Norway’s catastrophe: democracy beyond fear

The political response to atrocity often misjudges its character in ways that lead to further violations. This makes it all the more important that reaction to the bombing and massacre in Norway is based on careful assessment, says Cas Mudde.

The Norwegian tragedy is just that, a Norwegian tragedy. Amid the emergence each day of fresh details about the terrible events in Oslo and Utøya on 22 July 2011, it is clear that  Norway will change forever as a result. The country’s politics and public life, in a way similar to the Netherlands’ after the brutal murder of Pim Fortuyn in 2002, will never be the same again. The visible changes are likely to include bodyguards accompanying leading politicians, more restrictive access to public buildings, and a new sense of unease (hopefully decreasing over time) in the public sphere (see Thomas Hylland Eriksen, "Norway's tragedy: contexts and consequences", 25 July 2011).

There has been, as always after such horrific incidents, a wealth of commentary on their causes and consequences. A prominent theme is the rehashing of the enduring but misplaced view that the radical right in Europe is dangerously neglected. For example, a New York Times report discusses the killings in terms of “a wake-up call for security services” in Europe and the United States which “may have underestimated the threat of domestic radicals” - a view reminiscent of the one that sees the Columbine killings as an indication of the popularity of Marilyn Manson (see Nicholas Kulish, “Norway Attacks Put Spotlight on Rise of Right-Wing Sentiment in Europe”, 23 July 2011).

An article in the Guardian by the scholar Matthew Goodwin contends that the attacks “directly [challenge] the idea that rightwing extremism is only a minor security threat” (see Matthew Goodwin, “Norway attacks: We can no longer ignore the far-right threat”, Guardian, 24 July 2011).

Perhaps allowing for the tendency of headline-writers to reinforce often unsubstantiated orthodoxies, this is an almost grotesque misreading. There are after all thousands of books and articles written by more than a hundred scholars of the radical right over the past decades; most of them argue that this political current is a threat to European democracy, and much of the work has entered the public and political domain.

A marked concern

In the European media and among law-enforcement agencies too, extreme and radical-right groups have long been the object of great (even disproportionate) attention. Think of the many exposés by undercover journalists who have infiltrated various parties: among them Peter Rensen the (Dutch) Center Democrats, Anne Tristan the (French) Front National, Yaron Svoray the broader German neo-Nazi scene. Think too of the embarrassing federal constitutional court (FCC) case in Germany against the National Democratic Party (NPD), which was abandoned because the party was so infiltrated by the intelligence agencies that the court could no longer distinguish real party leaders from agents and informers.

There has also been strong legal and security action against the radical right in the name of democratic struggle against fascist evil. During the 1980s and 1990s in particular, radical-right politicians - even if they represented legal political parties and were not involved in violence - have been fired from (public) jobs, beaten up by “anti-fascists”, and spied upon by secret services. In addition, extreme-right activists have been given long jail sentences for what are essentially ideological crimes. The Austrian neo-Nazi Gottfried Küssel, for example, was sentenced to eleven years in prison for actively propagating National Socialism; and the punishment of violent extreme rightists for their crimes has often been supplemented by an extra sentence that takes their motivations into account.

In short, the far right has been and is taken very seriously in Europe. It receives exceptional attention in academia and the media, and both the European Union and its individual member-states have developed an extensive legal framework to combat its excesses. True, the diligent enforcement of legislation is lacking in some countries (especially in eastern Europe); but few if any countries are truly “blind in the right eye,” as some on the far left claim.

This is not to say that everything is perfect or that the extreme right does not present a danger. For example, random violence by often intoxicated racist youth continues to threaten minorities in many countries, and complete prevention of attacks by “lone wolves” or small cells would be almost impossible were the latter determined to conduct them. But these realities do not automatically imply a lack of concern by the state or larger public.

There has been a public shift over recent decades, however. While people have not necessarily become much more susceptible to radical-right ideas and parties, the taboo on expressing these ideas and supporting these parties has clearly decreased. This is even the case in  countries (like Norway) where the taboo was strongest. As I argued in an earlier openDemocracy article, Islamophobia in the traditionally tolerant countries of northern Europe has given voice to repressed nativists by allowing them to attack “the other” as the intolerant (see “The intolerance of the tolerant”, 20 October 2010). Though it is worth emphasising that the Norwegian killer is no example of this, but rather a classic example of the intolerance of the intolerant.

A measured response

The immediate reaction of Norway’s prime minister Jens Stoltenberg on the evening of 22 July was to reassure citizens and reaffirm that Norway would not be bombed into silence and governed by fear. There are, however, many unfortunate precedents of countries (including democratic ones) overreacting to traumatic events. In particular, they often respond to very specific attacks with general actions that limit political freedoms and violate civil rights. There are two reasons for taking this course: a wrong analysis of the event, and the pushing through of a pre-existing agenda. The signs of this flawed approach can already be seen in the early reactions to the Norwegian tragedy.

Many international reports, as have been seen, link the Oslo and Utøya killings to the broader rise of anti-immigrant parties and sentiments in Europe. The argument seems to be that the murderer felt encouraged or legitimised in the pursuit of his act by the propaganda of radical-right parties. This might make intuitive sense, yet it contradicts an argument that many of the same outlets have circulated for years: namely, that violence by right-wing extremists results from frustration at the lack of public debate on immigration. There is as yet a lack of reliable data and thus no convincing evidence for either theory.

More immediately, two facts about the Norwegian tragedy stand out. First, Norway has in the Progress Party one of the least nativist radical-right parties in Europe. This party, when compared to the Danish People’s Party - which is among the most Islamophobic parties in Europe - looks like a fairly moderate conservative protest party.

Second, the killer’s esoteric “ideology” is an incoherent mix of sometimes contradictory elements: anti-semitic and philo-semitic, pagan and Christian, Norwegian and international. In fact, he seems much more influenced by the “Eurabia” theory of American “counter-jihadists” such as Bruce Bawer, Bat Ye’or, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, than by the ideology of the Progress Party of which he was once a member. In this respect, a further extension of Norway’s “hate-speech” law would have done little to ensnare him.

It is sometimes said that democracy is not for scared people. Clearly, this is an uncomfortable view in an often scary world. And insofar as the attacks of 9/11 targeted the freedoms of western democracy as well as on the United States per se, so too did the Norwegian tragedy. The initial responses to 9/11 (such as the Patriot Act) infringements of the basic civil rights of both citizens and, particularly, non-citizens throughout Europe (most notably Muslims).

This time, it must be hoped that calm will prevail and measured and well-thought responses will follow. Or, in the spirit of the Norwegian prime minister’s words, that both Norway and other countries in Europe and beyond will not allow the killer to undermine democracy and ideas for a better world.

About the author

Cas Mudde is assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia (USA). He is the author of Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (2007) and co-editor of Populism in Europe and Latin America: Corrective or Threat for Democracy? (2012). He is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network and can be followed on Twitter at @casmudde.

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Cas Mudde is Nancy Schaenen scholar at The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics and visiting associate professor at the department of political science of DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Among his books is Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Also by Cas Mudde in openDemocracy:

"Neo-conservatism: Irving Kristol's living legacy" (23 September 2009)

"The Geert Wilders enigma" (23 June 2010)

"The intolerance of the tolerant" (20 October 2010)

"The new new radical right: spectre and reality" (20 April 2011)

"European integration: after the fall" (24 May 2011)

"Geert Wilders and Dutch democracy" (24 June 2011)