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After Oslo: Europe, Islam and the Mainstreaming of Racism

by Miriyam Aouragh and Richard Seymour

27norwayengland2.jpg

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

July 27, 2011

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."

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