Paul Nikolov has been a writer for the Reykjavík Grapevine for coming up on three years. This July, he finishes his contract with the Grapevine, and seems to be transitioning into politics with his New Icelander Party, focused on immgrant rights and issues.
/// To begin with, we could file this under funny things that happened while the editor was on vacation. The star journalist formed a political party. The Grapevine has been accused of propaganda once before, but now they may have a point. Are we now a political party mouthpiece, like Viðskiptablaðið or the many papers in Iceland?
Paul: I had pitched the idea to the acting editor, and he said he loved it, send it on. It was my impression that he thought it was a newsworthy idea. And apparently he was right. Since then, all the television shows and newspapers have contacted me for some sort of follow up.
/// We should talk about the news coverage, but first, let’s get back to party papers. For a year, we attacked papers with a bias towards one political party. Are we an Immigrant’s Party paper now? What is the difference between the editorial decisions and the party decisions?
– The Grapevine has an audience that is comprised pretty evenly between Icelanders, tourists and immigrants. To some extent, we gear content toward our readers. However, the Grapevine has been pretty even-handed to the political parties.
/// Not too even towards the Progressive Party, maybe.
– No. No, maybe not. But then again, there was a counterbalance there. We had praised earlier on, and we swung back the other way on that party. So in the long run, we were even there, too.
/// So we’re definitely not a party paper. I’m interviewing you, instead of you writing an opinion column, to demonstrate this, for example.
/// Okay, so now we should talk about living out a lot of immigrants’ dream, in a way. You said you were starting a political party, and the media here responded. We got phone calls and emails constantly regarding your column. How has that experience been, and can you evaluate the different coverage?
– I’ve spoken with all the newspapers, the RÚV and NFS television stations, and the Útvarp Saga and Ríkisútvarpið radio stations, and the attitude has generally been really positive. By and large people are curious. A lot of people have gone out of their way to give positive coverage to this party.
/// Outside of the established media, how has the discussion gone? Start with constituents, people who may campaign or work for your party. What is the typical background?
– I have not done any active recruiting. But just having the word out there. We have a blog now, (newicelandersparty.blogspot.com), and we’ll have a website soon that will hopefully have the domain name FNI.is.
///Then who has responded?
– So far a lot of people have come forward with a positive tone. They cover a lot of ground. As you can imagine, most are immigrants, but many are European, and a lot from Scandinavian countries, which is interesting because they have a lot of rights and privileges that non-Europeans don’t have.
/// One thing that we talk about in this magazine is that, even if Europeans have more rights, we all end up in the same bin, all foreigners have to struggle here. What kind of numbers are we talking about?
– I’ve heard from about 40 people within the past few days, some of whom
represent larger groups, and have been in contact with them.
/// So you’re talking 40 co-organisers, 40 people who might form the party, you haven’t started a petition or anything.
– No, not yet.
/// No Icelanders yet?
– No, but I’ve received some interesting comments from Icelanders abroad.
/// I’ve heard from Icelanders. Positive reactions, though a little confused as to whether this was our party or yours.
– The only Icelandic reaction I’ve received by email has been one gentleman forwarding on anti-Muslim propaganda. But Icelanders on the street have been positive. I ran into Sjón a couple days ago, and he not only expressed his support for the idea, but offered to help.
/// It might be a good idea to make some room for him. Nordic Prize winning Icelandic novelists are good draws, I think.
– Yeah, I might want to pencil him in.
/// That would get a reac-Sjón. Ahem.
– But anyway, I think this means that the goals are getting out, and they should appeal to Icelanders. We are trying to help with assimilation. I believe Iceland could learn from European countries who were in the same situation decades ago, such as Denmark or the Netherlands, where they looked at immigrants solely as a source of cheap labour. And then they end up becoming marginalised and ghettoized, leading to a degree of social unrest that exists there today.
/// I see that, that government policy should change, and that there are obvious examples. But there is something else, by stepping out and forming a party. That, I think, is symbolically important. What has bothered me since the Red Cross poll in 2003, is the idea that 20% of young Icelanders believe foreigners living here shouldn’t have the same rights as them. There is no better indication of what’s being talked about in the homes, than to hear the opinions of children. In my opinion, running a party based solely on the idea that these regressive attitudes have to change is as important as, for example, forming a Women’s Party was important to put attention on modernizing attitudes towards gender issues. We’re talking about a country that wants to be progressive towards European ideals, as indicated by the gay rights legislation.
– That was successful.
/// Yeah, but if one of the partners in a gay union was under 24 and foreign, for example, it wouldn’t be a real union, because of the anti-immigration laws they passed here in 2003. What I find alarming in the days since you started the party is the blogging and website discussion. As you said, there have been anti-Muslim comments. There has been an argument that an immigration party is anti-assimilation in its very title. In the same way, was the Women’s Party anti-women?
– There is a bit of false logic there. A lot of people are expressing fears and concerns about the party without even reading the platform. A lot of nationalist ideas brought up by our opponents are the same ideas that have been brought up by us: that immigrants need to be further integrated into Icelandic society.
/// You’re proud of having nationalist ideas?
– No. But one of the largest things we’re fighting for is to increase the chances to learn Icelandic language and to learn the history and culture of the country.
/// Which brings us to the platform. I think this platform is fundamentally conservative. In fact, reading it, I thought it was embarrassing for Iceland that a party would have to form just to allow the government to meet such basic functions. We have a government that requires Icelandic language lessons, then doesn’t offer classes, and, when it does, puts exorbitant prices on them. I know this, of course, having followed the rules and taken 145 hours of classes, spending a lot, but learning very little. You aren’t asking for groundbreaking stuff. You aren’t even asking for the parliament to repeal its racist 2003 immigration law that discounts marriage under the age of 24 if a foreigner is involved.
– What’s the most surprising to me is that nobody has brought up the ideas I have before. I was asked by Fréttablaðið, for example, do you think this party could be more appealing to people on the left or on the right. And I don’t think we’ve stated anything that would qualify us as either.
/// No, to me, I haven’t seen anything on the left. You’re so far at the beginning. You’re asking, essentially, to allow foreigners to obey the law. Then, there are many changes that foreigners see as necessary that you haven’t mentioned.
– There are specific reasons for that. When I announced the party, I thought we were running in the 2010 municipal elections. The city does not control national law. However, since we have decided to go for the 2007 parliamentary elections, our platform can change.
Grapevine: Beyond the language requirement, you ask for the government to obey European law. Now, you don’t say it that way, but you’re saying to simply treat religions outside of the state religion, Lutheranism, equally. Again, this is a step that most of us would assume the country would have taken in 1950.
Paul: I think this is something that immigrants and Icelanders alike would like to see, that everyone is treated the same, and that immigrants are given a chance to integrate. I’m not asking for the moon.
/// Technical question. When you’re interviewed or if you debate, what language will you speak? I ask because many constituents still have difficulty with Icelandic, based on the fact that, as of yet, it is difficult to get instruction in the language. Our readers need no reminding, but it is difficult to find a course inside Iceland, and learning Icelandic outside of Iceland is almost impossible—there is one course sometimes offered in America, but that is only for beginners; there is Old Norse instruction, which, not surprisingly, doesn’t prepare you that well for Modern Icelandic. Unless you get into the courses in London, or in Scandinavia, you’re not even going to get the opportunity to hear the language before you move here.
– Ha. In America there’s the outdated grammar book and a CD.
/// So Icelandic is not an easy middle language for people from various cultures, hence the use of English. Can I persuade you, then, to speak English on television?
– I can say that when the website goes up, it will be in English and the four primary languages of the immigrant community: Polish, Thai and Serbian and Croatian. The blog may soon be translated into these languages as well.