Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Mass-murder in Norway highlights the need to oppose the ideas driving the European far right

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Tributes to the victims of Anders Breivik in the Norwegian capital, Oslo
Since I got back to work from holiday yesterday, I've been wondering what, if anything, I might write about the horrific events that occurred in Norway last Friday.

On the one hand, I find myself questioning what I can possibly add. Yet on the other, the mass-murder committed by Anders Behring Breivik seems directly relevant to the cover story I wrote for the current issue of New Humanist. Often, in the wake of acts of extreme violence, media commentators are forced to resort to blind speculation as to the motives of those involved. As Charlie Brooker noted on Monday, there was no shortage of blind (and wildly inaccurate) speculation from commentators this time, but Breivik largely spared them the trouble by emailing out a 1,516-page "manifesto" explaining his motives before setting out to commit his atrocities. Given that this document, entitled 2083 - A European Declaration of Independence, bears, with its attacks on "Islamisation", "multiculturalism" and "cultural Marxists", all the hallmarks of the European far right, which I examine in the current issue with reference to the English Defence League, it would feel a little odd not to discuss the attack on this blog.

In writing about anti-Muslim prejudice and the far-right for New Humanist, I have had it suggested to me that I am addressing the wrong issue. Why would I focus on far-right extremists when I should be focussing on the threat posed by Muslim extremists, as well as the misogynistic or homophobic attitudes that some hold and justify in the name of Islam? My answer to this – and it's something I felt I addressed in my piece – is that we must speak out against all forms of extremism. We've tackled the issue of Islamic extremism plenty of times in New Humanist, certainly far more times than right-wing extremism, so in the latest issue I wanted to address what I perceived as a rise in anti-Muslim prejudice, not just in Britain, but in the rest of Europe and the United States. At its most mainstream, this prejudice manifests itself in the scare stories we see about Muslims in the tabloid press, about Muslim-only toilets and the banning of Christmas to placate Muslims and so forth. Beyond that, commentators such as Mark Steyn, Melanie Phillips and Robert Spencer promote the idea of "Eurabia" – a Europe becoming "Islamicised" by Muslim immigration, high birth-rates and a perceived refusal/inability to integrate – and this idea is picked up by right-wing politicians such as Holland's Geert Wilders to justify proposing policies intended to curb the perceived advances of Islam. On the extreme fringe, this anti-Muslim sentiment reveals itself on our streets in the form of demonstrations against "Islamicisation" by far-right groups, with the English Defence League leading the way in this regard.

As we have learned in recent days, Anders Breivik shared these views, and appears to have cited them as justification for the "gruesome but necessary" murder of 76 people. As the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate, who I spoke to for my recent piece, have pointed out in recent days, Breivik was in regular contact with English Defence League members online, having told them in March of this year that they are "a blessing to all in Europe". In his "manifesto", he urges people to join Facebook groups of "European patriots" such as "English Defence League", "Ban Islam!" and "Stop Islamisation of Europe", and he cites Steyn, Spencer, Wilders and Phillips, as well as Bat Ye'or, who coined the term "Eurabia".

Does this mean these people are responsible for the murders committed by Breivik? No, it doesn't. The responsibility lies with Breivik who, it is believed, acted alone in planning and implementing his terrorist attack. But what I think has been highlighted this week is that the supposed rationale for violence and murder can be found on the extreme "anti-Islamist", nationalist right just as it can be found in extreme Islamism. This doesn't mean we should necessarily expect further atrocities like Breivik's, but it does demonstrate the need to speak out against the far right.

While it is perfectly legitimate to protest against the use of Sharia law, or condemn attitudes towards women and gays that find justification in Islam, or debate issues surrounding integration and community relations in places that have experiences high levels of Muslim immigration, what is not legitimate is the scapegoating of entire communities and the targeting of them in street demonstrations such as those organised by the English Defence League (which have often resulted in violence). The message behind such rallies is that Muslims do not belong in this country, and this view, I think, finds encouragement in the tabloid articles about everyone being forced to eat halal and cafés having to remove their extractor fans because the smell of bacon "offends Muslims". It is also driven by the myths, perpetuated by Steyn, Phillips, Wilders et al, of "Islamicisation" turning Europe into "Eurabia" and destroying our "Western" way of life (as the satirical Daily Mash amusingly highlights today, that way of life currently seems to be doing OK).

I don't believe such views should be censored (we should all follow the lead of Norway's Prime Minister, who immediately expressed the importance of defending his country's open society), but I do believe we should be asking, as the Liberal Conspiracy blog did yesterday, what exactly it is that commentators like Melanie Phillips want? They do not, in my opinion, have any constructive answers to the questions and challenges posed by our modern, multicultural society. As banal as it may sound, I think the vast majority of people in Britain, and, indeed, the rest of Europe, just want to live alongside one another and get on with their lives in peace. For that reason, I'm interested in exploring ideas that might help promote this, and opposing those that won't, whether they come from the Islamists, the tabloids or those commentators and groups that helped inform the thinking of Anders Behring Breivik.
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