In my personal experience, the attacks of July 22nd by Anders Behring Breivik on Norwegian civilians are shaking the cultural and political discourse of the Western world. Some events simply leave an indelible mark on people, forcing them to confront a new reality, to re-evaluate their beliefs and political stances, and to think about the future. Much has been said on the subject already, though the bomb assault in the centre of Oslo and subsequent shooting on the island of Utøya happened not even a week ago.
I won’t pretend I am able to give any succinct yet profound commentary on these shootings, being a mere spectator. Nevertheless, my scientific and personal connection to Norwegian culture, as well as knowing a handful of people from that fair country, compel me to at least attempt to say something on the subject, if only to exorcise some demons.
What fills my mind most of all after the horrible events of last Friday are questions. Questions on the nature of the assault, on how to place it in the context of ever-changing political and cultural discourse, questions on the future.
As can be read in many commentaries, as well as in Breivik’s voluminous manifesto, his actions are framed as an act of revolution against the supposedly growing threat of Jihadism. Breivik espoused a rather broad and diverse intellectual background, incorporating thoughts and imagery from among others the Knights Templar and contemporary Islam critics such as Geert Wilders and Pamela Geller. In a recent article, Egil Asprem offers a valuable analysis of the esoteric connections that have been mentioned by Breivik himself and others. On the one hand, Breivik frames himself as a Christian (and others have branded him a Christian fundamentalist), but on the other hand, as Asprem argues, Breivik’s positioning in relation to the church and faith in its current form in Norway is rather ambiguous.
Far more important than the Christian connection, or indeed the perhaps rather superficial esoteric religious connections, seems to me the framing of the shooting and bombing in the ideological agenda of what has been called the New Right in Europe. The main aspect of this ideology that is relevant in the case of Breivik is a deep-seated distrust of Islam and immigrants from Islamic countries. According to this rhetoric, there is a cultural invasion happening which threatens the native European or national culture. This us-and-them narrative assumes that there is a (conscious) agenda of cultural colonisation or imperialism on the part of immigrants, and that many of the European governments, particularly socialist and labour parties, have acted at best naively, at worst as cultural traitors.
The validity of these views is not even the issue here, though I would argue it is false on many points. Rather, the main question that has been posed the past week is to what degree this collective ideology facilitates the extreme violence that the individual Breivik has proven capable of, and of which others are surely capable as well. This question is a serious challenge to non-violent proponents of the New Right ideology, such as Geert Wilders, who now have to explain what is so particularly dangerous about Islam if people ‘from inside’ like Breivik can cause as much damage. Up until now, I have heard little in the way of promising comments from New Right thinkers in Europe and the US, who hastily condemn Breivik’s actions as that of a madman, and return to the topic of why Islam as a supposed collectively group is still the main issue for Western cultural and political security. I hope the coming weeks will lead to more open-mindedness about what it is in our own cultural ideologies that might lead to extremist violence and home-grown terror.
What Breivik’s deeds also show is that we might have to seriously revise our views on political extremism in this new century. Describing him as a Neo-Nazi certainly doesn’t cut it, as Breivik’s political ideology differs from Neo-Nazism in a very important respect, namely his stance towards Israel and Judaism. This difference is made painfully clear in a recent comment by Varg Vikernes, that other infamous Norwegian criminal. Neo-Nazis blame the Jews for everything that’s wrong in the world, whereas the New Right seems to switch them out for Muslims, and often seek close ties with Israel and Zionism as ‘natural’ partners in the struggle with Islam. This is a powerful dividing line in modern Right-wing thinking that is imperative to keep in mind.* I’ve since changed my opinion in this respect. Criticism of Israel is in itself not disconcerting; rather, it is often justified. That said, there is still a disconcerting amount of anti-Semitism in Europe, both inside and outside leftist movements. —OS, 4/jan/2015 Add to that the disconcerting growing trend of anti-Israel rhetoric in students and some leftist movements, at times blurring the line with anti-Semitism, and you have a rather confusing picture.*
Finally, there is the question of what the Oslo attacks mean to Western culture in general, regardless of political leanings. Of course, in a way these horrible deeds have driven many Norwegians closer together as they distance themselves from the killings, and find comfort in each other. However, if you believe, as I do, that much of the New Right rhetoric behind Breivik’s actions are rooted in fear and insecurity concerning cultural identity, these deeds only challenge us more. In an article in The Guardian yesterday, Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø warns of this challenge, and how we must strive to not only “keep a cool head”, but also “a warm heart” in times like this. If fear is the breeding ground for what happened last Friday, and if we must not only fear what is outside, as the New Right constantly argues, but also fear what sleeps within our own culture, how can we live up to Nesbø’s hopes? For those of us who aren’t stocking up fertiliser and rifles for the revolution ourselves, that is perhaps the most important question.