Norway's atrocity: a story of non-impact

The immediate reactions to the terrorist attack in Oslo in July 2011 were both politicised and inaccurate. The opening of the perpetrator's trial nine months later finds leading ideological positions still full of evasion, says Cas Mudde.

Cas Mudde
20 April 2012

The legal case against Anders Behring Breivik started on 16 April 2012 in a heavily guarded Oslo courtroom. The accused is standing trial for the killing of seventy-seven people on a single day, 22 July 2011, by first detonating a car-bomb in downtown Oslo (which caused eight deaths) and then embarking on a shooting-spree at the nearby island of Utøya where mostly young activists of Norway's social-democratic party were gathered (which caused sixty-nine deaths). The gruesome terrorist attack was frontpage news around the world and led to intense debates within western Europe, though it seems to have left little of a legacy outside the north of the continent.

After the car-bombing in Oslo, professional "terrorism experts" in the media instantly and predictably attributed it to jihadists - just as they had done after the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City on 19 April 1995. Again as always, a mythical global network of highly organised and threatening terrorist groups was invoked. But when within hours it was revealed that the perpetrator was a white, rightwing extremist and self-proclaimed Christian, the discussion soon moved to the question whether or not he was insane.

Most commentators, ignoring Breivik's claim that he was the "commander" of an anti-Islamic group, the Knights Templar (which turned out to be false), quickly adopted the frame of the insane "lone-wolf" - almost wholly absent in accounts of Islamic terrorists, though predominant in relation to rightwing terrorists. For example, Janne Kristiansen, the director of the Norwegian police security service, stated: "It's a unique case..a unique person. He is total evil."

It was only in leftwing circles that a debate was promoted to discuss the larger breeding-ground that had enabled, or even created, Breivik. The same people who would argue vehemently against the notion of Muslims' collective guilt after a jihadist attack were now accusing virtually anyone critical of Islam or Muslim immigration as Schreibtischtäter (desk-killers). In equally predictable fashion, the targets of these accusations, themselves usually the first to invoke the idea of Muslims' collective guilt after jihadist operations, passionately rejected the charge of their own collective responsibility for Breivik and his actions.

The latter position was most quickly and shamelessly articulated in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the day after the events, by the prominent Islamophobic author Bruce Bawer. He argued that Breivik was well-read (after all, the killer had written very favourably about Bawer’s bestseller While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within) and had "a legitimate concern", adding that the Norwegian was also clearly insane and that "his violence will deal a heavy blow to an urgent cause."

A marginal effect

The opening of Breivik's trial is a good moment to provide a provisional assessment of the impact of his terrorist attack on European politics. Given the fact that the atrocity was so brutal, and happened in a country as peaceful and prosperous as Norway, a considerable shake-up might be expected. It seems, however, that for all the attention and debate, not much has changed - both for good and bad.

From the outset, Norway's prime minister Jens Stoltenberg made it clear that Norway would firmly resist being swayed by terrorism. This meant a refusal either to introduce policies more in line with the ideology of the terrorist or to undermine the fundamentals of liberal democracy by a repressive overreach. This highly commendable response was not so dissimilar to those of the Spanish and British governments after the jihadist attacks of 11-M and 7/7, respectively. Norwegian voters supported this stance, and on 12 September handed the populist Progress Party, the main voice of Islamophobia in the country, a clear defeat in municipal elections.

It is clear that the attack has changed the perception of terrorism in Europe. Until 9/11, European terrorism had been mostly an extreme leftwing and separatist phenomenon, but in the ensuing decade it was to become synonymous with Islam/jihadism. The Norwegian attack led to a critique of this one-sided interpretation of terrorism in many European countries - a critique reinforced by the uncovering of the terrorist "National Socialist underground" in Germany. This might explain why many observers initially thought that the Toulouse killings in March 2012 were also the work of a "lone-wolf" rightwing extremist. The fact that it turned out to be a jihadist, obviously "linked to al-Qaida" will probably undo the Breivik-effect and led the "experts" to return to their usual first response.

In short, the horrific incident in Norway has had some short-term consequences, but seems to have had little fundamental effect on European politics. Perhaps some intelligence agencies will devote a person or two more to the extreme right, and there will be some new committees on Islamophobia and an inevitable increase in publications on "lone-wolf terrorism"; but overall little has and will change. To be fair, there seems no serious indication of a "Brown Army Faction"  in Europe, or in any of its states.

Unfortunately, the political debate about the role of Islam and Muslims in contemporary European societies will also remain unchanged. This means that the (at times unspoken) assumption - embraced even by progressives - that "they" are alien to European society, despite centuries of a Muslim presence on the continent, along with the idea that "they" should "integrate" into "our" society, will continue to operate. At the same time, Islamophobic views - expressed by "intellectuals" from across the political spectrum - will gain further leeway in political and public discourse, in the process giving rise to some remarkable new alliances. While this will not "create" a new Breivik - for at heart he created himself - it will definitely also not create a more harmonious society.

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