Flirting with the hater contingent
The last few weeks have seen a major outbreak of Islamophobia in Iceland. Following the attacks at the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, Icelandic social media was full of rants about the dangers posed by Muslims and the impending Islamization of Europe and Iceland. Far right hate group PEGIDA established a chapter in Iceland. MP Ásmundur Friðriksson, of the conservative Independence Party floated the idea that all Icelandic Muslims be subjected to a thorough background check. You know, to make sure they weren’t terrorists. Former DV editor Jónas Kristjánsson proposed that special conditions be applied to the citizenship of Muslims by requiring them to sign a sort of loyalty oath to the state, promising to uphold Western values.
A growing threat
This development is troubling. But also a little curious, since there are only about 1,500 Muslims currently residing in Iceland. Most sane people agree that the idea of a “Muslim threat” in Iceland has everything to do with hysteria, fear-mongering and prejudice, and nothing to do with reality. The real danger is that politicians and other “respectable” members of society are stoking these fires.
While calls to discrimination and blatant Islamophobia are frowned upon (Ásmundur’s ideas were immediately and soundly denounced by the Independence Party’s leaders), the last weeks have shown such ideas are inching closer to the political mainstream.
The most disturbing example of this was the appointment of PEGIDA member-slash-Iceland’s most prominent Islamophobe, Gústaf Níelsson, by the Progressive Party to represent the party as an alternate member of The City of Reykjavík’s Human Rights Council. Even if Gústaf’s appointment was withdrawn within 24 hours, following heavy criticism, it raises serious concerns.
This is not the first time
This is of course not the first time the Reykjavík division of the Progressive Party has made the news for flirting with Islamophobia. In fact, the party’s two councilmembers arguably owe their seats to Islamophobes. Pre-municipal election polls indicated that the party had no chance of getting a representative elected, with support in the 3-4% range—that is, until Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir, who leads the ticket, floated the idea that the city withdraw land that it had allotted for Reykjavík’s small Muslim community to build a mosque. At that time, the party leadership kept quiet, refusing to do or say anything that might endanger the party’s chances in Reykjavík.
Sveinbjörg and the party leadership, including PM Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, vehemently denied any intentions of disparaging Muslims. It was really a very innocent question of city planning, they said. The problem wasn’t the mosque, only its chosen location. Or, it was all about the rent just being too damn high in Reykjavík: rather than allowing Muslims to build a mosque, the land should be used to build cheap rental housing.
Dog whistle politics
Of course none of this made any real sense. But it offered the party and its Reykjavík candidates, Sveinbjörg Birna and Guðfinna Jóhanna Guðmundsdóttir, a cover of somewhat plausible deniability while at the same time sending unmistakable signals to xenophobic voters.
The appointment of Gústaf has likewise been interpreted as an attempt to engage in similar dog whistle politics. According to this line of reason, Sveinbjörg Birna and Guðfinna were sending a clear signal to Islamophobes that they had allies in the Progressive Party. Any damage could be repaired or glossed over before the next election. By 2017’s parliamentary elections, middle-of-the-road voters could be convinced that the party is really a progressive centrist party—as its name implies—while the radicals would remember who had paid homage to their ideals.
As an added bonus, the party leadership got an opportunity to publicly denounce discrimination and affirm the party’s official stance as a proponent of human rights, a chance they purposefully missed in the lead up to the municipal elections. Interestingly, though, the leader of the party, Sigmundur Davíð, never publicly denounced the appointment of Gústaf, only referring to the act as “a mistake” in a cryptic Facebook status.
“Never go full racist”
It was a mistake, all right. The irony is, of course, that for dog whistle politics to work you need a certain minimum of competency. The signals must be so finely tuned that they are audible only to the target audience, or you must be able to keep a credible cover. Otherwise you just come across as an asshole and a racist. One is reminded of the wise words Robert Downey Jr. uttered in ‘Tropic Thunder’.
So, now, the cover is finally blown. There is absolutely no way for the Progressive Party to claim that their mosque comments in the lead up to City Council elections last spring had anything to do with anything other than Islamophobia.
It is still too early to say whether that is part of a grand strategy by the party as a whole to appeal to racist voters. The party leadership might still manage to repair their image, while still retaining credibility with the racists.
Magnús Sveinn teaches economic history at the University of Bifröst.