She was described by newspaper Aftenposten this week as “Norwegian politics’ wandering epicenter.” After taking just a few months off after giving birth to her third child, Immigration Minister Sylvi Listhaug has clearly marked her return to work and the campaign trail, provoking just about everyone along her way.
“I expect that Listhaug will be put in her place,” William Nygaard, the leader of Norsh PEN and former publisher, told Aftenposten after Listhaug proposed banning preachers of hate from entering Norway. Her call for a blacklist came after she directly challenged an imam at a seminar held over the weekend by a muslim group in Sarpsborg.
Listhaug, who bills herself as a Christian from the conservative Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP), challenged fellow speaker Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri from the podium, claiming that he “fronts” one set of attitudes while speaking outside his native Pakistan and another when back home. “Is today’s speaker really in favour of stoning as a method of punishment?” Listhaug asked before an audience of around 450 people. “The death penalty for blasphemy? That Islamic laws should be placed above Western laws? That is not compatible with Norwegian and Western values.”
Tahir-ul-Qadri later went on to distance himself from Islamic extremism, and stress that Islam and democracy are compatible. Listhaug went on to propose a “blacklist” against those spreading hatred and messages that “are not compatible with our values and lifestyle.” That provoked Norwegian editorial writers and Nygaard, who once was the target of an assassin after his publishing company released The Satanic Verses in Norwegian.
“We have other means of addressing (extremist) attitudes than a ban on entry (to Norway),” Nygaard said. “And we must hang on to that. The moment we don’t, we’ll land in a vicious circle where we end up restricting freedom of expression and religion.” Nygaard said he hoped Prime Minister Erna Solberg will rein in her immigration minister: “I hope this is a solo act from her (Listhaug) and that she does not have the government’s support. On the contrary, I expect Listhaug will be put in her place.”
Went on to attack the Christian Democrats
On Wednesday morning, however, Listhaug was on national radio, provoking and ridiculing the leader of one of her own goverment’s support parties, Knut Arild Hareide of the Christian Democrats. Both are going after the conservative Christian vote in Norway, and Listhaug, known for salty language, claimed Hareide was “licking the backs of imams, instead of confronting folks with extreme attitudes.” She suggested Hareide was too cowardly to confront extremists: “I have not registered that the Christian Democrats have actively done their job when they share the stage with extremists and don’t confront them over their attitudes. They need to start doing that. There have to be more people than me doing it.”
Addressing Hareide directly in what became a heated debate on NRK, she said: “You don’t dare get into the ring.” He retorted by claiming she was lying, and that both he and fellow party members had made clear their objections to radical Islam: “Listhaug knows that well, and therefore these charges are completly meaningless.”
Hareide, like many others, accuses Listhaug of trying to spread fear. He claimed Wednesday that Listhaug “lacks Christian understanding and benevolence” in the way she describes other people.
Listhaug denied that: “I take up real problems, and act in order to protect Norway. The values our society is built upon are under pressure and that will increase in line with increased immigration.” The Christian Democrats responded by confirming that they will not support a new conservative government coalition that includes Listhaug’s Progess Party. They hope to form a new conservative coalition with just the Conservatives and the Liberal Party.
This week’s campaigning by Listhaug, which included some help from a like-minded politician in Denmark, comes after several other controversial remarks made by the ever-smiling but strict immigration minister, who’s accused of being a right-wing populist. Last week she controversially called on Norwegian teachers to report to authorities if their pupils travel home to countries that their families fled as refugees. That sparked sharp criticism not just from teachers, who refused to do any such thing, but from others who accused Listhaug of urging Norwegians to inform on one another, and thus undermine mutual confidence within Norwegian society.
“A minister who encourages informants has gone too far,” Loveleen Rihel Brenna, a psychologist who emigrated from India with her parents in 1973 and often comments on current affairs, told newspaper Dagsavisen. Brenna also stressed that refugee arrivals in Norway are now at record lows and there’s no longer a wave of immigration. She thinks immigration is getting a disproportionate amount of attention in the election campaign and called Listhaug’s ongoing remarks “a frightening development. I think we’re in danger of having a tragic campaign.”
Kristine Madeleine Banggren, a writer and law student, agreed. In a commentary in newspaper Aftenposten headlined “Why I as a Christian can never vote for Sylvi Listhaug,” Banggren argued that Listhaug has become a “master of populism” and has made a priority of creating division within Norwegian society instead of promoting political solutions and cooperation. She also accused Listhaug’s Progress Party of promoting distinctly anti-Christian policies such as liberalizing Norway’s strict regulations and high taxes on alcoholic beverages, legalizing prostitution and supporting abortion and abortion of one fetus for women who don’t want twins. “Listhaug’s rhetoric is not worthy of Norwegian politics,” Banggren wrote.
Free-rein, for now, but new book raises concerns
Listhaug has her supporters, like 56-year-old Jarle Aasvik who’s considering voting for the Progress Party instead of the Christian Democrats for the first time, because Listhaug is much “bolder.” Progress Party leader and Finance Minister Siv Jensen, eager to start campaigning herself, is so far allowing Listhaug to play the party’s cards regarding its skepticism towards immigration and Islam. Listhaug, in turn, is proud of her record as Norway’s first government minister in charge of immigration. “In my area, I’m incredibly satisfied that we have such good control over how many asylum seekers are coming to Norway,” she told Aftenposten recently.
After a visit earlier this week from her Danish counterpart Inger Støjberg, who praised how Norwegian authorities under Listhaug are rapidly sending rejected refugees out of the country, Listhaug was bracing for some bad publicity. A new unauthorized biography on the outspoken minister reveals that her aggressiveness has caused tension within both the party and the government, with party leader Jensen haveing to “clean up” after Listhaug. Prime Minister Erna Solberg wanted a broad compromise on last year’s immigration legislation that ushered in new rules for refugees and residence, which Listhaug defied either consciously or unconsciously, writes author Mathias Fischer, a political commentator for Bergens Tidende. “Siv (Jensen) had to have the tough conversations with Erna,” Fischer quotes a Progress Party member as saying. “She (Jensen) saved the party quietly, whil Sylvi was allowed to shine.”
Listhaug won’t comment on the claims in Fischer’s book, but has complained to its publishing firm, Gyldendal. “I think that they (Listhaug and her top aide Espen Teigen) think it’s uncomfortable to not have full control,” Fischer told Dagsavisen. “Listhaug won’t like everything that’s in the book, but it’s very neutral and balanced. It’s a book for both those who love Listhaug, and those who hate her, and for those who are just curious about her.”