often presented as a political problem that needs to be solved (terrorism, radicalisation, refugees and niqabs were the main topics in 2017). Research has also shown a close correlation between the representation of Islam in the media and public opinion.23 Media representations seem to have great influence on the majority’s interpretation of minority groups, especially in communities where contact between majority and minority is small.24

Norwegian media are in general very critical of Islamophobic statements (see chapter 3), and Norwegian newspapers today provide a relatively nuanced picture of Islam, not least because of the increasing number of Muslims participating in the public debate. But even if the media is an arena for negotiating different views rather than just reproducing negative portrayals of Muslims, it is still the main arena in which ideas about Muslims circulate. Further, it is reasonable to assume that the media’s influence is strong when the news is dominated by politicians speaking about Muslims. The year of the survey was also the year of the general election (autumn 2017), which resulted in four more years with a coalition government consisting of the liberal Conservative Party and the populist Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet).25 Stereotyping of Muslims played a part in the Progress Party’s election campaign. The Progress Party is well known for its anti-immigration policies, and it is reasonable to say that the party’s success was due to its focus on immigration as a threat not only to the Norwegian welfare state, but also to “our security” and “our values”.26 This political message was naturally discussed in the general media.

Of relevance in a contextual explanation of the content of the answers is also that from 2015 to 2018 the post of Minister for Immigration and Integration was held by the Progress Party, represented by Sylvi Listhaug. During 2017, Listhaug was the most prominent governmental voice concerning the issue of Islam, Muslims, refugees and immigration. Her rhetoric has been criticised by political colleagues, journalists, and a range of different debaters for inciting anti-Muslim sentiments in the population. During 2017, the minister made several statements that indicated a reason to fear Muslims: “We are fully aware that there are wolves in sheep’s clothing”27; and “Fundamentalists who hate our Norwegian system are coming to exploit the boundless Norwegian naivety”.28 Such statements are worth mentioning because it is the first time in Norwegian political history that a member of the government has used expressions so close to those found in anti-Muslims organisations online.

In addition to her rhetoric, Listhaug figured in three debates in 2017 about regulating Muslim traditions where she suggested a prohibition against hijabs at elementary school (because they sexualise young girls), but received no support from the other coalition parties. The government also proposed a national ban on the use of niqabs in schools and institutions of higher education that won broad parliamentary support and was based mainly on references to teaching situations rather than on references to Islam as such. The Progress Party has also proposed banning the circumcision of baby boys as part of its party political manifesto (but has won no parliamentary support). The three cases all led to several public debates.

As referred to in the former section, ideas about Muslims’ views on women being the antithesis of “all things Norwegian” to some extent mirror Norwegian public debate about Islam.29 However, as already mentioned, while the media may explain why the theme of women is so prominent in the responses, it cannot explain the harshness and degree of generalisations in the allegations in the survey. It is far more relevant to point to the influence of the more marginal but well-established anti-Muslim discourses from different online forums. Islam as uniquely sexist, and Islam as inherently violent, are myths that are recycled in several online arenas.30

6. From the margins to the mainstream – the role of social media

As has been demonstrated, the statements put forward in one-third of the answers to the open-ended questions are much harsher and less complex than the media’s depictions of Islam and Muslims. An explanation resting on the influence of discursive contexts needs to look beyond the mainstream public sphere and include the ideology of the anti-Muslim blogosphere and alternative news sources.

Similar to other European countries, Norway’s media landscape is seeing an increase in right-wing populist alternative news sources carrying biased stories about Islam or Muslims.31 Established anti-Muslim/anti-Islamic organisations increased their activities during 2017,32 and there has been a steady increase in the number of open Facebook groups that, in spite of some differences in political ideology and degree of radicalism, can be categorised as belonging to the far right as they are marked by ethnic nationalism, a distrust in democracy, and the identification of Muslims as “the enemy within”.33

Research has shown that right-wing online milieus are not impermeable enclaves or simply echo chambers; they also act as gateways to wider digitally networked audiences.34 It is reasonable to suggest that the following quotes of the answers to the open-ended question are such examples since they illustrate a high degree of thematic overlap with statements well known to be circulating in Islamophobic discourses in social media.

I don’t think there is only one reason [for negative attitudes towards Muslims]. For example, they suppress women and they do not want to be integrated. They hate Christians, Jews and non-believers. Around them you find war and misery. And a lot of terror. They stick together in gangs and ghettos.

Terror, fatwa, religious warfare, honour killings, religion, their general way of living, burka, niqab and no respect for Norwegian values and way of living, wishes for sharia laws and a desire to take over the whole world.35

Typical statements selected from anti-Muslim Facebook groups are: “Muslims have a built-in desire for occupation”; “areas in Norway are already ruled by Sharia”; “Muslims conduct a modern form of warfare by multiplying and using their networks”; “Muslims pretend to be modern, but hate liberal Norway”; “Muslims are violent; rape will become an everyday experience”.36 Sometimes Muslims are described as “irresponsible individuals” because Islam has presumably removed their personal will. They have “Allah-infested brains” or are “slaves to religion” and are thus mindless tools in the service of Islam. It is thus not only Muslims who act, but Islam itself that has agency.37

Terje Emberland and Alexa Døving followed eight open Facebook sites closely between September 2016 and May 2017 with the aim of identifying various conspiracy theories, or elements of such. 38 They found several examples of, or rather fragments of, Islamophobic conspiracy theories.39 Muslims were depicted as what Asbjørn Dyrendal calls a “conspiracy stereotype” (see chapter 6): one group seizing territorial and social power and subverting a society’s traditional morality, religion and way of life. Islamophobic conspiracy theories concern an alleged war between civilisations, one where symbolic-cultural usurpation plays the main role. Markers for what it means to be Norwegian, such as traditions, symbols and values, are presented as being under threat. Comments on conspiracy revolve particularly around the nation’s identity, where a national ingroup stands in contrast to an outgroup.

In the literature on conspiracy theories, authors often use the concept “conspiracy stereotype”. The concept underscores that the stereotypes contain an idea that the group seeks power over other groups. The idea of a purportedly unified, destructive goal also involves the notion that the group members have a mutual and fixed pattern of behaviour linked to precisely this kind of destructive and subversive activity.40 As shown, the mix between distrust, fear and claims about certain Muslim behaviour (subversive activity) is exactly what characterises many of the answers to the open-ended questions. The answers referring to religion, culture and the welfare state in particular are hints to the threat of a Muslim takeover.

The claim that moderate Muslims actually do not exist is a common theme in Islamophobic Facebook communities. A normal illustration of such claims is the image of a snake in tall grass, with the caption: “Radical Muslims are snakes, moderate Muslims are the grass they hide in”.41 The claim that Muslims are fundamentalists who lack the will to integrate, even if they pretend to do so, was also frequently found in many of the answers to the open-ended questions (“they don’t really want to become Norwegian”).

That the nation and the identity of the majority is threatened by Muslims is the main messages in the alternative news sources and Facebook sites on the far right, and the same narrative, as I have shown, can be found in the answers from the survey. In the quantitative part of the survey, as many as 34% agree with six out of eight statements about Muslims that circulate on the so-called anti-jihadist websites and social media. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the borders between the margin and the mainstream are porous.

7. “Islamophobia” and “racism”

There is no consensus concerning how to use the term “racism”, either in the field of research or in public debates. Because the term “race” has been used and is used for a variety of forms of diversity and ways to differentiate between people,42 two supplementary concepts related to racism have been introduced: “cultural racism”43 and “neo-racism”.44 These terms reflect not only a change in the theory of racism, but also in the well-documented fact that racism in European society changed during the 1970s and 1980s. It was in this period that the focus shifted from skin colour (understood as an expression of race) to culture and/or religion as a dominant sign of inequality and subordination; in other words, “racism without races”.45 That “they” are so different that they should not be part of the community is a central claim in cultural racism, and clearly reflected in the material analysed here. The concept “culture/neo-racism” is meant as a tool for capturing racism’s forms without becoming dependent on race as an analytical category. As M. Ekman argues in his article concerning online Islamophobia, by using “cultural elements to distinguish groups from each other, cultural racism also denies the very notion of race and racism.”46 The references to narrow biologically based definitions of racism are common in online milieus when accusations of racism are denied. The arguments seem to be that immigrants or Muslims cannot be the victims of racism because they are not a single race.47

The understanding of racism as a concept that also includes references to religion and culture is not historically new. The term “race” has been used in European languages to denote descent and family or groups of people who were bound by virtue of their beliefs and way of life: Historically, the categories of race and religion overlapped.48 Racism, whether old, new, cultural, or biological, consists of assigning specific properties to people on the basis of their putative membership of a particular group of origin, with these properties defined as so negative that they constitute an argument for keeping members of the group at a distance, excluding them, and if possible, actively discriminating against them:

Racism is to attribute negative traits to people based on their belonging to a category linked to ideas about origin (cultural, biological, religious, national, and so forth), and to allow this to legitimate their subordination.49

The represented data from the survey clearly state who does not belong and why, and the why is often a clear-cut example of defining an entire category of people (Muslims) as subordinate due to ideas about their natural way of being. In The Multiple Faces of Islamophobia (2014), Ramón Grosfoguel writes on the place of religion in racism:

In the new cultural racist discourses, religion has a dominant role. […] Focusing on the “other’s” religion is a way to escape being accused of racism. However, when we examine carefully the hegemonic rhetoric in place, the tropes are a repetition of old biological racist discourses and the people who are the target of Islamophobic discourses are the traditional colonial subjects of the Western Empires, that is, the “usual suspects”.50

Grosfoguel notes how in Great Britain, Muslims are associated with Egyptians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis (colonial subjects from former British colonies) and that Islamophobia in Britain is therefore associated with anti-black, anti-Arab and anti-South Asian racism. In France, Muslims are mostly North Africans from former colonies. Additionally, in Norway, Islam and Muslims are associated with immigrants, and highlighting specific ethnicities is often part of Islamophobia. Still, I do not think that racism referring to religion or culture should only be seen in the light of how they overlap with the “old race categories”. As an example, the material analysed in this chapter lacks references to ethnicity, skin colour or other genetically inherited differences. Grosfoguel’s argument could therefore be taken further by saying that religion and culture alone often make up the core elements in racist ideas about Muslims (Norwegian white-skinned converts seem to be particularly popular hate objects in Islamophobic arenas).

In research, the term Islamophobia has developed from referring to specific clusters of prejudice against Islam and Muslims to being defined as racism against Muslims.51 However, in Norwegian public debates, “Islamophobia” is mainly understood as an ideology belonging to the far right, or it is understood as a synonym for “fear of a Muslim takeover”, a conspiracy.52 Islamophobia, then, is often referred to as a form of dislike built solely upon a fear of Muslim dominance. Consequently, references to Islamophobia usually lack the recognition of racist elements in the phenomenon. The aspects of hierarchising, de-humanising and exclusion – usually part of an Islamophobic argument (aspects that are prevalent in the examples from the open-ended questions) – are seldom identified in Norwegian debates.53 This might be a reason for why Islamophobia is commonly explained as something similar to a critique of religion, or simply a specific form of xenophobia.

Until very recently (2019), the concept of racism in general has seldom been used in Norwegian public debates,54 and when the term is applied, it is often linked exclusively to a belief in biological differences and racial hierarchies. When recognised (most often if a black person has been subject to harassment), racism is widely condemned in Norway. To be accused of Islamophobia, then, is something quite different from being accused of racism or antisemitism – here the borders for what is allowed to be said are clearer.55 I therefore find it difficult to explain the degree of negative generalisation and stigmatisation in the data from the population survey other than by asserting that a specific rhetoric established in the discourses about Muslims serves to disguise content that is racist.

8. Concluding remarks

The idea that “being a Muslim” is intrinsically linked to having a threatening mentality, poor morals, and terrible cultural values, as is stated in several of the answers to the open-ended questions, is of a racist nature. Returning to the question of what might explain the degree of negative statements about Muslims in a population survey undertaken in a country where anti-racism (as an ideal) is hegemonic: The answer is likely to be found in the general acceptance ‒ even among liberal anti-racist voices ‒ of discrediting Muslims as adherents of Islam. This widespread attitude has given way to a rhetoric that conceals its message to avoid accusations of racism. The most common way of doing this is to present oneself as a participant in a battle of values in which Muslims are defined as a threat. Examples of such rhetoric are, for example, that those who oppose a Muslim presence in Europe do so in the name of freedom because Muslims are said not to endure liberal values. A fight for freedom is a moral battle and can thus be a useful rhetorical means of hiding racism.

In the Norwegian public sphere, racism is strongly sanctioned. It is therefore relevant – or at least tempting – to ask whether Islamophobia would have been met with stronger social sanctions by the Norwegian public if it were elucidated in the context of, or exposed as, a variety of racism. Even more tempting is to ask whether the one-third of the answers to the open-ended questions in the population survey would have looked different if the respondents had recognised their expressions as racist.


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1Christhard Hoffmann and Vibeke Moe, eds., Attitudes towards Jews and Muslims in Norway 2017. Population Survey and Minority Study, (Oslo, Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities, 2017).
2IMDIs integreringsbarometer: https://www.imdi.no/om-integrering-i-norge/innvandrere-og-integrering/fellesskap-og-deltakelse/
3 http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/06/01/qa-measuring-attitudes-toward-muslims-and-jews-in-western-europe/
4IMDIs integreringsbarometer: https://www.imdi.no/om-integrering-i-norge/innvandrere-og-integrering/fellesskap-og-deltakelse/. Statistisk sentralbyrå (SSB): “Fakta om innvandring 2019: https://www.ssb.no/innvandring-og-innvandrere/faktaside/innvandring
5For an analysis on public debates on Islamophobia, see chapter 3 of this book: “A Growing Consensus? A History of Public Debates on Islamophobia in Norway”. There, I point to an increase in the use of the term “racism” when comparing previous years and 2017, when the survey was conducted.
6Werner Bergmann and Rainer Erb, “Kommunikationslatenz, Moral und öffentliche Meinung. Theoretische Überlegungen zum Antisemitismus in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland”, Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 38 (1986): 223–246.
7John Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin, eds., Islamophobia. The challenge of pluralism in the 21st century (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
8Statistisk sentralbyrå (SSB): “Fakta om innvandring 2019”: https://www.ssb.no/innvandring-og-innvandrere/faktaside/innvandring
9Brigitte Marechal et al., “Mosques, organization and leadership”, in Muslims in the Enlarged Europe. Religion and Society (Leiden: Brill, 2003).
10Hoffmann and Moe, eds., Attitudes towards Jews and Muslims.
11John Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin eds., Islamophobia. The challenge of pluralism in the 21st century (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
12The question asked for the reasons for negative attitudes, and the material might have looked different if the respondents had not been asked to focus on the negative. Importantly here, the responses give insights into the terms, metaphors, and adjectives used when describing issues connected to Muslims.
13Hoffmann and Moe, eds., Attitudes towards Jews and Muslims.
14“Terrorism” (368 hits) was the main reference of factors explaining negative attitudes in both the answers that were responsible outside the group and inside the group. Many answers defined the core problem to be generalisations from extremist/terrorists to “all Muslims”, such as “The extremist gives the Muslims a bad reputation”.
15See chapter 9, Vibeke Moe: “How People Explain Antisemitism. Interpretation of Survey Answers” for a similar analysis of the open-ended questions on the reasons for antisemitism.
16Stuart Hall, Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices (London and Thousand Oaks, California: Sage in association with the Open University, 1997).
17See as an example: George Moss, “The Jews: Myth and counter-myth” in I Back Les and John Solomos Theories of Race and Racism, A reader (London: Routledge, 2000).
18Cora Alexa Døving and Siv Ellen Kraft, Religion i pressen (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2013).
19Gordon W. Allport, The Nature of Prejudice (New York: Anchor Books, 1958).
20Hall, “Representations: cultural representations and signifying practices”, 258.
21More than one-third of the respondents in the Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies survey considered negative portrayals of Muslims in the media to be the main cause of prejudice and xenophobia against Muslims in the population (Hoffmann and Moe 2017).
22Elisabeth Poole, Reporting Islam: Media representations of British Muslims (New York: Tauris, 2002).
23Elisabeth Poole, “Reporting Islam: Media representations of British Muslims”, 240 and 250; Peder Hervik, Elisabeth Eide & Risto Kunelius, “A Long and Messy Event” in Eide, E.; Kunelius, R. and Phillips, A. eds., Transnational Media Events. The Mohammed Cartoons and the Imagined Clash of Civilizations (Gothenburg: Nordicom, 2008), 29–38.
24Peter Morey and Amina Yaqin, Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation after 9/11 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2011).
25The survey data show a correlation between high values on the index for Islamophobic attitudes and belonging to the voters group of the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet): The percentage of the Progress party voters that scored high on the combined index (62 per cent) is far greater than for the other parties voters” (Hoffmann and Moe, eds. Attitudes towards Jews and Muslims, 99).
26 https://forskning.no/moderne-historie-valg-politikk/2015/05/frps-vei-mot-valgtoppen
27 https://www.abcnyheter.no/nyheter/politikk/2017/08/04/195321874/listhaug-foran-500-muslimer-vi-er-fullstendig-klar-over-det-finnes-ulver-i-fareklaer
28 https://www.aftenposten.no/norge/politikk/i/bG1A/10-sitater-som-viser-at-Sylvi-Listhaug-liker-a-sla-med-storslegga
29Døving and Kraft, Religion i pressen.
30Mattias Wahlström, Anton Törnberg, and Hans Ekbrand, “‘A beating is the only language they understand’: Dynamics of violent rhetoric’s in radical right social media” (C-Rex conference, UiO, Oslo, 28–29 November 2018).
31Tore Bjørgo ed., Høyreekstremisme i Norge (PHS Forskning, 2018), 4.
32The most active among the more established anti-Muslim organisations are Stop Islamisation of Norway, Human Rights Service and Document.no.
33Tore Bjørgo ed., Høyreekstremisme i Norge (PHS Forskning, 2018).
34Samuel Merril and Matilda Åkerlund, “Standing up for Sweden? The Racist Discourses, Architectures and Affordances of an Anti-Immigration Facebook Group”, Journal of Computer-mediated Communication 23, no. 6 (2018): 1–22.
35Two of the answers to the open-ended questions in the survey.
36Cora Alexa Døving and Terje Emberland, “Konspirasjonsteorier I det ytterliggående høyrelandskapet”, in Tore Bjørgo ed., Høyreekstremisme i Norge (PHS Forskning 2018), 179–235.
37Døving and Emberland, “Konspirasjonsterorier I det ytterliggaende hørelandskapet”.
38A representative example of a new and active open Facebook group is Slå ring om Norge (Protect Norway). It defines itself as a patriotic defender of the nation and portrays Muslims and left-wing politicians as “the enemy within”. The group had 35,502 followers as of April 2017.
39The main reference for Islamophobic conspiracy theories is the so-called Eurabia theory, which claims that the European Union, since the 1970s, has collaborated with North African states via EAD (the Euro-Arabian Dialogue), and have secretly worked to turn Europe into an Islamic caliphate. The theory was launched in 2005 by the author Bat Yeor, but has since been supplemented with other books with the same basic theme.
40Fatih Uenal, “The ‘Secret Islamization’ of Europe: Exploring integrated Threat Theory of Predicting Islamophobic Conspiracy Stereotypes”, International Journal of Conflict and Violence 10, no. 1 (2016): 94–108.
41Døving and Emberland, “Konspirasjonsteorier I det ytterliggående høyrelandskapet”, 179–235.
42Ann Lentin, A. (2016): “Eliminating race obscures its trace: Theories of Race and Ethnicity symposium, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 39:3, p. 383–391; Ann Lentin, “Eliminating race obscures its trace: Theories of Race and Ethnicity symposium”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 39, no. 3 (2016): 383–391.
43Franz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967).
44Etienne Balibar, “Is there a Neo-Racism?” in Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, ed. Etienna Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein (London, New York: Verso Press, 1991).
45David Goldberg, “Racial Europeanization”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 21, no. 2 (2006): 331–364.
46Mattias Ekman, “Online Islamophobia and the politics of fear: Manufacturing the green scare”, Journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies 38, no. 11 (2015).
47David Goldberg, Are We Postracial Yet? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015).
48Georg Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (New Jersey: Princeton University Press). The classical example of this overlap is the expulsion of Arabs and Jews from Christian Spain in the name of “purity of blood” in the fifteenth century.
49Sindre Bangstad and Cora Alexa Døving (2015).
50Ramón Grosfoguel, “The Multiple Faces of Islamophobia”, Islamophobia Studies Journal 1, no. 1 (2012): 9–34, 13 and 14.
51This development is significant if one compares the first and second report on Islamophobia from the Runnymede Trust (1997 and 2017).
52See chapter 3 in this book: “A Growing Consensus? A History of Public Debates on Islamophobia in Norway”.
53Sindre Bangstad and Cora Alexa Døving, Hva er rasisme (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2015).
54In 2015 Norway was criticised by the UN Racial Discrimination Committee for not using the word racism. Politicians were asked how they intended to combat racism if they never referred to it, https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16330&LangID=E
55See chapter 1 in this book by Christhard Hoffmann: “A Fading Consensus: Public Debates on Antisemitism in Norway, 1960 vs. 1983”

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