Roving thoughts and provocations

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The New European Far-Right

Rex Features/AP Photo
Anders Behring Breivik leaving the Oslo Municipal Court, Norway, July 25, 2011

In the flurry of commentaries about the July 22 Norway killings, certain features stand out. Commentators on the right are more inclined to dismiss Anders Behring Breivik as a deranged lunatic, with the implication that his mass murder of young Norwegians at a socialist camp on the island of Utoya and his detonation of a lethal car bomb in the government quarter of Oslo were one-off events. By contrast, writers and bloggers on the left—citing passages in the rambling 1,500-page manifesto Breivik posted on the Internet before his rampage—are more likely to take the view that there is some linkage between his monstrous crimes and new versions of far right ideologies that have been leaching into mainstream European politics. These divergent interpretations have brought fresh urgency to the question of whether highly charged political rhetoric can play a part in motivating extreme forms of violence.

For the first view, consider the comment by Simon Jenkins, a former editor of the London Times, and prolific columnist on the libertarian right. In the Guardian, Jenkins argues:

A man so insane he can see nothing wrong in shooting dead 68 young people in cold blood is so exceptional as to be of interest to criminology and brain science, but not to politics …He tells us nothing about terrorism or gun control or policing or political holiday camps. His avowal of fascism could as well have been of communism or Islamism or anarchism. The desperate, perhaps understandable, search to find meaning is dangerous. Breivik does not even measure up to the ideological coherence of the Nazism he admired. He is plainly very sick.

Melanie Phillips, stalwart of the right-wing British tabloid Daily Mail, and author of Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within has long used her column to stir up alarm about the dangers posed by Muslim immigrants to Europe, and Breivik cites her extensively in his tract. Yet in her blog, after denouncing his atrocity, she makes a distinction between even ultra-nationalists such as the Northern Ireland terrorists (though she doesn’t mention them specifically) and what she sees as the apocalyptic vision underpinning Breivik’s actions.

The former may be appalling in its effects but is nevertheless fundamentally rational since its goal, however noxious, is achievable. The latter is fundamentally irrational since its goal is a utopian fantasy. Consequently those who are in the grip of millenarian apocalyptic fantasies tend to be lunatics or psychopaths.

The argument that political rage can be clearly distinguished from apocalyptic fantasy is problematic, to say the least. Christian eschatology ranges seamlessly from premillennialists, who believe the world will end soon in a series of catastrophic events, to mainstream believers who interpret the Second Coming as a message of hope for the future. The same may be said for believers in secular utopias, whether communist or nationalist, who occupy a broad range of positions across the political spectrum. The Thousand Year Reich was a millennialist dream, as was the communist utopia, but not all Nazi or communist party members were mass killers.

Judging from his manifesto, Breivik is an obsessive man, with an idée fixe about the evils of Islam and multiculturalism. He believes that European leaders, especially those belonging to social democratic parties, are cultural traitors who are inflicting irreversible damage on their countries. Hence his attack on Utoya island, where the flower of Norway’s social democratic youth—reservoir of its future leaders— were gathered. He wants to see all Muslims expelled or repatriated unless they allow themselves to be converted into believing or “cultural Christians.” These aims may seem impracticable—but given the history of population expulsions and exchanges that he cites at some length in his document, they are neither utopian or millenarian.

Towards the end of his manifesto Breivik says that Europe should strive to become a civilization where the individual‘s acquisition of wealth would no longer be the driving force, and where more resources are committed towards social betterment. “Good welfare arrangements,” he opines,

requires a solid cooperation/symbiosis (social cohesion) and [this] is only possible in a monoculture where everyone has complete confidence in everyone else. The problem with today‘s society is that it has become fanatically egalitarian. In our quest to appease everyone (except the traditional cultural group) we have created a habit and tradition of cheering mediocrity and weakness. Your position in the victim hierarchy decides your position in society.

The sentiment is virtually identical to that expressed by Phillips:

Multiculturalism is said to promote equal treatment for all cultures. But this is not true. There is one culture that it does not treat equally at all, and that is the indigenous British culture. What purports to be an agenda of equality actually promotes the radical deconstruction of the majority culture, the idea of the nation itself and the values of Western democracy…This is a cultural scorched-earth policy: year zero for the secular universal world order.

Breivik’s manifesto appears paranoid and at times narcissistic. He evidently sees himself as a kind of Wagnerian hero, a “Justiciar Knight” charged with striking the first blow in the looming war against the demons of multiculturalism. His anxieties may be vastly exaggerated, but his ideas are presented systematically, and are generally consistent with the critiques of Islam and multiculturalism appearing in the mainstream press, as well as right-wing blogs. It would be premature, even dangerous, to suppose that the source of his action can only be understood by reference to synaptic glitches in an individual psychopath’s brain.

As Thomas Hegghammer, the Norwegian expert on Islamism, has argued, Breivik is in some respects an occidental mirror of Osama bin Laden—a dangerous monster, perhaps, but not necessarily an irrational one. Breivik’s manifesto, Hegghammer explains, departs from established categories of right-wing extremism such as ultra-nationalism, white supremacism, or Christian fundamentalism, to reveal “a new doctrine of civilizational war that represents the closest thing yet to a Christian version of al-Qaeda.” The concept of “civilizational conflict ” or “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West, first articulated by Bernard Lewis, is shared by many on the right and some in Europe’s liberal mainstream.

Both Breivik and the leaders of al-Qaeda see themselves as engaged in a conflict that extends back to the Crusades, with both of them using references to medieval chivalry. Both have resorted to catastrophic violence on behalf of transnational entities: the Ummah or “community” of all Muslims in the case of al-Qaeda, and “Europe” in the case of Breivik. Both frame their struggle as wars of survival, with the emphasis placed on defending a religiously-based culture rather than a distinctive nationality or ethnicity. Both hate their respective governments for “collaborating” with the outside enemy. Both use the language of martyrdom. Where Islamists refer to suicide bombings as “martyrdom operations” Breivik refers to an individual “martyr cell” in anticipation of his attack on defenseless youngsters. Both, as Hegghammer notes, lament the erosion of patriarchy and the emancipation of women.

Just as al-Qaeda represents an extreme, activist variant of political views held by a much wider constituency of Muslim radicals, most of whom would never consider crossing the boundary between thinking and action, so Breivik (judging from his manifesto) holds a broad range of positions common to what might be called the “counter-jihadist” or “paranoid right.” This is represented—among others—by Robert Spencer, Daniel Pipes, and Pamela Geller in the US, the controversial Dutch legislator Geert Wilders, and Bat Ye’or and Melanie Phillips in Britain. All these writers—most of whom have denounced the Utoya massacre in the most unequivocal terms—subscribe to variants of the thesis that Europe is sleepwalking into cultural disaster or (in the case of Phillips) enabling Islamist terrorists to gain a foothold.

Critics of the counter-jihadists in blogs and published articles have not been slow to point out the affinities between their utterances and the “classical” anti-Semitism of 1930s Europe. Jonathan Haari, writing in the Independent, names Bat Ye’or (the pseudonym of Giselle Littman, an Egyptian-born Jewish writer) as one of the “intellectuals on the British right who are propagating a theory about Muslims that comes close to being a 21st-century ‘Protocols of the Elders of Mecca.’” Bat Ye’or’s best known work, Eurabia: the Euro-Arab Axis, which Breivik cites extensively, castigates a supine European Union for allying itself with Arab states at the expense of Israel and the Atlantic alliance, creating a situation whereby Christians and Jews will be reduced to the status of dhimmis (the protected but subordinate minority communities of classical Islam). They will be second class citizens forced to ‘walk in the gutter.” In a letter of protest to the publishers of the Hebrew translation of Eurabia, Adam Keller, the Israeli peace activist compared it ) to Edouard Drument’s La France Juive (1886), the anti-Semitic tract that provided the ideological underpinnings for the deportation of France’s Jews under the Vichy government half a century later.

A striking, if ironic, feature of the “new right” discourse is the way that Islam and Muslims have replaced Jews as the specter of alien enemy aiming at world domination. According to some reports Brevik may have had plastic surgery to make him appear more “Aryan,” but he is no anti-Semite. Indeed his tract has a section explaining that today’s neo-Nazis are both misguided and thoroughly untrustworthy. He regards Nazism as a genocidal “hate-ideology” which he contrasts with his own brand of “cultural conservatism” aimed at defending European civilization and culture. But Zionism is to be commended. As the Jerusalem Post has observed, Breivik’s manifesto is not only fiercely anti-Islamic but also strikingly pro-Israeli. Following Bat Ye’or’s highly tendentious readings of Islamic history, he states that Israel is the Jewish homeland due in large part to the persecution suffered by Jews at the hands of Muslims. Jews who support multiculturalism - the primary target of his ideological venom, “are as much a threat to Israel as they are to us. So let us fight together with Israel, with our Zionist brothers with all anti-Zionists, against all cultural Marxist/multiculturalists.”

This redefinition of the universal enemy would be disturbing even without the appalling events in Oslo and Utoya island. Breivik is far from alone in making this transition. The English Defence League— which is praised in Breivik’s document and with which he may have been in contact—strongly supports Israel as a bastion of western civilization facing the “totalitarian threat” of Islamic fundamentalism. Israeli flags are now waved routinely at demonstrations mounted by the EDL in places of high Muslim concentration. Right-wing parties, such as the National Front in France, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, and the Austrian Freedom Party are now forming links with the governing Israeli Likud (led by premier Bibi Netanyahu) and its coalition partner Yisrael Beiteinu (led by foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman).

As Ayoob Kara, a deputy Israeli minister for development who is actively promoting these contacts, told the Israeli daily Maariv in June, “I am looking for ways to lessen the Islamic influence in the world. I believe that is the true Nazism in this world. I am the partner of everyone who believes in the existence of this war.” His sentiments are echoed by Eliezer Cohen, a former member of the Knesset with Yisrael Beiteinu in a recent interview with Spiegel Online: “Right-wing politicians in Europe are more sensitive to the dangers facing Israel. They are talking exactly the same language as Likud and others on the Israeli right.”

Islamophobia may appear to be the “new anti-Semitism,” but the context is significantly different from the situation in 1930s Europe. In the 1930s some Jewish people were wealthy, and became the targets of populist envy incited by the Nazis. But as communities the Jews were tragically vulnerable, without external support. Today many of Europe’s Muslims may appear to be vulnerable minorities, with lower levels of educational attainment than members of other religious minorities (such as Sikhs and Hindus, as well as Jews), and with a disproportionate presence in Europe’s prisons. But they are not without external support.

In his manifesto Breivik deplores the spread of “Saudi theo-fascism” in Europe, and marvels at the way the West demonises Shi‘a Iran, while cozying up to Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. His anxieties may be overdrawn, but they are far from irrational. Despite the challenges to social harmony posed by burqa-clad women, or even the occasional act of violence driven by rage at the host society’s perceived hostility, or indifference, the deeper dangers posed by a growing Muslim minority in Europe are not to the host communities: they are rather to the Muslims themselves. The export of the ultra-conservative, anti-integrationist cult of Salafism from the Arabian peninsula and similar cults from South Asia—with doctrines that enjoin disdain for, even hatred of European values and life-styles—is a real threat to social harmony, because they serve to ghettoize Muslims, to create in them a sense that they are a people apart.

Before the recent atrocity, a group of Muslims residing in a major Norwegian city sought permission to build a mosque. They explained that the biggest part of their funding—around $ 3 million—would come from Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. The municipal authorities—backed by the Norwegian government—turned them down.

This was not Islamophobia, but a wise decision that should be emulated throughout the West. The construction of mosques, which serve as community centers as well as places of worship, is to be welcomed when the funding comes from sources that are accountable to communities that use them. When that funding comes from the state that produced fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 terrorists (and whose intelligence services may even have been implicated in the attack, or from other religious sources that preach hatred or disdain for “infidels,” the authorities have every right to refuse.

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