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After Oslo: Europe, Islam and the Mainstreaming of Racism

[Screen shot of Sky News feature of daily headlines showing that of The Sun.] [Screen shot of Sky News feature of daily headlines showing that of The Sun.]

European media coverage of the Norwegian tragedy has led with dangerous and clichéd arguments about ‘Islamic extremism’ and multiculturalism, even after the identity of the killer was confirmed – thus contributing to the mainstreaming of racism that helped make Breivik what he is.

An hour before Anders Breivik embarked on his massacre of the innocents, he distributed his manifesto online. In 1500 pages, this urgent message identified “cultural Marxists”, “multiculturalists”, anti-Zionists and leftists as “traitors” who are allowing Christian Europe to be overtaken by Muslims. He subsequently murdered dozens of these ‘traitors’, the majority of them children, at a Labour Party youth camp. His inspiration, according to this manifesto, were those pathfinders of the Islamophobic right who have profited immensely from the framing and prosecution of the “war on terror,” including Melanie Phillips, Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, Martin Kramer and Bat Ye’or. 

Yet, almost before the attacks were concluded, a ‘line’ was developing in the mass media: it was perpetrated by jihadists, and certainly an ‘Al Qaeda style’ attack. Peter Beaumont of The Guardian was among the first to develop this narrative, but it was rapidly taken up across the media. Glenn Greenwald describes how on the day of the attack “the featured headline on The New York Times online front page strongly suggested that Muslims were responsible for the attacks on Oslo; that led to definitive statements on the BBC and elsewhere that Muslims were the culprits.”  Meanwhile, “the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin wrote a whole column based on the assertion that Muslims were responsible”. A hoax claim of ‘responsibility’ for the attack from a previously unknown group, disseminated by a dubious ‘expert’, was used to spin this line well beyond the point of credibility.

One might ascribe all of this to bad judgment and prejudice were it not for the fact that well after the identity of the terrorist had been established as a white, Christian Norwegian, the conversation continued to be about Islam and multiculturalism. The Wall Street Journal, for example, began its editorial on the subject with three paragraphs about IslamThe Sun, a flagship daily of the disgraced Murdoch empire, prepared a front page that initially described the attack as an ‘Al Qaeda Massacre’The Guardian’s analysis piece on the day following the attack featured a series of experts – including Will McCant, who had circulated the bogus claim of responsibility – attributing the attacks to ‘jihadists.’  In fairness, The Guardian later removed the analysis piece and the Peter Beaumont article, while The Sun changed its front page

Even when the ‘jihadi’ angle was dropped, the effort to incriminate Islam and Muslims continued. The Belgian daily De Morgen, accepting the “white roots” of the perpetrator, nonetheless insisted that “the possibility that . . . the perpetrator is a sympathizer of Al Qaeda should not be ignored”.[1] In The Atlantic, it was asserted that the spirit of jihadism had ‘mutated’ and spread to the far right, as if fascism has no tradition of terrorism to speak of. The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall similarly argued that Breivik adopted the “language of Muslim jihadists”, though his idiom was classically fascist. There was a real fear that the grotesque nature of the attacks, by drawing attention to the dangers of racism, would undermine support for Islamophobic policies. For the Jerusalem Post, it was imperative that this should be avoided, and the attack should serve as an opportunity to “seriously re-evaluate policies for immigration integration in Norway and elsewhere.” Similarly, the widely esteemed ‘atheist’ writer Sam Harris is insistent that this attack should not blind us to the fact that “Islam remains the most retrograde and ill-behaved religion on earth.” This is the same author who has written that those “who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.” The logic is clear: Breivik is despicable, but his savagery expresses a truth about Islam and multiculturalism; an understanding of which should form the basis of European policy.

Perhaps the least convincing claim about Breivik has been the idea that he operated alone – a claim that would never have been made had the perpetrator been a Muslim. This was encouraged by Norwegian police and intelligence as they attempted to downplay his far right connections. Breivik may have planned and perpetrated this specific atrocity by himself, but it is also clear that, far from being a lone wolf, he comes straight out of a racial-nationalist activist milieu. He had been active in the anti-immigrant Progress Party in Norway, and has been in contact with the English Defence League (EDL). Daryl Hobson, a member of the EDL whose links with EDL leader ‘Tommy Robinson’ have proven a source of embarrassment, acknowledged that Breivik had met him, while a ‘senior member’ told the Independent that Breivik had met several of the group’s leaders. Breivik himself claims to have advised the EDL on tactics, and to have been instrumental in co-founding the Norwegian Defence League. Far from being a lone madman, Breivik seems to have been embedded in the activist networks of the European far right.

Equally important, the racism that motivated Breivik comes straight from the ‘mainstream.’ His ideological inspirations are prominent European politicians such as Geert Wilders, as well as media reports, columns and books written by various Islamophobic intellectuals. This connection is not incidental. A 2010 report on Islamophobia in the UK, conducted by researchers at the University of Exeter, established an important correlation between both political rhetoric and media coverage concerning Islam and subsequent upsurges in racist violence toward Muslims. In fact, the ideas that Breivik articulates stand in a tradition of European reaction. In ‘Londonistan’ and ‘Eurabia,’ we hear echoes of ‘Jew York,’ just as in Breivik’s ‘Marxist-Islamist alliance,’ we hear Hitler’s evocation of the ‘Bolshevik-Jewish threat.’ That Islam has now taken the place of Judaism in the paranoid weltanschauung of some of the far right is a result of a transformed global situation.

The ‘war on terror’ licensed a period of intense imperial revivalism. It was suddenly the fashionable thing for intellectuals, former enragés among them, to eulogise about the benefits of empire, especially if led by the US. But the negative obverse of this supposedly humane dominion was Islam: the reputedly inhumane, irrational and barbaric nemesis of empire. While this dehumanisation of Muslims fuelled the bloodshed on the frontiers of Iraq and Afghanistan, it could not but flow back to the metropole, so that every European Muslim became a potentially menacing alien. The outward attributes of Islam, from dress to architecture, became the subjects of reactionary campaigns, street violence and state repression. The far right has learned and benefited from this. The organisations esteemed by Breivik – the English Defence League and the Dutch Party for Freedom led by Geert Wilders – are among those that have translated the ascriptive hierarchy of the new imperialism into a new language for domestic reaction.

The complicity between the Islamophobic right and the far right is partly manifested in the latter’s growth translated into parliamentary seats. No longer marginal, they now occupy positions of state power. This has intensified both the quotidian racism of the streets and institutional racism at the level of the state, manifested in the ban on minarets, the niqab, hijab and halal meat in Switzerland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, respectively. Further, they act as a gravitational force pulling mainstream parties further to the right. The sources of their support are challenged neither by the centre-right nor the centre-left, both of which instead seek to emulate the far right. This trend has contributed significantly to the mainstreaming of racist ideas that form the basis for such violent outrages.

That the media’s response to the attacks very often conformed to the same ‘clash of civilizations’ motif that undergirded Breivik’s own would-be chef d'oeuvre is an irony that has largely been lost in the deluge of opinion. What has also been lost, and what is as important, is the sheer idiotic irrelevance of such ideas in an era of Arab revolutions. The ‘clash of civilizations’ is more vacant than ever. Meanwhile, transnational jihadism has had its day. For as long as the vast majority of people in the Middle East suffered under the thumb of US-sponsored despots with little prospect of a reprieve, the solution of ‘terror’ had some limited purchase. But, while there may still be attacks, the base of support for such actions is being eroded every day. Astonishingly, none of the media’s queue of experts referred to this outstanding fact.

Many of the Muslims – including European Muslims – whom many Europeans have spent a decade vilifying, are now demonstrating that they have a more expansive and humane conception of democracy than most of their European oblocutors, and that their commitment to it is more enduring. Pundits might wish to reflect on that heroism and its meaning, as well as the diabolical horror in Norway and its meaning, before they reflexively verbalise the stale clichés of the ‘war on terror.’



[1] Original: "De kans is klein maar het valt ook niet uit te sluiten dat de dader ondanks zijn blanke wortels een sympathisant is van Al Qaida.”

11 comments for "After Oslo: Europe, Islam and the Mainstreaming of Racism "

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Imperialist "left" is no better - SD's Saracin, UK Laborists; and even "far left" demanding the bombing of Libya. The French "left" support burka and hidjab ban and so on.

Do not forget that in time of colonialism "left" support "their" colonizers.

lidia wrote on July 27, 2011 at 02:30 PM
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So the media got it wrong for a couple of hours, the only thing this shows is how Islamic attacks are now so common that of course they come under scrutany first. While brevik was on his killing spree, Islamists stormed a police station in Xanjing in western china butchering 18 people. But all we hear from the muslim world is "we are so offended you would think we could ever do something like that?", instead of saying, "how can we work together to stop the islamist threat?". And by the way a quick glance at brevik's manifesto shows that he would gladly work with al qaeda and was not a christian fundamentalist, more aptly a western fundamentalist.

Mike wrote on July 27, 2011 at 03:47 PM
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Really Mike? "Islamic attacks are now so common?" And what exactly do you base that on? Clearly, you haven't read the EU Terrorism and Trend Report, the 2009 edition of which stated that "Between 2006 and 2008 0.4% of the terrorist attacks in Europe were committed by Islamists; 84.8% were committed by separatists." See http://bit.ly/pCHgPB

The whole point is that the "Islamist threat" is exaggerated. Yes there are Islamists, but a small minority of organizations and individuals identified as such engage in let alone advocate violence against civilians. So when one considers all the sources of violence in this world, the fact that Muslims are immediately thought of as the culprits, is more than the media getting it wrong. This more so when one considers that most "terrorist" acts committed in Europe are committed by non-Muslims.

And finally, your assumption that Muslims aren't working towards containing what "Islamic threats: exist is both factually flawed and a gross generalization. The majority of everyday Muslims who are politically engaged are fighting two fronts, one against domestic radicalism and another against foreign intervention, invasion, and occupation. So let me ask you: Are you working together with "Muslims" to stop the much more widespread (with actually higher civilian killing rates) threat/reality of Western governments' interventions, invasions, and occupations?

Jessica M. wrote on July 27, 2011 at 05:20 PM
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Jessica,

The statistics you cite are highly flawed. Yes, if you count another ETA-group bashing some windows of a police station as one terrorist act, and 9/11 as another, separatists appear as the most violent once. However, if you count casualties, Islamist represent 97% of the death-toll in the US and Europe for the past ten years. You're way of seeing things is like saying "Hey, 99.99 percent of all bombs are non-nuclear, so why on earth are we so worried about the nuclear bomb?"

In addition, if you wish to ascribe the terrorist act of Breivik as a function of his "milieu" surrounded by non-violent preaching anti-multiculturalists, then I hope you do the very same with islamistic terrorism.

pontus wrote on July 28, 2011 at 04:39 AM
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I think you are seriously overstretching your point. The media are always running behind rumours and what is being said in the immediate hectic aftermath of events almost never raises up to the standard of scientific analysis, so what? Moreover, striking against the Norvegian government would have made perfect sense from the logic of al-Qaida, one of whose proncipal goals has been to drive Western armies out of Muslim territory. Everyone who is against a clash of civilisations and does not believe that Muslims are intrinsically more evil than us Europeans will secretly rejoice that right-wing populism and Islamophobia have demonstrated that they are as opposed to open, tolerant societies than is Islamist extremism. But I do not share your triumphant attitude: problems are very likely to continue to arise from both sides. Democratisation in the Arab world needs the participation of Muslim conservtives and Islamist, but it is also acutely threatened by radical Islamic tendencies who also havve their followers in the West. It is not all about Western racism!!!

Sebastian wrote on July 28, 2011 at 07:43 AM
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I wonder whether you could say something about the role of working class that EDL almost uses to justify Islamaphobia? You advocate reflecting on the meaning of this right-wing extremism, but I think this somewhat misses the distracting effect of all this ‘reflection’. In fact, perhaps the best thing might be to stop reflecting on it, to ignore it and start reflecting on what’s going on behind the scenes while we’re doing all this reflecting. Cameron, the media, the BBC, the ruling elite in general, use the ‘controversial issue’ of Islam to silence and divert the working class, even in seemingly ‘leftist’ debates – they’re shifting the attention from the economic problem at hand, shifting the blame away from their own complicity, and diverting it on to their Muslim brothers (who the working class should, in fact, be standing with side by side against Cameron and his ilk while they usher in the privateers). All this attention of Breivik, on Islamaphobia, even your article, seems like a dangerous distraction to me… both in its scholarly rhetoric and in its failure to address the role of the working class – who are prime targets for the islamaphobia that the ruling class cultivates even in pro-Islam academic ‘reflections’ such as these. My advice would be to abandon your careerist tendencies and dense rhetoric and consider more clearly your reception by the audiences who all this anti-islam stuff is really targeting! You make links to the rise of anti-semitism but I hate to say (crude as it is) that they didn’t prevent the rise of fascism. We need a clear and preferably oral strategy of shifting the Islam-focus to one on the conditions of capitalism which unites oppressed Muslims and non-Muslims alike! Other than that though, great article – thanks.

James F. wrote on July 28, 2011 at 12:20 PM
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Islam never and ever allow killing any one even to cut a tree but now wholes world worrying the way of speed of Islam spreading , one day 90% of the world will be Islam

Rifthy wrote on July 29, 2011 at 09:55 AM
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The Breivik Massacre was a one-of-a-kind jihad against the leftist govt. of Norway. Muslim jihad attacks happen almost daily. So what?

The leftist media set Norway up for the attack by stifling all "anti-Islam bloggers" like Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, and Geert Wilders, giving Breivik that only a desperate act could give him his 15 min. of fame.

Why not read the "anti-Islamic bloggers" for yourself and see that all they are doing is trying to warn the West that Islam has a horrible thousand-year track record of fighting to destroy every value the West cherishes, and that allowing Muslim immigration is tantamount to suicide. The best way is to read the Historyscoper's Islam Watch Blog, which posts daily links to all important articles by the bloggers in question.

T.L. Winslow wrote on July 31, 2011 at 12:03 PM
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Hmm. Now how could the inhabitants of erm, - the rest of the world - describe a thousand years of the West's behaviour- if they felt like being just a tad negative.

Consider having you native language banned. Total ethnic cleansing. Slave ships. Gas chambers. Continual invasions and wars by proxy. "Regime change". Debt enslavement. Cluster bombing, carpet bombing, atomic bombing.

But the Memri hate pipe is working well. So many are now oh-so-well informed on how barbaric Muslims are, and how dysfunctional their societies are. Well it must come a relief.

YusefH wrote on July 31, 2011 at 03:52 PM
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Pontus, even tho Jessicas statistics are flawed, she nevertheless has a valid point, being that if you don't count the US 9/11 the highest death toll from terrorist attacks in Europe still comes from separatist or western radicalists...

Kristian wrote on August 03, 2011 at 08:53 AM
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1)Gross over-generalization and conflation of geo-political struggle with racism are tactics of the authors, but certainly not by all of their political opponents.

2)Comments regarding rates of terrorism should be described in figures relating directly to the relative size of population groups. Without such adjustments they are vacuous propaganda.

Bairkus wrote on October 08, 2011 at 12:12 AM

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