Confronting ‘extremisms’: the cautious way forward from the Norwegian tragedy

It is too easy to brand terrorists with labels. We need to consider, in depth, the reasons behind people’s actions - remembering that psychology can play as much of a role as ideology
Vidhya Ramalingam
6 August 2011

Commenters have treated the terror attacks in Norway on July 22 as symbolic of the threat, and future implications, of the rise of radical right political parties in Europe. Though the shocking event certainly challenges the idea that extremism from the right is only a minor security threat, there still remains confusion over the identity of that ‘threat’, and how it might be countered.

Anders Behring Breivik has been identified as ‘far right’ and a ‘Christian fundamentalist’. These labels alone do not tell us enough in examining the bridges between ideology and extreme violence. Breivik represents an amalgamation of fears about a Marxist infiltration of society and gradual Islamisation - combined with a hatred of multiculturalism and social democracy. The increasing popularity of certain anti-immigrant and anti-Islam sentiments lend an eerie air of ‘legitimacy’ to many of the values upheld by Breivik, and are critical issues we must address in the coming years.

Those who have studied mechanisms of activist recruitment to extreme violence highlight the growing use of contemporary and localized experiences rather than large-scale ideologies to prime terrorists. Abu Hamza, an Islamist cleric convicted of terrorist charges in the UK in 2006, drew upon localised experiences and arguably ‘legitimised’ ideological stances to encourage a sense of resentment. For example, perceptions of discrimination and racism in Britain.

Few radical right anti-immigration political parties would claim affiliation to extremist violence of this nature. Rather, they have hurried to disavow themselves of any connections between Breivik’s attack and their political ideologies. Radical right parties seeking electoral success remain highly self-conscious about their public images, and go to great lengths to avoid being, in Roger Eatwell’s words,  ‘tarred by the extremist brush’ and stigmatized as reminders of Second World War histories.

I conducted extensive fieldwork with the Swedish radical right before the September 2010 elections. A recurring theme in many of the Sweden Democrat activists’ responses was the challenge of social stigma, and their desire to distinguish themselves from overt racism, criminality and violence. This is a lofty goal for a party whose first long-term party leader, Anders Klarström (1989-1995), had been active in the neo-Nazi Nordiska Rikspartiet as a young man, and was sentenced to fines for harassment and death threats against anti-Nazi and anti-racist activists.

Most of the Sweden Democrat activists I met with would be incapable of committing extreme acts of violence. They would vehemently denounce the acts of Anders Behring Breivik, or Peter Mangs - the 38 year-old man charged with more than a dozen shootings of people with immigrant backgrounds in Malmö last year.

‘Extremism’ is a difficult word to define. The political and media responses to the attacks on Oslo and Utøya – focusing heavily on the rise of the radical right – highlight an unsettling inability to distinguish between ‘radical’ and ‘extreme’. This distinction bears great weight in counter-terrorism and counter-extremism efforts of any nature.  These attacks should provoke wider questions about how we determine the ideological relationship between extremist violence and a perpetrator’s system of beliefs. How do we weigh the significance of ideological motivation against that of an individual’s psychological motivation in committing an attack of this nature?

Perhaps the most critical subject of inquiry following the Norwegian terror attack should be the mechanisms through which right-wing radicalism has the potential to develop into violence. Essentially we need to consider not just how radicalism becomes violence, but how this is played out at an individual level. What is the combined role of psychology and ideology?

A simple bridge between anti-immigration sentiment and violence is often provided by the atmosphere of divisiveness and resentment created by radical right parties, who regularly proliferate languages and symbols of warfare in their propaganda. The most violent elements of these parties are embodied in those who have left the parties that regularly compete for European elections, rejecting them as too ‘mild’ or ‘politically correct’- those like Breivik. Behind every radical right political party there remain substantial subcultures of such activists, who often form their own alternative movements (such as Sweden’s National Democrats and Denmark’s Danish Association and Danish Forum). In many cases they are previous party members who were either expelled or became disenchanted. Those on the fringes of the radical right renounce parties for their desire for electoral credibility and willingness to moderate their ambitions. Dynamics of legitimacy are key here.

Radical right parties seek legitimacy amongst external audiences. Those who stand little chance at gaining external legitimacy seek internal legitimacy, a sense of normalcy amongst those unwilling to part with extremisms.  

Each radical right party harbours its own history – which further conditions their contemporary struggles to downplay extremist elements: the Sweden Democrats’ early membership was characterised by high levels of neo-Nazism, overt racism and criminality. Although the Danish People’s Party and the Norwegian Progress Party emerged from less controversial anti-tax protest movements, radical right parties often attract supporters and activists with divergent agendas. Often there is little agreement over immigration policy itself - as party members range from mainstream, immigration-critical activists to the extreme and overtly racist. Though they claim to reject extremism, aiming to project an image of normalcy, these parties often need many of their more extreme voters; they tread a thin line between rejecting their past and relying on it.

The anonymity of the internet provides such activists with a venue for exploring more extreme options than those available in the mainstream political arena; and this without even running the risk of social stigma. The inevitable speculation over a mass killer’s social life in the physical world (the first question we ask those who knew him: was he a loner?) become less relevant as questions emerge about his more isolated ‘social life’ on the internet. Radical right parties avoid social stigma by distancing themselves from violent, fascist histories, whilst anonymous internet forums offer those on the extreme right opportunities to foster a sense of legitimacy and pride. These forums are an ideal space for finding risk-free self-assurances.

Perhaps Breivik’s attack will inspire several unintended consequences. In the best-case scenario, Norway will see a heightened wariness of harsh languages surrounding immigration debates; an increased emphasis on liberalism and an inclusive national identity; and the de-legitimisation of the Norwegian Progress Party. Perhaps the de-legitimisation of the radical right parties elsewhere in Europe will follow. However, de-legitimisation of radical right parties and a more inclusive debate on immigration alone may not be an effective route in combating violent extremism. Radical right parties operate as competitive political institutions, and the dynamics through which they mould their ideologies may differ from the way in which individuals convert related ideologies into violence.

We must be cautious as we develop our responses to terrorist attacks. We all too often overlook the importance and necessity of questioning how Islamist terrorists, to give one example, relate to the ‘Islamic’ ideology they claim to represent. We must examine how Anders Behring Breivik relates to the ideologies he touts and the labels we ascribe to him. Breivik’s brief stint with the Norwegian Progress Party was just one of the many pressures that pushed him towards such a horrific act; it was only the tip of the iceberg.



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