Published June 10, 2014
Out with the new, in with the old: Municipal elections were held in Iceland last Saturday with a record low voter turnout.The big shock: A week before the election, the Progressive Party decided to go all populist-right-wing xenophobe.
Once again, the 98-year-old farmers’ party seemed to be vanishing as a force in city politics, as polls measured its following at 3–5%. On May 22, however, a week before the election, the party’s top candidate in Reykjavík, Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir, posted the following Facebook status: “Many people have approached me to ask what position I have on the designation of a land plot for a mosque…” The day after, when pressed about the matter by the media, she made her position clear: the allocation should be cancelled, and a general referendum should decide whether a mosque will be built in Reykjavík or not.
Unlike most other Nordic countries, the Icelandic State has not severed its ties to its Lutheran-Evangelical National Church. As of 2009, about 80% of the population were members of the denomination. Due to traditional intimacy between Church and State, legislation still decrees that municipalities in Iceland must donate land to churches. As religious variety has grown, the law has, in later years, been interpreted in accordance with the constitutional decree of religious freedom, as applicable to all religious groups. In recent years, Reykjavík has thus donated land to Buddhists, Nordic Paganists, the Russian-Orthodox Church and so on.
Meanwhile, a Muslim congregation, which applied through the same procedure in 2000, was kept waiting for years. When nothing seemed to have happened in 2007, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance declared its concern that this was a possible sign of prejudice within the City’s institutions. Finally in 2013, the Reykjavík City Council, led by Jón Gnarr, designated a modest plot for a mosque. The appointed plot has finally been handed over and The Association of Muslims in Iceland has opened a competition for its design.
“We Have Lived Here In Peace And Harmony…”
From the outset there were some negative reactions to the decision. The most extreme public reaction was a cut-off pig’s head left on the designated plot, late last year. The perpetrators are known, but so far police authorities have treated the matter as legitimate protest. The act was in line with a spiteful discourse of hate and prejudice that can be found in various comment threads all over Icelandic media.
Until May 22, however, such voices remained outside mainstream politics, and religious practices were hardly imaginable as a central concern in a political campaign. Overnight, this changed. “I have lived for a year in Saudi-Arabia,” Sveinbjörnsdóttir publicised, “and I don’t base my opinion on prejudice, but experience.” She said Luxembourg is a good role-model: “There are many Muslims there, but no mosque. They see what the situation is like in Paris. There are numerous mosques there. But there is an essential difference there, many Muslims come from old French colonies and so the French must take all sorts of things into their country.” She added: “We have lived here in peace and harmony since the Nordic settlements,” referring to Iceland’s settlement in the 9th century AD: “… first as heathens, then Christians. … I just think that while we have a National Church, the municipalities should not donate plots to building houses such as a mosque.”
The Progressive party has always been populist. Mostly, however, their populism has been about handing out money to people. Admittedly, to some more than others—make no mistake about it: the party’s main commitment has never been any sort of egalitarianism. But outright xenophobic sentiments belong to a whole different category. Artists, writers, intellectuals and the general public used their respective outlets to express anger, shock and disbelief. The Bishop of Iceland reiterated her support for people’s religious freedoms and the building of the mosque.
The party’s new agenda even outraged some of its own members. One Reykjavík candidate resigned from the campaign. The Progressive party’s youth movement impeached Ms. Sveinbjörnsdóttir in an announcement, and declared no confidence in her leadership in the light of the developments. This declaration’s text, which momentarily appeared on the movement’s website, reminded candidates of the constitutional principle of equality before the law. Guðfinna Jóh. Guðmundsdóttir, the party’s second candidate in Reykjavík, responded by condescendingly commenting: ‘cute’ on the youth movement’s Facebook thread. Half an hour later the declaration itself disappeared from the youth movement’s website without explanation.
While those anti-immigrationist fringes that have been without political representation openly declared their full support for the party’s new stand, The Progressive Party’s chair, Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, remained tactically silent until the first polls came in. When he took the time to comment he derided “The Progressive Party’s opponents” for overreacting, leaving the stage for the Reykjavík avant-garde. Daily newspaper Morgunblaðið took a similar line in an editorial, though one step further, explicitly comparing The Progressives to Britain’s UKIP and France’s Front National, sympathising equally with all of them for the harsh responses their policies receive from “self-appointed Pharisees” of “political correctness.” It is a spiteful little paper, yes, but read by some. In the week between Ms. Sveinbjörnsdóttir’s first comments and the election, The Progressive Party’s support more than doubled in polls. In the end, the party gained not one but two city council members, with a 10% following among the voting public.
Toward The Last Ballot
Iceland’s immigration policies have never been liberal. A point worth repeating is that through a 20 year period well into the 2000s, a total of one refugee was granted asylum in the country. Until now, however, the public consensus has been that discrimination, let alone outright xenophobia, is shameful. The State does all sorts of things, but once cases of obvious discrimination come under the spotlight, authorities have repeatedly been obliged to reverse decisions and review their practices. It’s a slow battle, but on in which we have had solid ground beneath our feet. Once the will to discriminate becomes something less than shameful, a lot of ground has been lost. It remains to be seen if a xenophobic cause is to be included in the party’s agenda on the national level.
The Progressive Party remains the current leader of Iceland’s government.
Haukur Már Helgason is a writer and filmmaker, born in Reykjavík 1978. His critical writings have appeared in The London Review of Books and Lettre International. His first documentary film, ‘Ge9n,’ premiered in 2011. Helgason resides in Berlin. @haukurmar