Who owns Furuset? – Local spatial strategies in the face of anti-Muslim agitations
The far-right and anti-Muslim organization SIAN has repeatedly staged demonstrations as well as public Qu’ran-burnings in Norwegian cities in recent years. In August 2020, the organization held a demonstration at the Furuset center, which includes a subway station, a shopping center, a branch of the city library and the district administration. Furuset is part of and the central place in Alna municipal district in Oslo. In this area the population is shaped by migration, religious diversity, and socio-economic challenges. This blog post discusses how local people reacted to the demonstration and how, in the process, local identities and spaces were intersectionally negotiated, defended, and created.
SIAN and the freedom of speech
Norway, as one of the Nordic countries, is certainly still perceived as a social-democratic idyll, but Norwegian social-anthropologist Sindre Bangstad draws our attention to other aspects:
“On international indexes for democracy, media freedom and freedom of expression, the Nordic countries rank highly. But these are also countries that for all their professed tolerance and post-racialism have over the past decades seen the emergence of some of the strongest and most influential populist right-wing formations in Europe […]. […] They are also countries which are now regularly arenas for public desecrations of the Qur’an, and anti-Muslim demonstrations by far-right activists.”
The far-right and anti-Muslim organization SIAN (Stopp Islamiseringen av Norge/Stop the Islamisation of Norway) has repeatedly staged demonstrations as well as public Qu’ran-burnings in Norwegian cities in recent years. Common themes at these demonstrations are characterized by ideas “about Muslims in Norway ‘plotting’ to ‘take over’ Norway through immigration and demographic growth and stereotyping Muslim males in particular as either rapists and/or terrorists”.
The tactic the organization uses follows a particular pattern: In Oslo these demonstrations are repeatedly registered in parts of the city in which a significant proportion of the population is Muslim. Furthermore, local shopping centers that are located in the middle of densely populated parts are frequently chosen. SIAN knows that large police deployments are sent out to manage these legally registered demonstrations, and this becomes part of their calculations. If there are riots between the police and counterdemonstrators, SIAN likes to claim that Muslim people have revealed their “true colors”, that they do not respect the right to free speech, do not fit into society and are inherently violent.
As a result, these demonstrations always cause a myriad of problems: The high police presence is also associated with excessive costs, and the demonstrations represent major interventions in the lives of the local people. Moreover, they frequently lead to public discussions carried out in the media (and on social media). Yet they are approved again and again; the right to freedom of speech has become the go-to argument in the discussion surrounding these demonstrations, as Bangstad argues
“from a situation in which these [sc. Nordic] countries had a dominant cultural strain which for better or for worse emphasized consensus, a libertarian sub-culture which has emphasized free speech absolutist ideas, and conflict and confrontation in the public sphere has gradually become ascendant”.
The local people’s reactions
Two months before the demonstration, at the end of June 2020, the local population already reacted to SIAN’s announcement of a demonstration at Furuset. Representatives of the local sports association and of local politics let it be known that they “are clear that they do not want SIAN to make its mark on Furuset. On the other hand, the municipal attorney has made it clear that SIAN cannot be denied making its mark on Furuset, and they choose [to respect that]”. – The idea they formulated was to instead organize a “festival of diversity” at the same time as the demonstration would take place.
The Furuset sports association took a leading role and engaged volunteers, in particular youths and young adults participating in the association’s youth-leadership-development-program called Alna-school, and the district committee offered financial grants. Several other organizations contributed and a number of activities for children and young people were staged at the festival. This included among other things bouncy castles, dancing, music, a soccer tournament, as well as a barbecue with ice cream for dessert.
The local people had to withdraw from the area of the Furuset center – and wanted to encourage other people to do so too. While they were forced to select another location, they were determined to inspire something positive. In the local newspaper, one of the young people working at the festival stated: “The young people at Furuset have an undeservedly bad reputation, but this tournament shows the good sides […].” This was then elaborated upon by one of the adult leaders: “Their [sc. SIAN’s] message is simply hateful. They are seeking reactions, so they need people to be physically present. But we hope people use their Saturday for something more reasonable, like celebrating the diversity at Furuset, across religion, orientation, and gender.”
Negotiating, defending, and creating spaces and identities
Despite the conditions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival attracted well over 200 people, and the fact that the Oslo mayor opened the festival gave it a boost of energy. However, this did not mean that the discussion was over or that all was settled. The issue was evidently about space and spatial strategies, and specifically about practices of inclusion and exclusion. The organizers of the festival had to move away from the center. The counterdemonstrators meanwhile demanded the space and were determined not to give SIAN any space. SIAN, on the other hand, wanted to occupy the space – and was given legal permission to do so. And yet, at the same time, a new space was created – through the festival.
Nevertheless, there is something more at stake in these tactics and conflicts. The spatial strategies employed here can only be understood intersectionally. And the key to this understanding lies in looking from within: to focus on the subjects involved. To grasp the entire situation – SIAN’s attempts to make its mark, the expulsion of residents and the festival – this perspective needs to consider the intersectional entanglements of categories of differentiation on three levels. In a nutshell: With social scientists Nina Degele and Gabriele Winker, the reactions of the local population and the staging of the festival should be viewed and understood as social practices in which the subjects involved define and negotiate social categories. These categories of differentiation are to be considered on three levels: on the level of social structures (macro), on the level of processes of identity formation (micro) and on the level of cultural symbols (representation). Crucially, an intersectional analysis of how the subjects involved negotiate categories of difference reveals the importance of space and spatial constitutions, both in relation to the displacement from the center and the constitution of Furuset.
The subjects involved can clearly state why they are being expelled from the center. It is an unambiguous juridical decision based on the claim to freedom of speech. However, they also go beyond that to cite the area’s bad reputation, and make references to categories of religion, gender, and sexual orientation. On the (macro) level of social structures, it is worthwhile to remember that the districts of Alna, Stovner, Grorud and Bjerke, collectively referred to as Groruddal (Grorud-valley), share a recent history that is clearly associated with stigmatization due to disadvantaged socio-economic conditions. Back in the 1970s, the population here was already diverse and poor in comparison to other parts of the city and faced several social challenges. The valley was already considered different: “The place represents the opposite of Norway, almost regardless of which national self-image one clings to […]. […] Irrespective of who lives there, the satellite towns represent the exact opposite of mountains and fjords.” The valley thus represents a cultural symbol of an “Anti-Norway” (Thomas Hylland Eriksen/Anders Høgmoen). Today religion, especially Islam, has taken on a stigmatizing function in terms of othering – whether it’s about (young) Muslim men, their alleged gang-crimes, or the headscarf. Furuset is considered different – different from the supposedly secular Norwegian society defined by the right to freedom of speech. And the fact that all this has had an impact on the formation of identity here is not surprising either: The external view has rubbed off on the internal view, on how people in the valley see themselves. Therefore, the local population and its relationship to its own space are heavily impacted by the outside.
However, the story of Furuset does not end here. More precisely, it is intriguing to see that the negotiation of the categories mentioned is pushed much further by the subjects involved and, in practice, is redirected in a positive way. The festival represented a mode of spatial constitution practiced by the people on site, in which the area’s bad reputation was challenged. It was socially addressed at and related to the young people of the area – it constituted a form of identity-work. It was hereby implicitly claimed that religion belongs both to the individuals and to the cultural representation of the place – and more than that, it is explicitly a plurality of religions that belongs to the place’s cultural representation. Categories of differentiation are then important criteria in the constitution of space and can take on significant importance in relation to sites such as Furuset.
If one wants to understand Furuset – to understand the way people acted in the encounter with the unavoidable demonstration – one has to acknowledge that migration, diversity, socio-economic conditions, the impact of an externally ascribed image, religion, gender and sexual orientation cannot be neatly separated. These categories, these phenomena, are intertwined and should be analyzed as intertwined. The space and the local identity of Furuset are precisely defined by this intersectionality.
Carsten Schuerhoff studied theology in Marburg and Oslo. He received his doctorate in Frankfurt/Main. He works as a researcher at KIFO Institute for Church, Religion, and Worldview Research in Oslo. Previously, he has served as a pastor in the Church of Norway, both in the countryside and in Oslo. His research interests include church and worship theory, church and urbanity, religious dialogue, and international communities.
 Bangstad, S. Qur’an-burning as a transnational Islamophobic idea: the case of Stop The Islamisation of Norway (SIAN). Forthcoming.
 Apneseth, S. V. (2020, June 30th). Lokalmiljøet svarer med mangfoldsfestival og fotballturnering. Akers Avis Groruddalen. https://groruddalen.no/kultur/furuset-idrettsforening-og-bydelen-svarer-med-mangfoldsfestival-og-fotballturnering/19.26736 (16.8.2022).
 Cf. Degele, N. & Winker, G. (2007). Intersektionalität als Mehrebenenanalyse. http://portal-intersektionalitaet.de/theoriebildung/ueberblickstexte/degelewinker/ (15.8.2022), 2–4. My approach here differs from that of Degele and Winker as they assume a certain number of established categories on the structural level and on the representation level.
 Eriksen, T. H. & Høgmoen, A. (2011). Et lite stykke Anti-Norge. Samtiden, 120, 28–38, 38.