While politicians and social scientists have directed all their attention towards “islamist” terror groups, right-wing extremist milieus were able to grow unnoticed.
Memorial Art. Photo: Agnar Kaarbø, flickr
(draft / see update 31.7.11) Oslo like a war zone, nearly 100 people killed in the worst attack on Norway since World War II: How could this happen? Two days after the attack, the web is filled with comments and analyses. But I have to consult international media to find a discussion of the, I suppose, most important issue: Right-wing extremist and islamophobic attitudes have become mainstream, but nobody cares - neither politicians nor social scientists. Instead, all their attention is directed towards “islamistic” groups as the major threat to the West.
“Europeans have spent so much time and effort in banning veils, minarets and preventing the construction of mosques that they have forgotten their own native cancer”, writes anthropologist Gabriele Marranci on his blog.
“We can no longer ignore the far-right threat”, argues Matthew Goodwin in the Guardian. Terrorist Anders Behring Breivik is “not a Norwegian oddity, but symptomatic of a growing culture of politically motivated violence across Europe”. It “is important to note that some of Breivik’s core concerns have also played a prominent role within Norwegian and European politics more generally.”
Nicolas Kulish provides us the details in his New York Times article:
Friday’s attacks were swiftly condemned by leaders from across the political spectrum in Europe. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel was particularly sharp in speaking out against what she called an “appalling crime.” The sort of hatred that could fuel such an action, she said, went against “freedom, respect and the belief in peaceful coexistence.”
Yet some of the primary motivations cited by the suspect in Norway, Anders Behring Breivik, are now mainstream issues. Mrs. Merkel, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister David Cameron in Britain all recently declared an end to multiculturalism. (…) While the parties themselves generally do not condone violence, some experts say a climate of hatred in the political discourse has encouraged violent individuals.
Therefore it is somehow correct when Ahmed Moor writes at Al Jazeera that Breivik did not act alone. He “acted within a cultural and political context that legitimises his fearful and hate-infested worldview.”
In this context, it is not surprising that the first speculations about who might be responsible for the attack centered around muslims. When I watched the BBC few hours after the attack, islam was the main topic.
Gabriele Marranci has observed the same in Italy:
Immediately the newscasters told us that it may be an Al-Qaeda attack in revenge of Norway’s marginal role in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the more recent Libyan air campaign. Islamic terrorism has hit Europe again. Immediately a flurry of comments about the high number of Muslims living in Oslo appeared – yet these were quickly substituted, upon confirmation that the culprit behind the bloodshed was a tall blonde man, with comments about the danger of ‘converts’.
Generally, the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘Christian’, he adds, are infrequently used together. Shooter is now the preferred word for Europeans committing terrorist actions as part of their political or religious beliefs.
“Tragic Day for Norway; Shameful Day for Journalism”, summarizes Shiva Balaghi in the magazine Jadaliyya. Among others, she mentions the New York Times that “let the story become one of Muslim terrorists wreaking the worst destruction on Norway since World War Two”:
As it turns out, the worst attack on Norway since Hitler’s invasion was actually carried out by a neo-Nazi. This attack was about Europe’s own ghosts.
The Colbert Report: Norwegian Muslish Gunman’s Islam-Esque Atrocity: CNN: - Nordic looking terrorist? Maybe it was a good disguise
If those journalists and analysts had been paying attention, they would not be surprised at all about this attack, writes Juan Cole:
Europol reports have long made it clear that the biggest threat of terrorism in Europe comes from separatist movements, then from the fringe left, then from the far right.
But, as it is noted on the blog Cultural Meanings, “the Islamophobic current in Europe and North America is so strong that it seems very difficult to swim against it.”
These views have also made it into academia. Two years ago I wrote about the Centre for Studies in Islamism and Radicalisation at the University in Aarhus, Denmark that views “Islamism” as “the primary enemy of the democratic world”.
Looking at the guide Terrorism: Anthropological Perspectives by Rutgers University Libraries shows similar bias. When they recommend “relevant subject headings” that you can use to find books on the topic “Terrorists Groups and Incidents”, then it is Al-Qaeda and Hamas.
The syllabus Anthropology 255: Terror and Violence in Anthropological Perspective at Washington and Lee University (Spring 2004 by Sascha L. Goluboff), while also providing examples from Ireland, deals mostly with Islam and the Middle East.
Far right extremism is a complex topic, as the case in Oslo shows. Breivik was “far from what we might term a traditional rightwing extremist”, Matthew Goodwin writes. Within the Far Right, the researcher has observed broader changes:
Rather than oppose immigration and Islam on racial grounds (an argument that would attract little support), the emphasis shifts on to the more socially acceptable issue of culture: Muslims are not biologically inferior, but they are culturally incompatible, so the argument goes. The aim is to open modern far right groups up to a wider audience.
As I also noticed during a public debate with racists in Oslo, the belief that they are engaged in a battle for racial or cultural survival is quite common.
“It is not simply about jobs or social housing”, Goodwin stresses. It is a profound sense of concern that a set of values, way of life and wider community are under threat, and that only the most radical forms of action can remove this threat.
In his manifesto that was put online before his attack, Breivik also calls for suicidal operations in service of the larger cause. He claims to be a follower of the Knights Templar - a medieval Christian organisation involved in the Crusades, and sometimes revered by white supremacists.
The Labor Party (Arbeiderpartiet), is the main target for this war, as it is commonly seen by these ”antiislamists” as ”worse than the Quslingparty in the WW2″ according to Torbjörn Jerlerup who presents Breiviks worldview in his text Antiislamists with World War Two rethoric and iconography.
I’ll close this post with wise words by Wilfred Hildonen who on his blog writes:
It is about time to realise that to be born and to have grown up within a certain geographical area, do not bestow us with a certain kind of personality; that being human is something universal, which implies that all of us carry both heaven and hell within and that we all are capable of inconceivable evil at the same time as we can show up an incredible degree of compassion and kindness. It doesn’t matter whether we are Muslims or Christians, Jews or French or Greek, Somalis or Norwegians.
He reminds us on the possibly explosive power of words:
Some of us will perhaps have to realise that we too, are responsible for our thoughts, our words and our attitudes. These form the basis for the deeds of the future - evil deeds included. Most of us will perhaps not be influenced, but someone, somewhere, will be. Words, thoughts and attitudes carry an explosive energy within and should therefore be treated with consideration. We should consider what we do think and say and our attitudes as well. Not because we shall be political correct, but because what we say and think today, may have unexpected consequences tomorrow.
(to be continued)
UPDATE 26.7.11 (via Erkan Saka’s round-up) Thomas Hylland Eriksen has written an in my view rather depressing (others might say a rather realistic) comment at OpenDemocracy: Norway’s tragedy: contexts and consequences. “The first consequence and the main message to Norwegian society is thus that citizens can never again be or feel entirely safe”, he argues. “We doubtless woke on Saturday morning to a slightly more paranoid, slightly less pleasant society. A society where we have become aware of our fundamental vulnerability.”
He also wrote a text for the Guardian Anders Behring Breivik: Tunnel vision in an online world and the New York Times (together with Jostein Gaarder) A Blogosphere of Bigots where he highlights the role of the role of the internet in fragmenting the public sphere. Norway’s extremists don’t tend to gather in visible ‘rightwing groups’. But online, he writes, they settle into a subculture of resentment:
Perhaps one lesson from this weekend of shock and disbelief may be that cultural pluralism is not necessarily a threat to national cohesion, but that the tunnel vision resulting from selective perusal of the internet is.
UPDATE 31.7.2011: Many new comments by anthropologists have appeared, see new post “How can I contribute to a better world?” Anthropologists on the Oslo terror attacks - an update
Thank you for this Lorenz! Most interesting as usual. xoxo
PS: are you on Twitter ?
Thanks Sarah. I know twitter is somehow “compulsory” for bloggers, but I’ve stayed away from it so far. The day has only 24 hours and I’m already struggling enough with keeping the three antropologi.info blogs updated
Great Post- Here is a paragraph from my reflection on widespread Islamophobia where I wrote about the NY Times coverage of the attacks in Oslo
today I woke up to NYTimes.com alert about an apparent Jihadi attack in the heart of a European capital. The newspaper offered the name of the Jihadi organization and gave an extensive rationalization on why the attack might have taken place:
So how did they (NY Times) respond later when it turns out (to great relief of millions of Muslims, black and brown immigrants in Europe-America bracing themselves for another round of Xenophobic backlash) that the terrorist was indeed ‘native’, white and not Muslim. Well first goes the language of terrorism and the entire blame is individualized, its all about the person who carried out the bombing or perhaps a few Nazi nutters but they have nothing to do with European culture. Unlike Jihadists who of course represent the ‘real’ of Islam. At the end of the day we are left with the sorry rationalization that such terror acts might not have been perpetrated by Jihadis but rather inspired by them, as if there is no history of terrorist violence in the West. Alas we forget: Timothy McVeigh, Columbine and countless shootings at schools, Churches, Offices. I am not even going back to WWII here.
Its really a shame that such a biased newspaper carries so much influence and weight when it comes to framing the world to Americans.
I knew when the news said the shooter was wearing a police uniform this was not the work of extremist “Muslims". And yet I had to listen to NPR drone on and on about how the shootings/bombing was possibly done by “Islamic Extremism".
Ideologies can shoot/bomb people???
As a Muslim Anthropology student, I’m constantly having to battle the latent Orientalism and Othering that’s still present in my field. I’ve had to live through the knee-jerk reactions of professors against me wearing hijab, as if a piece of cloth was oppressing me!
My issue is I converted to Islam while I was working on my Associates degree, and therefore I should “know better” about “going native” and becoming “a consumer of cultural appropriation".
To be fair, I’ve had more professors react positively than negatively. But it’s always the negative reactions that stick with us the longest, isn’t it? Otherwise these jingoistic calls to action would not have inspired Breivik to commit such atrocious crimes in the name of religious genocide/xenophobic sentiments.
Firstly, I have to disagree with you that no one in Social Sciences cares. Many years ago I was a Christian fundamentalist, but I came to my senses. Now I have an MA in Sociology and I have been talking about the seriousness and danger posed by the Christian right wing for years. Apart from that, great article.
Immediately after news of the shootings in Norway broke I began tweeting about Breivik’s Christian fundamentalism and was promptly attacked by a few tea-baggers. I also highlighted the inconsistencies in reporting especially with regard to the use of terrorist for Islam versus extremist for a Christian. IMO we only have ourselves to blame for this mess. No one will stand up to the USA (and to a lesser extent the UK) and reject their never-ending war on terror (which is a ridiculous term in and of itself).
The USA has made Islam into a bogeyman and most of the world has gone along with them. I also can’t help but say that the constant dumbing down of news (Fox and Sky anyone?) and debates around these issues has contributed massively to the general fear and ignorance.
On top of all that there is a zeitgeist of ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’ that has silenced a lot of debate because it has become unacceptable to even question certain dogmas and doctrines of the West (and especially the USA).
Israel tramples all over Palestine and ignores numerous UN Security Council resolutions and you’re labelled anti-semitic if you say a word against them.
Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales etc. are lampooned and derided by Western media on a regular basis (I’m not saying I support them, I’m just pointing this out) - in fact when typing this I had to remind myself to add their forenames - you’ll notice that most Western media call the US president and the UK PM by their full names but almost always shorten ‘certain’ people’s names to just their surnames (a subliminal signal that they don’t deserve any respect maybe?).
There seems to be an atmosphere being created worldwide that in fact terrorizes those who want to challenge the (artificially created) status quo of them vs us (them being muslim and us being christian) - some people are actually afraid to speak out, you immediately get labelled as a fanatic or a leftie, a socialist, or even a ‘commie’. Police forces around the world have unparalled powers of search and seizure and arrest and constantly abuse peaceful protestors and deny citizens even the opportunity to protest. We are on the verge of a ‘Minority Report’ scenario where people will be arrested pre-emptively to prevent them from having their voices heard.
Having said all that I know of one sociology department here in Ireland that has effectively been taken over by right-wing gnostic-type ‘doctrines’ where critical thinking is frowned upon and discouraged so what hope is there for academia?
Thanks so much for the comments!
@Mubbashir, I added the Colbert Report video that sums it up very well!
@modestgrrl: Yes the latent Orientalism is really a problem in our field. I hope Mwenda Ntarangwi’s book Reversed Gaze. An African Ethnography of American Anthropology will become mandatory reading!
@Noel: You’re right. There are of course social scientists who care, and I do know some of them. But compared to the massiv interest in islam and terror, it’s nearly like zero. Especially in Norway. Today, Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen has a story about research on right wing extremism and anti-islam ideologies. “Only interested in islamism” is the title. “No, there is nobody who is researching right-wing and anti-islam groups", is the answer the journalist receives from Norways leading terror reserch center, the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI). Similar answers at the University of Oslo. “Nearly no research at all in Norway, there’s a lot more in Sweden and England", Anders Ravik Jupskås, expert in right wing parties, says.
In debates on integration etc, the focus has always been on the imagined other” (immigrants, muslims etc), hardly on Norwegian mainstream society and the elites (Marianne Gullestad and Thomas Hylland Eriksen are exceptions that prove the rule). I hope and suppose, this is going to change now.
PS: Here a story about research on Scandinavian right-wing parties - A symptom of large societal changes (by a former right-wing activist who changed sides…)