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The Pakistani Norwegians

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Fortnight, January 1997


 If they are yearning for that pristine and unspoilt nature country depicted on postcards, with its pale and undiluted population descended in direct line from Vikings, visitors to Norway are in for a rude awakening the moment they land at Fornebu International Airport. Not only is the airport an unspectacular one; a drab and downscaled version of Heathrow or Schiphol. The chances are also that the taxi driver who takes one into town is far from a blue-eyed Viking son, but instead a brown man with a Subcontinental accent: a member, the visitor will eventually discover, of Norway's healthy Pakistani community.

Numbering more than 20,000, the Pakistani are the largest immigrant group in Norway, slightly more numerous than the Swedes. Since the late 1960s, when Norway decided to do as the Germans, French, Britons and Swedes had already done and import a few planeloads of cheap unskilled labour for its least prestigious menial tasks, the Pakistani community has grown steadily. After 1975, however, the growth has taken place chiefly through internal reproduction and family reunions as Norway at the time imposed a ban on labour migration. Today, Norway has a total of 220,000 immigrants, accounting for five per cent of the population, but half of them come from rich, white countries and are never thought of as immigrants. The other half originate in over a hundred countries. During the 1980s and 1990s, the main flow has consisted of refugees from war-torn or politically authoritarian societies such as Iran, Somalia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.
The Pakistani are in a special position not only because they are the largest community, but also because they came first. Thousands of Pakistani-Norwegian children and teenagers living in the urban centres today have grown up in Norway, speak the language without an accent and consider themselves Norwegians. This presents the ongoing construction of Norwegian nationhood with new challenges.
The integration of immigrants into Norwegian society has not been unproblematic. The country has traditionally been geographically and economically marginal and relatively isolated. Apart from the indigenous Sami (Lapps) in the far north, the population was considered -- and considered itself -- homogeneous. Indeed, the entire project of nation-building, as it evolved from the mid-nineteenth century, culminating in full independence from Sweden in 1905, emphasised the indivisible and unitary nature of the Norwegian population.


Norwegian nationalism and national imagery have always been oriented towards a mythical pastoral idyll. The rooted, traditional peasant has been depicted as the archetypal Norwegian, and although three quarters of the population now live in urbanised areas, Norwegians still tend to see themselves as an essentially rural people of peasants and fishermen. This kind of national identity, which stresses the continuity with the past, traditional authenticity and the rural way of life, is not immediately compatible with an urban minority of Punjabi- and Urdu-speaking Muslims from a country with which Norway has no historical ties.
The state has by and large pursued a straightforward policy of assimilation vis-à-vis the Pakistani. Their integration into the labour market has been taken for granted; after all, they came here to work. Their children attend ordinary Norwegian schools, although some concessions have been made in granting them a few classes in their maternal language. In general, a successful Pakistani according to the values of the majority is by definition a Norwegianised Pakistani.
State policies in Norway are in principle not racist. Norwegian citizenship, for example, can be acquired after seven years of residence. However, it is beyond dispute that state policies are culturalist in favouring Norwegian culture over everything else. It has been notoriously difficult for immigrant minorities to defend religious and linguistic rights, which makes their political situation quite unlike the case of northern Norway, where the linguistic rights of the Sami, who speak a language unrelated to Norwegian, have been firmly established in schools, in cultural life and even in the local administration.

The reluctance on the part of the Norwegian state to allow immigrants to retain their cultural heritage can be described as a simultaneous application of Enlightenment and Romantic ideas: Romantic nationalism praises the virtues of a particular traditional culture and fails to see the virtues of others; while the Enlightenment idea of social justice conflates equality with similarity. Indeed, in the Norwegian language, the term likhet covers both. According to a common view, therefore, in order to achieve equal rights, one has to become culturally similar first.

At the same time, it is well known that immigrants are systematically discriminated against in the labour market -- in both public and private sectors -- and that Pakistani, in particular, are a disadvantaged group. There is considerable everyday racism, although the militant anti-immigrant groups are small. In other words, at the level of civil society, animosity against immigrants is a common phenomenon.
The Pakistani in Norway, most of whom live in Oslo and neighbouring Drammen, have reacted to this situation in different ways. Most of them have become strongly Norwegianised, although it would be fair to say that many "live in two worlds". Some regard themselves simply as brown, Islamic Norwegians. However, the exclusion taking place in civil society and the state pressure to assimilate have also led to counterreactions. Whereas the trade unions formed the natural focal point of political organisation in the early years, there has been a recent shift towards religious organisation. Islam is in this way becoming politicised in Norway in the 1990s, and a growing number of immigrants are turning towards it as an alternative to other political fora. The Pakistani population is thus divided between a secular, modernist tendency and a traditionalist tendency, which rejects the society in which they no longer feel that they are wanted. Religious entrenchment of this kind would obviously have been much less likely if Norwegian society had been able to offer true equality and, conversely, did not require total similarity. Instead, it has been the other way around, as similarity has been seen as a means to acquire equality. Thirty years of experience has shown that this is wrong: in the early years, newly arrived Pakistani were immediately employed, while many culturally integrated second generation immigrants (or first generation Norwegian) are now rejected by employers, ostensibly because of "cultural differences". This is the kind of situation which understandably, but regrettably, inspires Islamic revitalisation.

©Thomas Hylland Eriksen 1997