The anti-Muslim ideas behind Anders Behring Breivik’s mass murder in Norway start with the political mainstream, argues Amy Thomas
THE MEDIA and the political establishment tied themselves in knots to avoid facing up to the Islamophobia behind Norway’s terrorist attack.
In the first 48 hours after the tragedy, commentators rushed to blame Muslim terrorists without a shred of evidence to back it up. Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid The Sun even produced a paper with the shocking headline “Al-Qaeda attacks: Norway massacre.”
When it was revealed that the perpetrator was not in fact a Muslim, but rather a far-right anti-Muslim, the tone changed: no longer was the killer a member of an organised and ideological terror network, but simply a sad, psychotic loner. Columnist Andrew Bolt was one of many to conjure up a story of a tortured childhood of schoolyard bullying and parental separation to “explain” Breivik’s psychology.
Unbelievably, at the same time as claiming Breivik’s actions were not ideological, many commentators have seized the opportunity to discuss his so-called “legitimate concerns” about multiculturalism and Muslim immigration. Piers Ackerman argued in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph that “Breivik… has opened an obvious wound in a policy which has been defended by the soft-Left in Europe and Australia”. He also took the opportunity to denounce nearly the entire spectrum of Islam as violent: “Islamists say Islam is the religion of peace… a view that is contradicted by the sheer scale of the hatred the world has witnessed between followers of various Muslim sects, Shia, Wahabi, Salafi, Sunni and so on.” The Jerusalem Post argued we should use the Oslo tragedy “as an opportunity to seriously re-evaluate policies for immigrant integration in Norway and elsewhere.” They were later forced to apologise for the editorial.
That the media could find a way to blame Muslims for the murders of a man who saw himself as on a crusade against Islam shows just how deeply rooted such anti-Muslim prejudice has become. It also exposes their responsibility for whipping up the climate of hatred that brought us this tragedy. As Norwegian socialist Randi Faerevik put it, “the attacks were the work of one man. But the ideas that informed and inspired him were not the ideas of one man.”
The ideas that brought us Norway’s attacks start with the political mainstream. The scapegoating of Muslims grew during the push for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After 9/11, rhetoric about the need to fight Islamic terrorists and “bring democracy” to the Middle East provided justification to wage a war for oil and domination.
Islamophobia is still part of justifying these wars today. A Washington Post editorial written when the media was still assuming the Norway attack had been carried out by Muslims claimed: “This is a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too expensive to wage war against jihadists.”
For Europe’s leaders, both conservative and social democratic alike, stirring up Islamophobia has also served another useful purpose since the onset of the economic crisis. Because Muslims are often the most recent wave of immigrants in Europe, they are a convenient scapegoat for governments.
For example, in the UK, the gap between the rich and poor has become the widest since slavery, according to Danny Dorling, author of Why Inequality Persists. On top of this European governments are waging a war on public services and welfare. Blaming Muslims and other immigrants helps politicians deflect anger from themselves and the super-rich.
British Prime Minister David Cameron declared multiculturalism a “failure” that has helped “foster Islamic terrorism” on the same day he announced severe cuts, including 32,000 job losses in the public service.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also attacked multiculturalism, and French President Sarkozy has opened up a dubious “public debate” on Islam after banning the burqa earlier this year. Belguim has also banned the burqa and Switzerland has banned the construction of minarets.
The stoking of anti-Muslim prejudice has been made acceptable by these leaders and has opened up the space for the far right to increase their size and confidence.
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom, a far right populist party, picked up 24 per cent of the vote in the last election. Wilders, like Norway’s Breivik, wants to stop “Islamisation” of Europe, stop Muslim immigration and the building of mosques.
And like many on the far right, Wilders says he rejects the crude, biological racism of the Nazis, concentrating instead of ideas of “nation”, “identity” and “culture”. But this is simply because the legacy of the Holocaust means overt biological racism would win little support. Whether it is inherent racial characteristics or cultural characteristics that are attacked, the overall effect is the same—to isolate and disempower members of particular racial groups and to sow division in society.
The British National Party, which has Nazi origins, has enjoyed some electoral success. And in France, the Nazi party the National Front is expected to come second in the 2012 presidential elections. There has also been the worrying development of Nazi street-fighting thugs who attack Muslim communities. The English Defence League (EDL) mobilises its members to march through Muslim and Asian suburbs. Its leader has even praised David Cameron for “saying what we’re saying”. Neo-Nazi gangs are also a familiar sight on the streets of Eastern Europe, and a Nazi group has won seats in local government in Greece.
The Russian socialist Leon Trotsky, writing about the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s, explained how fascist ideas found an audience in times of economic crisis. He saw fascism as a reactionary alternative to working class solidarity and struggle in times of crisis: “if the Communist Party is the party of revolutionary hope, then fascism, as a mass movement, is the party of counter-revolutionary despair.” Racist ideas glue fascist organisations together, but they also aim to smash left-wing and trade union organisations.
The failure of Europe’s conservative and social democratic leaders alike to provide any solution to the crisis but cutbacks and austerity has created a polarisation between those who want to resist these attacks and those who have been drawn into blaming Muslims and immigrants for their situation.
The size and influence of the far right in Europe is smaller than it was in the 1930s but the attack in Norway underscores the importance of fighting its influence.
Standing with Muslims against racism and Islamophobia is crucial to winding back the influence of right-wing ideas—and not just in Europe.
The enemy at home
Australia does not have a serious far right threat, but Islamophobia and racism is a big feature of political life. In fact, Breivik declared in his manifesto that ex-Prime Minister John Howard was “one of the most sensible leaders in the Western world” and congratulated Peter Costello for urging Muslims to “integrate.”
Australia played a key role in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan along with the US. To help sell the war at home Howard sold fear of Muslims, warning of the “terrorist threat from Bin Laden cells in Australia.”
Regressive anti-terror laws were justified with rhetoric about the supposed threat of Islamic terrorism. Howard called for Muslims to “be Australian” and associated asylum seekers with terrorism, claiming during the Tampa crisis that “you don’t know who’s come and you don’t know whether they do have terrorist links or not.” Peter Costello advocated stripping citizenship from people who supported Islamic law and condemned “confused, mushy, misguided multiculturalism”.
After the 2005 London bombings, foreign minister Alexander Downer compared “fundamentalist Muslims” to Nazis.
The result was anti-Muslim violence. Petrol bombs were thrown at mosques and schools after 9/11.
Right-wing columnist Alan Jones stirred up racist hatred with comments like “[Lebanese people] simply rape, pillage and plunder a nation that’s taken them in. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. What did we do as a nation to have this vermin infest our shores?” His rants culminated in the mob violence against Muslims and Arabs during the Cronulla riots of 2005. Amazingly, John Howard denied the riots were racist.
While the campaigns against One Nation, for refugee rights and against the war in Iraq helped undermine some of this racism, anti-Muslim prejudice is still a major issue. A 2010 survey by the University of Western Sydney found anti-Muslim sentiment in more than 40 per cent of those surveyed in every state and territory. That sentiment is sowed by politicians at the top who have consistently drummed home anti-Muslim rhetoric. Liberal politician Scott Morrison was in hot water last year over a leaked Liberal Party memo where he suggested the party capitalise on concerns about “Muslim immigration.”
Labor has a bad record too. In 2008, when racists mobilised to stop an Islamic school in Camden, Labor supported them. Last year Tony Abbott called the burqa “confronting” and Julia Gillard’s response was to agree with him.
Shamefully, the NSW parliament has just passed a law allowing police to order the removal of the burqa. It helps cement ideas that there is some kind of “security threat” from people in Muslim dress and will give the police more confidence to harass Muslim women.
This goes alongside the race to the bottom on refugee policy. There are obvious links—more than half of those behind bars in Australia’s refugee detention centres have fled countries in the Middle East.
Much like European leaders, neither Gillard nor Abbott have shown any indication that they want to unwind the hate and prejudice against Muslims that was responsibile for what we saw in Norway. They have not learnt anything from the tragedy. We need to make sure we do.