PoliticsReligionWar, Violence & Terrorism

What Sleeps Within

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.