What do the tragic events in Utøya and Oslo tell us about the status of far right, anti-immigrant or Islamophobic politics in Norway, Scandinavia and the rest of Europe? Commentators and ‘security experts’ (many of whom were initially convinced of the ‘Islamic’ nature of the attacks) have spent the past few days doing what they do best – speculating.
What were the perpetrator’s motives? Was he radicalized by his time in the anti-immigrant Progress Party or through his links with the English Defence League? Did his extreme views on the nature of Islam and mainstream politics lead directly to scores of people losing their lives? Should Europe brace itself for future attacks inspired by the far right?
It is comforting to look for meaning behind individual acts of murderous violence – it’s only natural to want to unearth the underlying reasons to prevent similar tragedies from taking place. It is far more difficult to accept that there is no proven ‘path to radicalization’ that inevitably leads to violent extremism. ‘Security experts’, take note: there is not necessarily a direct link between a person holding ‘radical’ political views and a willingness to commit violent acts.
Variations of the anti-establishment, virulently Islamophobic views attributed to Anders Behring Breivik are held by significant sections of European publics. They frequently emerge from the mouths of elected representatives from anti-immigrant populist parties in national and European parliaments.
They are often celebrated in the comment pages of distinguished publications across the world. Popular figureheads occasionally inform me of the impending Islamic ‘takeover’ of Europe, backed up by dubious statistics regarding birthrates and migration patterns.
These ‘radical’ views are not the sole preserve of a disparate violent fringe – they are becoming ‘legitimized’ as part of the political discourse. The ‘one long scream of resentment’, in the words of the late historian Tony Judt, ‘at immigrants, at unemployment, at crime and insecurity, at “Europe” and in general at “them” who have brought it all about’ is being heard by more people than ever before.
Yet there is a danger of reading too much into these opinions as the catalyst for an individual atrocity. Like a mirror image of the obscene scholar poring over the Qur’an in an attempt to explain 9/11, it may seem logical to a narrow mind, but ultimately it gets us no closer to the truth.
Those who feel that these events offer up the opportunity to diminish the power of far right, anti-immigrant or Islamophobic populist parties may also be disappointed – many of their supporters are horrified by these events too. An acquaintance of mine spoke to Norway’s anti-immigrant FrP party leader Siv Jensen soon after the attacks; she categorically stated that ‘an extremist’ conducted these ‘repulsive’ attacks and that ‘we stand together in this tragedy’.
Events like this can actually play a role in ‘mainstreaming’ these parties – it allows them to say ‘We’ are not the extremists – ‘They’ are the extremists. We abhor violence. We are a legitimate part of the democratic mainstream.
Anti-immigrant populism is gaining momentum across Europe, taking advantage of sizable economic and social fears, a growing anti-élite sentiment and the creeping ‘legitimization’ of Islamophobia.
We should oppose its parties not because they may have tangentially ‘inspired’ individual acts of symbolic violence, but because their programme is dehumanizing, sectarian and threatens the basis of a stable, cohesive society.