WESTERN terrorism experts have faced considerable derision in the past few days for jumping to the conclusion, in the immediate aftermath of a bomb blast aimed at governmental offices in central Oslo last Friday, that Al Qaeda had once again picked a relatively soft target.
Instead of pondering the possibility of a different source of violence, they generally devoted their mental energies to trying to figure out why violent Islamists would pick Norway as a target. Could it be a consequence of Norway’s minor involvement in Iraq and its continuing role in Afghanistan? After all, Ayman Al Zawahiri had on a couple of occasions threatened reprisals against the nation.
Might it have something to do with the deportation proceedings against the Kurdish Islamist figure Mullah Krekar? Or the fact that a Norwegian newspaper reproduced the notorious Danish cartoons? Hey, if none of those explanations stood up to scrutiny, there was always Muammar Qadhafi’s threat of suicide bombings in Europe to avenge Nato’s bombing campaign in Libya, in which Norway has participated.
The bombing was described as Norway’s 9/11, before reports of the deadly shooting spree at a youth camp on Utoya island prompted comparisons with the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008.
It wasn’t just the experts who were wrong-footed, though. “In the streets of Oslo, young women wearing hijabs and Arab-looking men were harassed as soon as the news broke,” according to Norwegian commentator Aslak Sira Myhre. What’s more, The Washington Post reports that “chatter on online jihadist forums praising the attacks started almost immediately afterward … but claims of responsibility were soon retracted”.
Had some offshoot of Al Qaeda indeed turned out to be responsible for the mass murder, its bloody exploits would no doubt have continued to be lauded in such forums. That the killer turned out to be a rather different kind of beast — a self-described Christian conservative who decided that a massacre would be the best means of expressing his profound distaste for Muslim immigration and “cultural Marxism” — ought to give pause to bloodthirsty jihadists and knee-jerk ‘experts’ alike.
It would be churlish, however, to deny the fact that there are intriguing parallels between the jihadist mentality and the mindset that led Anders Behring Breivik to meaninglessly mow down so many of his compatriots. The very idea, for instance, that atrocities on an industrial scale are an acceptable means of precipitating political change is utterly reprehensible. Furthermore, the delusion whereby some sort of a transnational caliphate is seen as the ultimate consequence of more or less random violence is not all that far removed from Breivik’s nightmarish vision of a neo-fascist European dictatorship.
A significant difference, however, lies in the fact that European authorities have tended to concentrate on the Islamist threat and paid considerably less attention to the possibility of violence perpetrated by indigenous proponents of racism and extreme nationalism. This attitude is not entirely illogical, given the Al Qaeda-associated terrorist attacks in London and Madrid, for instance, coupled with the perception that the violence of the European extreme right is generally restricted to hooliganism on the streets. But that notion can hardly be sustained in the wake of Breivik’s dastardly actions.
A number of commentators have taken issue with the perpetrator’s identification as a Christian — and in this context it is interesting to note his antipathy towards his own church, writing two years ago: “Today’s Protestant church is a joke. Priests in jeans who March for Palestine and churches that look like minimalist shopping centres. I am a supporter of an indirect collective conversion of the Protestant church back to the Catholic.”
One of his preferred European personalities, alongside Russia’s prime minister Vladimir Putin, is the Pope. That hardly suffices as grounds for a wholesale condemnation of Catholicism, of course, but there is considerably less scepticism when jihadists purport to be pious Muslims. Religious fundamentalism of any variety poses a problem, even when its manifestations do not take a violent form.
Nationalism, by a similar token, needn’t be interpreted as a virulent disease. History is replete with examples of nationalist tendencies providing an impetus for liberation struggles — not least in Europe during the Nazi occupation. Norway, incidentally, hasn’t witnessed violence on last Friday’s scale since the Second World War. And there are, of course, parallels between Nazi ideology and present-day neo-fascist schools of thoughtlessness. Perhaps too much credence should not be attached to the fact that the likes of Breivik harp upon cultural incompatibility rather than racial superiority as the basis of their angst.
“I do not hate Muslims at all,” the Norwegian mass murderer writes in a “manifesto” posted on the web just days before he acted out his odious fantasies. “I acknowledge that there are magnificent Muslim individuals in Europe. In fact, I have had several Muslim friends over the years, some whom I still respect. This does not mean I will accept an Islamic presence in Europe. Muslim individuals who are not assimilated 100 per cent by 2020 will be deported as soon as we manage to seize power.”
His contradictions are not entirely those of a demented individual; all Europeans who oppose their nations’ immigration policies obviously do not go to the same extreme. But Breivik’s praise for the English Defence League, his encouragement by far-right extremists in the US, the notion of a rejuvenated crusader-like Knights Templar, and his claim that he did not act alone should help to concentrate European minds.
The mass killing of innocents in a tiny and generally enlightened European state is a profound tragedy for all humanity. But Norway’s trauma deserves more than temporary empathy. Its lessons must not be wasted, and perhaps the most obvious of these is that the threat of irrational violence does not emanate from putrid ideologies spawned by a single faith.
The responsible agencies should not by any means take their eyes off potential jihadists and their sympathisers. But the stupid myth that ‘all Muslims may not be terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims’ can no longer be sustained.