Islamophobia and the tirade against multiculturalism
By John Cooper
The twin attacks in Norway last Friday have left the world in a state of shock. It seems beyond belief that such a massacre could have taken place, with 76 people confirmed dead, many of them young people, in such a calculated manner. The scenes of collective trauma and grief, of a society deep in mourning, have not only prompted a wave of solidarity with the people of Norway, but have also brought attention to what might lie behind such abject violence. With the arrest and court appearance of the Norwegian-born Anders Behring Breivik, who has admitted responsibility for the attacks, the focus is now turning to the increasing threat posed by far right groups across Europe – in particular, in Britain – and the recent critiques of multiculturalism from the political mainstream.
Norway seems an unlikely place for such an atrocity to take place. The country is well-known for having one of the highest standards of living in the world, a strong welfare state, one of the lowest gaps in income inequality, and is generally considered to be a country with a long tradition and history of social equality and solidarity. However, while full details have yet to come to light, it seems reasonable to assume that it is precisely these achievements which Breivik was attempting to target. The attacks on the government buildings of the ruling social-democratic Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet), and then subsequently at its summer camp on the small island of Utøya, bear all the hallmarks of an historical pattern of activity associated with the far right – a political milieu it appears Breivik had been involved with for quite some time.
Reports have recently emerged showing how Breivik had participated in online forums and social networking sites where he outlined his ideas and exchanged advice on how to work to create organisations that would promote his agenda. Chillingly, it appears he strived to make connections with the UK far right scene. According to The Guardian, as far back as 2002, he took part in a meeting with other right-wing extremists in London. This gathering was a bizarre attempt to form a group called the ‘Knights Templar Europe’ – which would be dedicated to pursuing the goal of seizing ‘political and military control’ of western European countries, and implementing a ‘cultural conservative political agenda’.
It is also reported, for example, that he made links with members of the English Defence League (EDL), a group which has become infamous for its violent marches in areas with a large population of people from an Asian background (it was launched in April 2009, with a rampage through a predominantly Asian area; homes and mosques have also been attacked, with ‘EDL’ scrawled on front doors and windows smashed). Breivik may have attended one of the EDL’s demonstrations last year when the group marched past Parliament with the visit of the Dutch far right politician Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, which has taken anti-immigration and anti-Islam stances, though it remains the third-largest party in the Netherlands. Breivik appears to be fulsome in his praise for the EDL, according to reports, claiming he had six hundred Facebook ‘friends’ from the organisation. While the EDL is a relatively new organisation, with many of its supporters having a history of football hooliganism, its leadership has been shown to have connections with the British National Party (BNP), a long-standing far right party of fascist origin (many were involved with the National Front). With the current electoral decline of the BNP, there is now a worry that its more determined supporters will move into the EDL, which has made its name through taking to the streets.
We must, then, look much more directly at a worrying picture in Europe of an increasingly confident far right in order to get a better understanding of Breiviks’s motivations. ‘Populist’ far right parties to which individuals such as Geert Wilders belong – we could also include here, for example, the Swedish Democrats, the Danish People’s Party, and the True Finns Party – can, of course, be distinguished from those with a background in a more or less explicitly fascist ideology and political practice. Here, we can name the BNP and the Front National in France, as well as openly neo-Nazi organisations such as the Belgian group ‘Blood, Soil, Honour and Loyalty’ (its members were arrested in 2006, convicted of plotting terror attacks against the National Banks, and other institutions), and Combat 18 in the UK. Still, there is some overlap. Breivik was several years ago a member of the youth organisation of the populist, far right Progress Party in Norway, and both identify Islam, among other things, as being the problem.
Indeed, in his recent court appearance – thankfully held in private so as not to give him a further platform, and followed by a massive outpouring of feeling against the attacks with 250,000 congregating in central Oslo – Breivik claimed that he was fighting to save Norway and Europe from ‘Marxist and Muslim colonisation’. As he appears to reveal in a rambling 1500-page ‘political manifesto’, sent out just before he embarked on the attacks, Breivik, like many others on the far right, is fiercely opposed to multiculturalism, immigration, the Left, and Islam. What he terms ‘cultural Marxism’ is, he claims, at the root of multiculturalism. According to Bill Berkowitz, an expert on right-wing political movements, the term ‘cultural Marxism’ in this context is actually an anti-Semitic concept; it advances that a group of Marxist Jews conspired to found a theoretical grouping known as the Frankfurt School, setting out to contaminate ‘Western Culture’ through collectivist economic theories and fostering a progressive society. While multiculturalism remains his target, he argues – crucially – that it is important for the far right not to resort to old, perhaps too openly Nazi claims of a ‘biological’ or ‘ethnic’ supremacism. Rather, Islam should be opposed on the grounds that it is ‘culturally’ incompatible with Europe, and that, if not opposed, then ‘European culture’ will soon become extinct. Such a shift in discourse is becoming more widespread across the European far right, and is perhaps a reflection of the increasing Islamophobia – and a clash of civilisations ideology – to be found even in mainstream European politics.
Indeed, as Richard Seymour argues that this ‘new racism’ is ‘[s]horn of explicit commitment to biological determinism, or an express belief in the supremacy of “the white race”, [and] its core axioms centre on the cultural practices of ethnic minorities and their supposed incompatibility with “mainstream” culture.’ Only recently, on the same day the EDL marched through Luton, David Cameron claimed that ‘state multiculturalism’ had failed; pointing to immigrant communities, he argued that we should not tolerate ‘segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values’. The turn towards a racist, nationalist or even fascist form of politics – whether ‘acted out’ in horrendous massacres like Breivik, or in the more ‘respectable’ forms of racism and Islamophobia as advocated by the populist far right – all share in common the necessary exclusion of certain groups, defined by their identity, from political society. This form of exclusion is not simply an autonomous process, but has a social basis. The Left political philosopher Etienne Balibar, in his article, ‘Is there such a thing as European racism?’ argues that racism, nationalism, and fascism are a ‘spectrum of ideological formations’ which, in a sense, presuppose each other. Their social basis is a ‘conjunctural effect’ of the neoliberal economy and the failure of our political system to provide an alternative in the re-formulation of a new political society and a radical form of citizenship.
The rise of groups like the EDL, the increasing success of certain far right parties in Europe, and the continuing resort to Islamophobia, has created a new terrain which we all need to be aware of. With much attention now focussed on the actions of Breivik, as a ‘lone madman’, we need to turn to consider own political society, and how we can radically reshape it so as not to foster the conditions that led to such despicable violence on a warm, summer afternoon in Norway last week.
John Cooper has an MA in European Studies from King’s College London and is now working on a PhD in political theory.
Photo Credits: http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/14287790
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