Europe beyond Utøya: addressing a crisis

The slaughter of citizens in Norway in July 2011 was more than the act of an individual: it emerged from a political and intellectual atmosphere that now pervades European public life. This deeper reality must be understood and addressed if Europe is to save itself by living up to its own ideals, says Umut Özkirimli.
18 November 2011

Much has been said and written about the twin attacks of Oslo and Utøya and the motivations of its perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik. In this contribution, I would like to widen the focus by suggesting that what happened on 22 July 2011 can be better understood as the manifestation of a more general normative crisis, a "crisis of values", in Europe, of which nationalism is the main catalyst. Put bluntly, the "sick man of Europe" in the early 21st century - a metaphor invented in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century to describe the Muslim "other" - is Europe itself!

What prompted this argument is the short-sightedness and evasion that characterised the immediate response to the killings, which all-too-easily attributed them to "Islamists" belonging to an international terrorist organisation inspired by the teachings of a religious creed. Self-branded experts in major broadcasters embarked on proving the ostensible links between Islam and terrorism, portraying Muslims as a homogenous group blindly following the precepts of their beliefs. When this turned out not to be true, however, the interest in the ethnic or religious credentials of the perpetrator quickly dissipated, and the possible role of anti-immigration discourses in the slaughter was brushed under the carpet.

What was lost in this reaction was a necessary focus on the ideas that influenced Brevik, the political and intellectual atmosphere in which they were able to thrive. How, after all, could such carnage take place in Europe, which still considers itself the "cradle" and true embodiment of the ideals of democracy, freedom, equality, justice and - not least - pluralism? How could it be justified by a 1,500-page manifesto sent to thousands of would-be sympathisers, inviting them to join the struggle against the "Islamisation" of Europe? More importantly, how could some public figures and politicians express their support for Brevik's motivations, if not his acts?

The problem of nationalism

The answers to these questions, I believe, lie in the core problem of nationalism in Europe, and in particular nationalism's versatility, its ability to articulate with different ideologies and worldviews, and its "ontological security" in the face of difference and pluralism.

There are three issues here. The first is the "return" of nationalism, its increasing visibility and legitimisation in the public sphere and everyday life of Europe in the early 21st century. A natural corollary of this process is the tendency to turn a blind eye to "mainstream" nationalism, and to regard crimes committed in its name as an exception or "individual acts" - the deed of a "madman", a common trope after the Norwegian attacks. The problem is not just that, had the perpetrator indeed been a Muslim, the crime would have been "collectivised". It is also that very few are aware of plain facts; that for example only three attacks were attempted by people described as "Islamist" in 2010 according to Europol statistics, whereas 160 were attempted by "separatists" and forty-five by "left-wingers". It is in this flurry of disinformation and misplaced attention - where fact and fiction are fused - that mainstream nationalism is overlooked.

The second problem is the appropriation of nationalism by political actors - less far-right parties wielding more power in many European countries than the alarming endorsement of their agenda by mainstream parties and leaders seeking fuel for their electoral campaigns. The declarations of Angela Merkel and David Cameron who condemned multiculturalism for encouraging "different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream" matter more than the frequent attacks of the leaders of far-right parties such as Geert Wilders or Heinz-Christian Strache. These are backed by a growing number of academics and journalists, issuing calls for an end to multicultural policies, thereby paving the way for nationalist and populist reactions.

The third problem is the form nationalism has taken in today's Europe, namely its unabashedly anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalist and Islamophobic character. The villains of nationalist conspiracy theories are no longer Jews, communists or "Polish plumbers", but Muslims, bent on colonising Europe through immigration and ever-increasing birthrates. Politicians who have allowed this to happen are transformed into "collaborators", even "traitors", using political correctness as a weapon against those who wish to speak up the "truth" about the impending danger.

This is also evidenced by a recent survey examining attitudes among online supporters of far-right parties - carried out by the British think-tank Demos. Based on data collected from more than 10,000 Facebook followers of fourteen parties and street organisations in eleven countries, the study shows that "many join or support [populist parties and movements] because they fear that immigration and multiculturalism are destroying national (and sometimes European) values and culture" and that "many find common cause in opposing a perceived Islamification of secular liberal and Christian societies".

The way forward

The focus on nationalism here is not intended to turn it into some kind of 'meta-factor' that accounts for all aspects of the crisis that bedevils Europe today. Rather, it is to insist that it is at the heart of the normative dilemmas Europe is facing, and that the Norwegian tragedy should shake Europe out of its complacency.

There are two important steps that Europe could take here. The first is the strip from nationalism the aura of legitimacy that has come to surround it and to take all its manifestations seriously. It may have made sense analytically to distinguish everyday, taken-for-granted forms of nationalism from its more visible, aggressive expressions in the 1980 and 1990s. No longer. Yesterday's "banal" nationalism (to use Michael Billig's term) is today blatantly exclusivist and populist. And in a context where the line separating the mainstream from the radical, the covert from the overt is blurred, it is futile to seek comfort in scholarly analyses based on outmoded distinctions between "good" and "bad" nationalism.

The second step is for Europe to realise that the world is changing, power balances are shifting, and that the old continent is itself evolving. In the longer run, Europe needs to engage in serious soul-searching and reflect on its own identity and the values it wishes to uphold and promote.

Such a process has already started in other parts of the world, notably the middle east. By its nature, it is contagious and open-ended; and it inspires the belief that, though it is impossible to change the past, it is possible to shape the future, to imagine an alternative way of being and thinking.

No one can predict where Europe's soul-searching would end. But the most positive outcome would be a Europe which addresses its insecurity over difference and pluralism, and embraces multiculturalism - not one that fetishises cultures (majority or minority), thereby hardening the boundaries between them, but one that abolishes boundaries; nurturing trust instead of fear, dialogue instead of parochialism. As Thomas Hylland Eriksen says, "the moment we cease to speak to each other", we develop a parallel universe, whether in the real world or on the internet. Europe now knows where that leads. It is time to take a different course.

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