Let's unite! a wake-up call from Norway

The deadly attacks in Oslo are not only about Norway: they are about all of us. Ten years after the 9/11 terror, we face a common threat from extremism. Let's confront it together.
Dag Herbjornsrud
30 August 2011

It has been an exceptional month.

There are many reasons from around the world for such an assertion, like the fall of the 42-year-old Gaddafi regime in Tripoli on August 22. But few events can match the incomprehensible human brutality which struck the Oslo region exactly one month earlier, on July 22. The gruesome slaughter of innocent Labour Party teenagers at the Utøya island has shocked the country and the world. On August 16, US president Barack Obama named the «lone wolf terrorist» difficult to trace, like the man responsible for the Norwegian massacre, as the most worrying threat for American citizens. And, he could have added, for many other peoples around the world. Because the plan of the 32-year-old Norwegian man (who will remain unnamed here in a small effort to deny him the personal fame he sought) was to start a decade-long global war between his self-declared enemies.

His infamous and hate-mongering manifesto, covering some 1,500 plus pages in English, is now spread around the world via the world wide web. We are all interconnected now and in the same boat, for better or worse.

A month ago, sixty-nine unarmed youths and adults were hunted down and shot to death in one hour by the 32-year-old man: this is the same anti-Muslim, anti-multicultural and anti-establishment man who on the same day has confessed to detonating a car-bomb outside the main offices of Norway's government and prime minister, killing eight. He attacked the heart of this Nato country's political system like no one else in Europe in recent decades.

The last four weeks here in our capital have been days of grief and mourning. Each morning we have awakened to a new heartbreaking story or horror-movie scenario: like the one about the 11-year-old boy who, after watching his father get gunned down by the killer dressed as a police officer, swam in cold waters for hundreds of metres with the support of an 18-year-old girl, before they were saved by nearby campers arriving in boats.

No one seems to have expected such a horrible deadly attack from a self-declared conservative European nationalist who had been raised in the wealthiest part of Oslo and attended the best schools, claiming British Winston Churchill and John Stuart Mill as his idols.

In 2001 the Americans asked: ‘Why do they hate us?’ In 2011 the Norwegians have to ask: ‘Why do so many angry men dislike our diverse societies? And what can we do about it?’ Indeed, these common European challenges are so much harder to grasp now than the Al-Qaida attacks in the US a decade ago, because the attacks in Europe are from ‘one of our own’.

Upheavals of 2011

2011 has so far been anything but what we expected. The year started with the Arab Spring: millions of civilians going into the streets, risking their lives in order to end dictatorship and demand democracy - succeeding in Tunisia, Egypt, and now in Libya. And now we have witnessed another sudden upheaval which  similarly challenges ‘the Al-Qaida worldview’ many of us took for granted after 9/11. Arabs fighting for democracy, and a right-wing European charged with the most gruesome of terror attacks in his own country, just weeks before the tenth commemoration of 9/11 - suddenly our mental maps don't fit the terrain any longer. Our common global enemy maps for the twenty-first century need to be re-drawn. Osama bin Laden is dead. But new, and old, threats are alive.What a difference to life nine months can make...

But this is important. It is about how, or whether, we can make and preserve stable and peaceful societies in the years to come, wherever we live. This is not merely about an anomalous event in the far north of Europe. Rather, it concerns our common future in the twenty-first century. And at best, the horror of Oslo’s terrorist trauma can prove a turning point in Norway's and Europe's handling of right-wing extremism.

Until now and for years, Scandinavian politicians, the police, and the media seem to have turned a blind eye towards this threat. As Sindre Bangstad pointed out on August 22, ‘Norway: terror and Islamophobia in the mirror’, the perpetrator's conspiracy theories have been part of our public discourse for years. And as Magnus Nome documented on August 8, the US media also had a tough time framing the story and getting the facts right when the attacker turned out to be a blonde Norwegian.

It will not be an easy task to update the European discourses on our common threats by including  ‘the enemies from within’. Many politicans have a lot to defend. Only this spring, David Cameron (UK) joined Angela Merkel (Germany), and Nicolas Sarkozy (France) to declare that the ‘failure of multiculturalism’was their greatest concern. The political climate of Europe has turned sour for lack of a sound debate, untainted by ‘Eurabian’ fear-mongering.

But my hope is that the ‘Norwegian terror’ can unite us across oceans and borders: so that more people in Europe can feel their common bond with the democracy-seeking people of the Arab/Muslim countries, leading to a greater common knowledge of our intertangled communities and our century old intermingling: a true, positive ‘Eurabia’. I think it is easier to see clearer now. That might be the even more surprising consequence of the terror attacks.

To this end, we can seek inspiration from the words of Mehtab Afsar, the general secretary of the Islamic Council in Norway:

“We stand together with our Christian brothers and sisters, and we know that these crimes have nothing to do with Christianity. A person who does such misdeeds has no religion,” Afsar said to Norwegian media after the Oslo and Utøya attacks.

The prime minister Jens Stoltenberg and his foreign minister have stood shoulder to shoulder with him, visiting mosques and funerals in order to pay their due respects also to the Norwegian Muslims gunned down.

Should I move?

At the same time we have tough questions to answer, like those asked by the Oslo girl Sophia (13), with parents from Iran, who has touched thousands with the words she wrote to two crisis psychologists in a net debate:

“Hi. I am 13 and a Norwegian Muslim, feeling it is my mistake. He says he killed all those people because I am here. Should I move from the country in order to protect Norwegian children in the future? This is what I feel.”

Sophia’s query goes straight to the core of the challenges facing all European societies these days. Will electable politicans stand up for her, guaranteeing that multiethnic, peaceful societies are a common goal for us all to preserve and build upon? Or would they rather look to their chances in the next election, seeking votes by “being tough on crime by Muslim extremists”, and leaving unchallenged the racist undertone discernible in European debates of recent years? This is the conundrum European politicians will now face: how to find a balance when people live in fear of attacks from both Al-Qaida and right-wing extremists' attacks?

Maybe after the Oslo attacks we can gain ground for a third position. This is not a matter of pitting warnings of “internal terror in Europe” against those focusing on “external terror”. After the Oslo attacks, it seems we should rather view these two threats as one common challenge towards our diverse societies. Both Al-Qaida-inspired terrorists and their right-wing adversaries use each other for legitimation. They both pursue their strategy by attacking civilians and government offices. Both seem to have a common strategy in destabilizing European states.

So the challenge is to create trust rather than fear. And the challenge seems far broader in Europe in 2011 than it was in the US in 2001. In that respect, there are some important lessons to be learned in the aftermath of the terror of July 22.

First, that it is misleading to call the attacker a lone wolf. Rather, the killer had his contacts with other extremist groups in countries such as the UK, and he was a former member of a Norwegian populist party. The perpetrator was well known from Norwegian debates, where he rather openly discussed his views for years. His worldview was regarded as a bit odd, perhaps, but nothing to worry or get angry about. Even now many European extremists say that they agree with the alleged attacker's so-called manifesto. They just don't agree with his actions.

This reminds us that words matter: they can create a climate of hate and fear. The challenge arises for Christian, Muslim, and all other communities: how and when can we effectively say “Stop” or speak out in opposition when we hear those in our midst spreading dangerous myths, generalizations, or hate speech towards other groups.

Secondly, this atrocity was not the fruit of some sudden mental breakdown: the terrorist, by his own account, had planned it for years, and he now warns of other terror cells in Europe. This must rather be our wake-up call.

International connections

Third, this ‘Euro-nationalist attack’ is international in nature, drawing inspiration from the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, the January 8, 2011 gunman attack on US House of Representative Gabrielle Gifford's open meeting in Tucson, Arizona, perhaps even school massacres like the ones at Columbine high school. Intellectually, the perpetrator refers heavily to the writings of well-known critics of Islam. Operationally, he got chemicals from Poland, while the ‘Christian skull badge’ was ordered from a small online store in Varanasi, India, and other parts from China. He was partying in Hungary, and had tried unsuccessfully to purchase weapons in Prague before buying them legally in Norway.

Fourth, these attacks and their reactions have, at least for a while, drawn the world closer together.  Our paper has received expressions of support from places as farflung as Burma, Zimbabwe, and Gaza city. And the victims have families in countries like Somalia, Denmark, Turkey, and Georgia. This shows us all that both terror and love have no skin colour. But how long will we make this feeling last?

Fifth, that we can all be more aware of the kind of stories and news we are spreading. Truthfulness should go both/all ways. Former US president George W. Bush has been massively criticized for his handling of the 9/11-attacks, for his foreign-policy and his war-making response. But immediately after the attacks he too showed how he could connect with his diverse audience. On September 20, 2001, Bush said in his speech to Congress:

“We've seen the unfurling of flags, the lighting of candles, the giving of blood, the saying of prayers in English, Hebrew and Arabic. We have seen the decency of a loving and giving people who have made the grief of strangers their own.”

And he added that the US was not at war with Muslims or Islam, but with terror groups who misuse the name of God. “We will not forget South Korean children gathering to pray outside our embassy in Seoul, or the prayers of sympathy offered at a mosque in Cairo”, Bush said ten years ago.

Can we in Europe do even better now?  An affirmative and decisive rejection of divisiveness would deal the strongest blow to the ideology of the Oslo terrorist.

No nation an island

So, where do we go from here? Well, it's up to us. But I believe we can make the change we seek together. We can unite our diverse nations. Validate friendship and build trust across borders, rather than being driven by more fear and suspicion. This will be hard to attain, but this will be our test. We still have the chance to make this time our finest hour.

The lesson after the gruesome attack at the Utoya island may best be drawn from the words of the English writer, John Donne (1572-1631): “No man is an island, entire of itself... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

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