It is the emergence of homogeneous thought and dogmatism – impermeable to dialogue with anyone perceived to be outside the group, and built around rigid understandings of identity and enmity – that fuels the threat of terrorism.
By Sara Silvestri
Whilst throughout the past decade European policy makers were occupied, rather obsessively, with the threats of ‘radicalisation’, ‘alienation’ and lack of ‘integration’ of Muslim youth, an ‘autochthonous’ Norwegian criminal was able to breed his evil plan and spread his propaganda unchecked. The events of last July have shown that it is possible for non-Muslim members of the so-called mainstream society to isolate themselves and to act as violently and indiscriminately as al-Qaeda.
For quite some time specialists and community activists had been concerned with the potentially dangerous consequences of right-wing views taken to the extreme, but these claims went largely dismissed. In Britain, for instance, it was only with the Government counter-terrorism strategy of 2009 that broader societal grievances and multiple forms of ‘radicalisation’ outside Muslim circles were acknowledged. These concerns were later downplayed in the new Contest strategy published only days before the Norway incidents proved the opposite.
The fear of Muslim ‘radicalisation’ has gone hand-in-hand with a discourse on the crisis of multiculturalism, a grievance that was also central to Breivick’s manifesto. This lament has certainly not been helpful in healing ruptured relations in our societies or in addressing the malaise provoked by social transformations. This language has probably provided ammunition for Breivick’s rationale and for connecting with like-minded people on the internet. Yet, it would be naïve to hold the anti-multiculturalism discourse responsible for ‘influencing’ people like the Norwegian killer, or to assume that everybody who is proud to be Christian or votes or sympathises for parties and movements on the right of the political spectrum are also potential killers.
Responding to crises through reifying categories and Manichean visions of the world is dangerous. There is no clearly definable or curable ‘pattern’ of radicalisation and I really doubt religion has anything to do with this. I repeated this endlessly in security consultations in the past, and I repeat it now. It is more helpful to think of the phenomenon as a process, which involves a rational choice and cannot be put down simplistically to factors such as religiosity, insanity, poverty or ‘lack of integration’: terrorism experts have conducted countless biographical examinations of convicted terrorists without ever finding clear profiles that would allow us to detect in advance the next likely perpetrator of a similar violence.
Rather than concerning ourselves with another debate on ‘multiculturalism’, ‘radicalisation’ or ‘extremism’, we ought to be alarmed by the spreading of enclosed exclusivist mentalities, of ‘tunnel thought’. Breivik’s reference to the golden past of Medieval Christendom chimes with the rhetoric of terrorist groups on the opposite side of the spectrum, who have been calling for the restoration of the Caliphate. Al-Qaeda and the Norwegian criminal have in common a dangerous mindset, despite purportedly professing ideologies at the opposite side of the spectrum. Commentators of Norway’s tragic events have compared al-Qaeda and Breivick’s tactics, weaponry, use of the internet and claims to a ‘religious inspiration’. Of course terrorists learn tactics from each other and tend to chose their targets selectively. Terrorists, however, seek above all publicity and taking human lives is only instrumental in their cold-blooded mind. They are focused on projecting a message of confrontation. The two plans are comparable not because of the use fertiliser to make bombs but because of the langue of hate towards an idealised ‘other’ and for the murderous intention to ‘correct’ the perceived corruption of society with an alternative Weltanschauung and political system. Beside the symbolic attack on the institutions of Norwegian society, the killing served to maximise media coverage and to attract public opinion.
The enemy we need to fight has no particular nationality, religious, cultural or political background – it is the emergence of homogeneous thought and dogmatism, impermeable to dialogue with anyone else perceived to be outside the lucky tribe, and built around rigid understandings of identity and of enmity. These mindsets have been spreading everywhere – from Europe to American, to Arab to Asian countries – regardless of religion, culture, education, and economic status. This is how al-Qaeda works, this is how Breivick and his fellow Templar Knights (assuming his claims of belonging to such a group are true) have been waging war to humankind and to the common good.
Sara Silvestri is a senior lecturer in religion and international politics, City University London
This article, which was originally published by UN Global Experts, is presented as part of TransConflict’s Understanding Extremism initiative, further information about which is available by clicking here.