Global Politics

One Survivor Speaks Out: What it Means to be an Ethnic Minority in Norway


Arshad Mubarak Ali (Photo: Tore Sinding Bekkedal)

The trial of Anders Breivik has faded from the headlines, but the trial continues. On Friday, the court heard details of the deaths of the 69 people he massacred on Utoya Island. Breivik appeared unmoved by the testimony.

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One of the survivors of the shootings that day has spent a lot of time thinking about the horrific event and what it means for him and for Norway.

We met up with him in a small group of Norwegians gathered in a hall in downtown Stavanger, still grappling with what happened.

A moderator had brought together four panelists to talk about the how the media have reported on the massacre and the trial and to examine just what it means for Norway's future. Eventually, it was Arshad Mubarak Ali's turn to speak.

Ali stands out not only because of the color of his skin. He is also a survivor of the day of horror on Utoya Island. Ali knows while he may not have died, he was, in Breivik's mind, the enemy simply because he is different from so many other Norwegians.

Ali, who was born in Norway to parents from Sri Lanka, never noticed that difference until September the 11th 2001. A teenager at the time, he remembers telling classmates how upset he was about what happened that day.

So he said he was shocked when one of them identified him with the 9/11 assassins.

"A person said to me, 'I didn't think that you thought this was terrible; I thought that you supported these people.' So that experience made me think," Ali said. "When this classmate said this to me. I started to think who am I? Why am I so different because I am a Muslim."

Ali spent the years after exploring that question, studying the history of his faith, listening to a national debate that seemed to equate Islam with terrorism. Then, at the suggestion of his politically active father, he ran for city council and won a seat at the age of 20.

Ever since, he's worked hard for the Labor Party. That's why he was at the party's youth meeting on Utoya Island that day.

Ali recounts the terror of the day quietly and deliberately. He went with others to shelter inside a building after they heard gunshots outside. He was standing next to a closed door when a bullet came flying in.

"And then I just saw a shot, a gunshot that went through the wall and hit this person and he fell down and he started to shout," Ali said. "Then I knew that okay this is something serious."

Ali said he saw Breivik walk past the building. But then, with the wounded man crying out in pain, Ali saw the gunman came back and stand above the injured man.

"And then I just heard someone walking in very quietly and then this person was still telling I need help, please help me. And then we just heard three gunshots. At that moment I was sure I was going to die," Ali said.

But Breivik walked away without spotting Ali, carrying on his rampage. Ali now knows Breivik was trying to start a race war aimed at ridding Norway of people like him. The nation's response gave Ali renewed hope for the future.

"Right after the attack I felt a really strong sense of unity in the country, it was very strong," he said. "I never experienced that before in my life. I never thought this would happen. There was less focus on being different and more focus on being together."

Ali believes that sense of unity is still there. Now, he wants his fellow Norwegians to open up a dialogue, to allow even extremists, Muslim or Christian to air their views and engage in debate. He said that kind of debate tempered his own views about the role of Muslims in his country.

"If we don't deal with it effectively and if we don't deal with it at all and we just let it go we will come to the point again where the society will be more and more polarized," he said.

There was a time when Ali considered leaving Norway behind to study in Saudi Arabia. Then he thought about the things that he said make his country special.

"Democracy, personal freedom all of those things we take for granted… it's actually not that common if you compare it with many other countries in the world. And I'm very glad and proud of being a part of what Norway is," he said.

Ali went to the opening days of the Breivik trial and was disturbed by what he heard and saw. Now he's ready to move forward and he's hoping the nation can as well.