Breivik: killing the left

However nuanced, it is striking how little extant interpretations attend to the fact that Breivik’s most grotesque violence was not directed at Muslims or immigrants as such but at the youth members of the Norwegian Social Democrats.

Anders Breivik may be an Islamophobe, but he hates the left even more than he fears Islam. One of the most striking aspects of his bloody slaughter on the island of Utøya is what a personal act it was. No anonymous bomb suddenly blasting everything to kingdom come. But a man, a policeman, calling you over to tell you something important, gaining your trust, the better to shoot you. Smoking others out with grenades, when they try to hide between boulders and trees. And picking still others off, one by one, as they flail in the water they hope will save them. And this 69 times, using dumdum bullets that would explode in their bodies, torturing them from within. Some of them children turning fourteen and fifteen, a few mothers and fathers, and most young men and women on that lilting cusp just before full adulthood. Their destruction made possible by the fact that Breivik knew those he killed so well: they dreamt in the same language as he did, grew up with the same stories, went to the same schools, ate the same foods, breathed the same air. He knew exactly how to find them and how best to deceive them, because he was so like them. They were his double, his mirror image.

There has been much debate about how we should understand Breivik’s violence. Is it the act of a madman, of a sexually-frustrated social loser, of a self-radicalized lone wolf? Does he only represent himself, does he represent all those who fear Islam, does he represent European xenophobia, European Zionism, European liberalism? And who is to be held responsible: only Breivik? Or also the politicians and bloggers who spread ideas conducive to such violence? Or perhaps even all of us who did not do more to challenge those politicians and bloggers? The most nuanced interpretations find ways of conjoining all these possibilities: holding Breivik responsible for his violent actions as such, while recognizing that the ideas and passions driving him were not his own but the vicious spawn of a rhetoric that today flows freely across Europe, America and Israel. 

Yet however nuanced, it is striking how little these interpretations attend to the fact that Breivik’s most grotesque violence was not directed at Muslims or immigrants as such but at the youthful members of the Social Democrats. Had Breivik completed his plan, he would have killed the former prime minister of Norway and attacked the headquarters of the Labor Party, as well as the Norwegian royal family. First and foremost, Breivik is a man at war with his own country, deeply alienated from the culture and nation of his birth. Little wonder that once in police custody, he requested that he be evaluated by Japanese psychologists. He said he thought they would understand him better than Norwegian ones. And it is in this alienation that Breivik is not alone: his attack on the left is part of a larger front of aggression across the west, viciously targeting all that which smacks of the ideal of multiculturalism. 

Multiculturalism is many things to many people, and has been given shape according to different policies in different countries. But what underlies it as an ideal most fundamentally is a vision of changing ourselves, our social relations, and our institutions to the point that we can create a productive society of diverse lifestyles, values and traditions living together as equals. To Breivik and those who think as he does this is a recipe for suicide, at once cultural and biological. For the new cultural warriors, the world is rife with conflict in a battle for sheer dominance and the real treason of the leftists is that they ignored this for so long. The leftists, they assert, so badly wanted to be kind and good and morally upstanding in their relations with others, that they deeply compromised the very survival of our way of life and our people. Worse still, in order to do this, they belittled and oppressed those in their own society who saw the world as it really is, those who would speak truth to their power.

There is an element of truth to Breivik and others’ assertion of a powerful left footprint on our societies. The most radical movements of the 1960s and 70s – Marxist, feminist, anti-war, Black, anti-imperial – were far from soft and fluffy stamp-collecting clubs. More in fashion was a proto-military style and rhetoric, drawing on the radicalism of anarchist-syndicalism and Latin American guerrilla insurgencies, laced with sexy coolness. We have only to think of the American Weathermen, the German RAF, Che Guevara, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, the Italian Red Brigades, the PLO, ETA, the Japanese Red Army, the FARC, a plethora of radical student organization, radical feminist groups, and so forth.

All these were more dedicated, dogmatic and violent minorities embedded in a much broader shift to the political left that was combined with new forms of sexuality and sexual experimentation, new cultures of leisure and consumption, new gender and racial relations. The disruptions these entailed to inherited authorities and hierarchies were not only public but were particularly effective because they also found their ways into our kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms, even the most bland and ordinary. Such as those of Breivik’s childhood. 

It is as a victim of these developments that Breivik presents himself. He complains bitterly that he was raised in a matriarchal setting that feminized him within a society that no longer privileges its men, masculine sexuality, feminine baby-making, European culture or Christian identity. The presence of Muslim and minority immigrants as equals within European society are in Breivik’s eyes both evidence of this and the means by which the process will come to its logical conclusion: the eradication of western culture and life as we know it. It is in the interests of reversing this development that he carries out his violence: a radical deed that he hopes and prays will ignite a civil war of the most violent sort in Europe, including the deployment of weapons of mass destruction. 

At the heart of Breivik’s delusion – which he shares with other cultural warriors – is the image of culture as a unit that is clearly distinct from others. The basic conceit is that cultures have borders between them as clear as the Berlin Wall once was. Different cultures, then, relate to each other – much like states – according to the laws of realpolitiek and the laws of Darwinist evolution, competing and collaborating in the interests of maximising their reproduction and expanding their territory at the expense of others. What is ignored here is the fact that the notion of distinct national cultures is a fantasy, pure and simple. Breivik himself is a clear case in point. 

As a passionate cultural warrior, hoping fervently to rescue Europe from multiculturalism, feminism and Muslims, Breivik’s ideal models are Japan, Korea and Taiwan. This is all the more ironic, since Japan, Korea and Taiwan in fact are becoming as caught up in the politics of multiculturalism as most other places in the world today. Ideologically, Breivik aligns himself with Indian Hindutva, Israeli Zionism, and Serbian nationalism, while citing Jewish-American anti-Islamists such as Pamela Geller and Daniel Pipes, gay publicist Bruce Bawer, anarcho-primitivist Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Somali-Dutch Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Egyptian-British Bat Ye’or, Flemish-Catholic Koenraad Elst, paleoconservative Serbian Srđa Trifković, Turkish-American Melkite Catholic Robert Spencer, even Mahatma Gandhi. Most damning of all, Breivik at one point expresses his yearning to mimic the strategic successes of al Quaeda: “Just like Jihadi warriors are the plum tree of the Ummah, we will be the plum tree for Europe and for Christianity.” 

Breivik’s manifesto is a multicultural grab-bag of anti-multiculturalism. While building on a bit of Norwegian anti-Islamism – notably that of the (ex-)blogger Fjordman – Breivik leans most heavily on ideas that come from far beyond the world in which he was raised. He is a highly globalized ideological packrat, who for years has been scurrying across the internet in search of shiny gleanings with which to line his mind and manifesto. At the same time, America has offered him an especially rich trove of violent conspiracy thinking: most obvious are the anti-Islamists Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, the conservative Zionist Daniel Pipes, and the radical neo-Luddite Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber). Even more vital are Samuel Huntington’s paradigm of a clash of civilizations between the west and Islam and the writings of William S. Lind on the clash between white Christian nationalism and “cultural Marxism” [where multiculturalism entails Marxism applied to the terrain of culture].

The irony is that Breivik, in composing his manifesto, is doing at the historical, political, and textual level exactly what he wants to prevent from happening in Europe at the cultural level: mixing and matching without regard to place of origin, tradition, or consistency.  So his vision of ideal heroism is well represented by the historic Knights Templar, while at the same time he promotes a contemporary liberal individualism that would have been utter anathema to the Templars. The Templars, notably, are equally bad forebears with regard to the question of European cultural purity and a revival of hetero-masculine ideals: contemporary criticisms of them included both accusations of homosexuality and of being too influenced by the culture of the East. At the political level, Breivik proposes to displace democratic government with a European Military Order and Criminal Tribunal modelled on the Knights Templar, who will enact their authority through tribunals that judge and punish cultural traitors – a system that sounds like nothing so much as the theocracy that anti-Islamicists accuse Muslims of attempting to impose. 

In parallel fashion, Breivik’s manifesto argues that the west must save itself from an Islamic takeover, but then asserts that this can only happen if the west revives its tradition of patriarchy and proud ethno-religious identity, making use of violence and martyrdom in order to ensure their return – while these are precisely the standpoints most commonly ascribed to Islam by its critics, who use them as an index of Islam’s fundamental differences from the west. Another one of Breivik’s principles is the reduction of American cultural influence on Europe, even as he imports and disseminates a plethora of American ideas and ideologies and consumes American popular culture with obvious relish. 

At the same time, Breivik liberally cites Jewish and Zionist anti-Islamic pundits, while in other sections writing of his deep attachment to the music of Saga, a charismatic Swedish singer active in the semi-underground (and highly internationalized) white power music industry.  Meanwhile, Breivik incorporates whole chunks of Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto – a neo-Luddite and ecological radical violently opposed to contemporary technology – in order to compose a manuscript that will be dispersed on the internet, while recommending electronic reading devices, playing video wargames  and listening to the theme song from the X-Factor while carrying out his slaughter. 

The past and present, Zionist and Nazi, Islamophobia, racism and anti-racism, liberal individualism and totalitarian authority, technology and biological thinking mix and match here with polymorphous perversity. What makes all this coherent is its coordination by Breivik in the interests of creating a new European geo-cultural ego through the literal, violent eradication of the left and all ‘cultural traitors’, the deportation of all Muslims and the forced assimilation of all immigrants.

A number of writers have pointed out the similarities between Breivik and the Muslim radicals he fears. These radical jihadists in turn are mirroring the violence and dogmatism of the Marxists, Socialists and nationalists who came before them. And before these came others: anarchists, wobblies, abolitionists, luddites, revolutionaries. Indeed, the lineage of political mass violence as spectacle can be traced back through modernity to the first modern “Terror” of the French Revolution. As contemporary descendants of this lineage, Osama bin Laden, and now Breivik, are merely the most recent incarnation of the modern infatuation with the revolutionary deed. But there is also a crucial difference between Breivik and radical jihadists: while violent Muslim jihadists are deeply convinced that the world must convert to Islam and make their arguments in the name of humanity, Breivik is convinced that there are unalterable differences between Europeans and Muslims. Rather than conversion to unity, Breivik seeks segregation.

Breivik could just as easily have attacked a mosque, but he did not. He wanted to hit the political and ideological heart of his own country. In this way, quite unintentionally but clearly, Breivik confirms how marginal Muslims in fact still are to European society and how much the debate about Islam is a debate among Europeans, rather than between Europeans and Muslims.

Only if we take the fury at the left of the Islamophobes seriously, is there the possibility of challenging them. Until now, the largest European Left parties have responded with a policy of appeasement towards populists and Islamophobes, highly hesitant to defend immigration, asylum and the religious freedoms of Muslims. While politically strategic in the short run, this was almost sure to backfire in the long run: the populists and Islamophobes have as much if not more invested in hating and bringing down the left as they do in dominating or deporting Muslims. Irrespective of what the left does to appease these forces, out of some confused sense that Islamophobia is the real ‘voice of the people’, the left will not be forgiven.

Breivik is right that immigration is changing Europe beyond recognition: we can no longer be seen as the bastion of pure white, Christian civilization and its values. Our cities, our schools, our politicians and our institutions are changing accordingly. So, it is with good reason that immigration inspires fear and loathing in those emotionally attached to the idea of a white Christian Europe. They are completely correct in saying that Europe will never be same.

Where they are wrong is in thinking that this means the end of Europe rather than its rebirth. If the strength of conservatives lies in their mobilization of the past, the strength of progressives lies in the passionate creativity with which they imagine and make possible a new future. Perhaps now is the time for the left to take itself as seriously as the populists and the Islamophobes do. Perhaps now is the time to build exactly those societies which they are accused of having wanted all along: diverse, inclusive and egalitarian.

About the author

Markha Valenta lives in Amsterdam and works at Radboud University Nijmegen. Her current work concerns the politics of religion and culture in global cities, international relations and secular democracies, with a focus on north America, western Europe, and India. A corresponding concern of the last decade has been the accommodation and discrimination of Muslim minorities in secular democracies since 9/11. She has also worked for the Scientific Council for Government Policy and is a regular participant in Dutch debates on these issues.

Her openDemocracy column is Inter Alia.