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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

What Norway's Terror Teaches us about Islamophobia and Online Hate

If there’s any shred of comfort that come come from the horrors of ten days ago, the bomb attacks in Oslo and massacre of dozens of teenagers in Utøya, it is scant consolation for bereft families or a nation in mourning. The biggest atrocity on Norwegian soil since World War II, and one of the biggest terrorist incidents in Europe in decades, is no occasion for political point scoring. But some good may yet come out of it: the full glare of public scrutiny (and one hopes police attention) has now been turned on the largely ignored growth of extreme right-wing Islamophobia in Europe.

Nearly exactly a year ago, I wrote how Obama had bravely faced up to the Islamophobes in the US during his Ramadan speech and worried that  Europe lacked such leadership.

The rise of Islamophobia in Europe over the last few years – expression of which I have encountered many times in the past, even on LabourList, – has filled me with a kind a foreboding I haven’t felt since the early 90s and the rabid nationalism in former-Yugoslavia, which itself had an anti-Muslim component.

The signs are everywhere to be seen. The US have Palin’s ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ and the threat of Koran burning. We have the French assembly voting to ban niqab, Switzerland banning minarets, and the rise of the English Defence League here in the UK, deliberately targeting Muslim communities with provocation and violence…

We have demagogues like Geert Wilders in Holland getting 33% of the vote by inciting fear and hatred. Meanwhile, opportunist politicians in the UK try to ride the bandwagon, putting forward legislation to ban burkas. This is hardly helped by so-called intellectuals (who should know better) talking about ‘Islamofascism’ or “Londonistan” and trying to yolk together a religion of universalist appeal with racist ultranationalism.

Don’t worry. This is not some gratuitous exercise in ‘I told you so’. My hands are no cleaner than others, and in the rise of Islamophobia I have to share some blame (more below). We do not know yet if Anders Behring Breivik acted entirely alone. He may yet win an insanity defence. Yet there’s little doubt that both his targets and his motivation were avowedly  political. Both the video he uploaded and the European Manifesto of Independence he passed on to sympathisers should place that beyond doubt Though somewhat rambling and derivative, Breivik’s arguments are rational and coherent. He articulates a vision of the ‘Islamisation of Europe’, deliberately smuggled in by Marxists spouting ‘multiculturalism’ as their credo. That vision, and his belief that an incendiary act of violence was needed to trigger the inevitable religious and social conflict make it indisputable: the killings on Friday 21st of July a classic act of political terrorism.

Like many young men who search for some final battle between good and evil, Breivik was a dreamer of the absolute, who found his purpose in sacrificing himself for a cause greater than himself. In this, he resembles the extremist Jihadists he purports to despise, and like many of them, he seems to have been indoctrinated and then motivated into a medieval mindset through a quite modern source: what he read online.  

(This is a draft of an Essay to Appear on Labour List tomorrow)

Does the Blogosphere Breed Political Hate?

The more that emerges about Breivart’s relatively affluent and quiet background in Norway, the more investigators search for the sources of his warped worldview, the more abundantly obvious it is that online conversations with British extremists were a key source of ideology and inspiration. This has led Nick Cohen to assert, in yesterday’s Observer, that Britain is the Breeding Ground for Hate

Nothing about Breivik is as interesting as the people he shot, but those with the stomach to read him will find that ideas made in Britain enthralled him. He writes in English. He uses a British pseudonym – Andrew Berwick – and gives his manifesto a London dateline. He meets sympathisers in a London pub and drops strong hints that the organisation he is closest to is the English Defence League. He has a respect for at least some of the EDL’s ideas because it does not go along with traditional antisemitic Nazism but agrees with Breivik that there has been a plot by the treacherous “cultural Marxists” of the European elite to undermine the nation state by flooding it with immigrants, most notably Muslim immigrants.

British extremists of whatever type have the advantage that English is the language of the web that foreigners must master if they want an international audience. Breivik’s references to British sources would not be surprising if all he did was quote from obscure websites and chatrooms.

But Breivik did not only listen to British far rightists screaming out their hatreds in the madhouses of the blogosphere, but peppered his manifesto with citations of articles in the Daily Telegraph and other respectable conservative newspapers. Britain’s mainstream media, not the fringe on the web, formed the basis of his claim that readers could find all the evidence they need of the multicultural plot to turn white, Christian Europe into a Muslim-dominated “Eurabia”

As usual, Cohen is right about the detail but jumps to a debatable conclusion. When it comes to displaying knee-jerk suspicions of Islam, it wasn’t just Murdoch’s The Sun who assumed the Oslo attacks were Jihadist in origin: even the liberal New York Times jumped the gun and wheeled out its bloviating Al Qaeda experts.

There’s also no doubt the English speaking political blogosphere is full of cocoons of craziness and hatred. Outbursts of Islamophobia can be found anywhere. But so too can unfounded claims about Climate Change, the EU(SSR), Obama’s birth certificate, or the CIA’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks. It’s not just on the xenophobic right where echo chambers of extremism flourish. As a regular blogger in the US, I encounter conspiracy theories and apocalyptic thinking regularly on the left too – on liberal blogs like Firedoglake or Dailykos.

The internet is still dominated by the English language, and so the growth of extremist rhetoric could be something to do with the nature of politics online. Because you preselect your sites and sources – narrowcasting rather than broadcasting –  the net brings the attendant dangers of confirmation bias, and a ramped up atmosphere of increasing hyperbole and extremism of expression.

However, as my own experience reveals, blogging has forced me to engage with, and try to combat, generalised  arguments about Muslims, Birthers, Climate Change, or the EU. Why didn’t Breivik’s online excursions lead him him to The Guardian or indeed Labourlist, where his ideas would have been challenged?

Short answer: they probably did. But he didn’t listen. The internet didn’t create extremism. It might have amplified on some occasions. But there are other example of new media – from the Murdoch scandal to the Arab Spring – where online activism has served more liberal ends. The net is basically a neutral space to share opinions. And when it comes to the recent phenomenon of Islamophobia, those opinions predate Twitter or Comment is Free.

A Brief History of Modern Islamophobia

I’m just back from Sarajevo where the scars of the siege are still visible fifteen years later: the sniper bullet-holes in the buildings, the  horrible dragon’s claw mark of a mortar shell, not to mention the look in the
eyes of men my age.  The cataclysmic Twentieth Century was effectively launched by a bullet fired in Sarajevo in 1914 – the assassination by a Serb Nationalist of Archduke Ferdinand – and it’s hard not to hear the echo of that shot in the way the century ended: the crump of a shell in the Old Town marketplace, followed finally by the first ever NATO bombs dropped in anger, as planes took out the Bosnian Serb positions around the besieged city.

Just as modern Jihadism in the form of Al Qaeda came out of the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, so too I believe Modern Islamophobia was born from the end of the Cold War (for its older incarnation check out Edward Said’s Orientalism).

The same year the Cold War ended was the same year that Ayatollah Khomeni issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses – 1989. For many liberal intellectuals, this was a sobering moment. Just as the Berlin Wall was coming down, another was erecting itself in people’s minds. Instead of Communism, perhaps religion – particularly fundamentalist religion – was emerging as the new enemy. Many thinkers turned their eyes from the dissidents fighting  totalitarian repression in the Warsaw pact, and to the autocratic Arab states in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, though hidden under the rock of Communism for decades, nationalist and xenophobic feelings emerged intact in much of Central and Eastern Europe. By now we all know about the tragedy of the former Yugoslavia, and the ultimate direction of the nationalist rhetoric of the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Though he played on fears of the Croatian Catholic Ustashe, his initial line in the sand in Kosovo was against the ‘Turks’. In his famous address on the ‘Battlefield of the Blackbirds’ Milosevic invoked the historic role of Serbs as the defenders of Europe against the Islamic horde. This toxic religious nationalism culminated in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and the final horror of Srebenica, when 8,000 men and boys were massacred and buried in mass graves merely because they were designated ‘Muslim’.

We’re less familiar however, with Islamophobia in the former republics of the USSR. Apart from countless terror attacks in Russia itself, there have been two wars in Chechyna, and other ethnically-based conflicts in other former Soviet Republics, including that of my grandfather’s homeland – Armenia – which was engaged in brutal conflict with Azerbaijan over Ngorno Karabakh. Meanwhile, anyone from the Caucasus (whatever their religious denomination) still faces danger in Russia itself. When I was in Yerevan three years ago I met a sculptor – barely darker than I am – who had fled St Petersburg because a friend had been stabbed to death for being too Islamic looking.

It’s impossible – or at least very difficult – to remove the racial component from Islamophobia. Though no one would recognise my Bosniak or Kosovar friends as Muslim when they walk down the street, the truth is, for most of Europe, Muslims are recognisable by their colour as much as what they wear or what beards they sport.

So there’s an underlying racist component to Islamophobia, and groups like the EDL (despite having a Sikh among their leadership) exploit this to the full. They say they’re not racists.  What they object to is fundamentalist religion – and who can object to that? But as anyone who has shared a bus with EDL supporters will attest, this racialist disclaimer is a lie. They’re the same old hooligans, Paki-bashers and Nazi bully boys I recall from the 70s and 80s. But intellectually, they draw some cover from surprising sources.

I remember Senior Tories, while debating why Britain shouldn’t do anything in Bosnia, explaining how Islam would be the next major global struggle after defeating Communism. In this they were merely reiterating what Sam Huntingdon described in his Clash of Civilisations: a new conflict, a New World Order, pitting liberal values against against the intolerance of an unreformed Islam. Unfortunately, this kind of apologia was also echoed on the New Left who mourned the death of non-aligned Socialism, and saw the West ‘manufacturing consensus’ for intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. They also doubted the camps in Omarska and wondered whether Srebrenica was really an act of genocide and not ‘exaggerated’. Some of them formed a Committee in Defence of Milosevic. Islamisation was, to some, the secret plan of Western capitalism to destroy actually existing socialism.

Add to this already toxic mix the slow-burning Intifadas in Israel’s occupied territories, Hamas suicide bombers, Likudite obstructionism after the assassination of Rabin, and a perfect storm was brewing….

Then 9/11 came along. After the mind-shattering attacks on the World Trade Centre all nuance was lost. The enemy was blindingly clear: the death-loving, mass-murdering, medieval fundamentalism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In hindsight this traumatic over-reaction was probably inevitable. Gone was the characterisation of Islam as a multifaceted religion of 1.6 billion adherents, with its own major schisms between Sunni and Shia, or Alawites, Ismailis or Sufis. Everyone – TV pundits, newspaper columnists, novelists, playwrights – became experts on the extreme doctrine of Salafist Wahabis. The backlash was set….

For different motives, some of them almost honourable, modern Islamophobia grew out of a strange confluence of four very different currents; old fashioned xenophobic racism, atheist anti-clericalism, socialist nostalgia, and a Neo-con belief in reshaping the Middle East.

When future historians ponder the fiasco of the Iraq War, the horrors of Abu Ghraib, or indeed the over reach of the initial policing operation in Afghanistan, I’m sure conclude they will conclude that for several years Osama Bin Laden achieved his objectives. After all, that’s what the 9/11 attacks were meant to provoke: a massive over-reaction by the West which would lead to more polarisation, more Muslims being driven into Al Qaeda’s arms when the realised the tolerance of western liberal democracy was fake, and we are all Covert Crusaders.

We almost played straight into his hands. But not quite. And that’s why the battle against Islamophobia is as crucial to our own security as the battle against Salafist Jihadism.

Is Multiculturalism to Blame?

Let us not forget, though there were numerous young Muslims at the Utøya summer camp, Breivik’s target wasn’t a mosque or the small Norwegian Muslim community, but what he considered their ‘Marxist’ enablers; young members of the ruling Labour Party, who were using ‘multiculturalism’ as a back door for the secret destruction of Christendom.

It’s a completely illogical belief: why would Marxists pretend to be social democrats to ally with Fundamentalist Islam to destroy Christianity?  But it’s not unheard of in the UK, and on these boards I’ve argued with commenters who claim that Labour deliberately ‘swamped’ the UK with Muslim immigrants in the rush for more votes.

Despite the crazy conspiracies, Breivik’s hatred of multi-culturalism is a popular them among far right parties in Austria, Holland. Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark. For the most part, especially in the Scandinavian countries, these are relatively small ethnically homogenous states and  aren’t multi-cultural at all. But that doesn’t seem to stop them worrying about it.

Unfortunately, in the last year, the ‘multi culturalism’ canard has been echoed by leaders of two of the largest countries in the EU: Angela Merkel in Germany and David Cameron here. As the Nobel Chair and former Norwegian Prime Minister Thorbjørn Jagland has suggested, they could be “playing with fire”  

Four months ago in Munich, Cameron declared that state multiculturalism had failed in Britain, a view immediately praised by Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, as “a further huge leap for our ideas into the political
mainstream”. Marine Le Pen, vice-president of the far-right National Front party in France, also endorsed Cameron’s view of multiculturalism, claiming that it corroborated her own party’s line.
“Political leaders have got to defend the fact that society has become more diverse. We have to defend the reality, otherwise we are going to get into a mess. I think political leaders have to send a clear message to embrace it and benefit from it.

“We should be very cautious now, we should not play with fire. Therefore I think the words we are using are very important because it can lead to much more.”

Though I think Cameron’s speech was ill-advised, and a bit of a sop to the Tory right, I don’t he can be at all blamed for the atrocity in Norway ten days ago. Indeed, Breivik discussed Cameron as one of his targets. I also don’t think that debating ‘multiculturalism’ is inflammatory in itself. The problem is – as I’m willing to debate – that the term means many different things.

In most of Central Europe, Multi-Kulti was a policy to deal with historic minorities of Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Poles etc left over from the decay of three empires, and not yet cleansed by either Hitler or Stalin. As the Former Yugoslavia shows, that policy of effective segregation was neither stable nor enlightened.

When Merkel uses the term ‘multi-culturalism’ she is part adverting to this, and arguing in favour of rights for long-standing children and grand-children of Turkish gastarbeiter (guest workers) who under the old blood-line form of German citizenship didn’t have status, (though an ethnic German from the Russian Volga would). Merkel’s attack on multi culturalism is partly an attack on  and Jus sanguinis and a defence of integration.

However, when David Cameron used the same language, he was kicking a giant strawman. Multi culturalism has never been Government policy here and Jus soli – place of birth – has generally determined citizenship. In terms of civil rights, immigration, housing and cultural policy, Britain has generally followed a path of integration, or – as David Goodhart would argue in recent years – no plan at all. Apart from the unfortunate exception of the former Mill Towns of the north, most our cities are heavily integrated compared to Rotterdam, Brussels, Paris or Berlin.

No doubt much more needs to be done, but I know of no-one in the Labour Party, even during left separatist sections in the 80s, ever argue for the policy of segregationalist multi-culturalism. Since the overwhelming majority of our Muslim population are now first or second or even third generation, the question of current immigration  hardly solves this point either.

And let us not forget, Britain has been for three hundred years a multi-national, mult-ethnic and multi-denominational nation. There will be and always has been a problem between communities. But  yolking together, as Cameron did, the problem of Islamic extremist and multiculturalism, is just a bit of short term blindness.

Throughout my youth, the problems of integration had nothing to do with religion, unless someone wants to argue the riots in Handsworth, Toxteth, Brixton, St Pauls or Tottenham were a problem of fundamentalist Rastafarianism. Whatever the issues today in Tower Hamlets and Bow, a hundred years ago the press was filled with similar stories of terrorists and anarchists in the East End.  These new immigrants dressed strangely, spoke incomprehensibly, ate weird food, and followed disturbing religious practices with their own ‘laws’. It was fashionable to denounce them, in newspapers, novels, even in Nobel prize winning poetry. To many their presence in Britain was a huge threat to our way of life and security. Many inveighed against the tolerance of the government, their kowtowing to  extremism. Things got so bad that fear of these strange co-religionists and their conspiracies ignited a Europe-wide movement. The tension finally erupted into major street violence, as those who opposed fundamentalist religion marched through the East End…

This of course was march of Mosley’s Black Shirts in 1936 and their routing at the Battle of Cable Street. These strange and alien people were Ashkenazi Jews, who had fled pogroms in Lithuania, Poland and other dominions of the Tsarist Empire and arrived in London in their hundreds of thousands at the end of the 19th Century.  Anti-semitic fascism was stopped in its tracks in London that day in 1936, though it raged unabated in Europe for another ten years, leading to the destruction of Central European Jewry and the ultimate horror of the Holocaust.

Though feared a century ago, in many ways redolent of the language to describe Muslims in the UK today, we now see the influx of Jews into this country not as a social problem, but a huge boost to the intellectual, social and economic life of our nation.

If ‘multiculturalism’ means this, the British history of religious and ethnic tolerance, of rejecting faith or raced based hatred as a political program, then what’s wrong with it? Let me sign up.

How do We Fight It? And How I Went Wrong

For all that fighting talk, I don’t actually think – especially since the modern channels of communication are more virtual – that street battles are the way to go in combating Islamophobia. Just as it has taken root so quickly online, through ideas and theories spreading across the web, our task to to tackle them in the same way: counter the arguments whenever we find them,  dispel understandable anxieties with facts, replace lies with real information, and both in ourselves and among others, look for a broader  exploration about what Islam really means. As I said, concluding my essay a year ago:

For all these reasons I believe that, left unchecked, this tide of Islamophobia could be as catastrophic for this century as Anti-semitism was in the last. It strikes at the heart of the modern nation state, which was partly created as an answer to centuries of religious warfare, and gives support to extremists and religious zealots everywhere.

If we want to preserve our tolerant liberal democracy, should do all we can to expose, argue, and root out Islamophobia wherever we find it – even in our own minds.

And this leads me to a counter-intuitive conclusion: let’s welcome the Islamophobes entry into the discussion. Let’s not berate them. Let’s not just call them names. Islamophobia is a philosophy, a simplistic and almost appealing apocalyptic philosophy that seems to explain our confusing world. Not all of those who express these ideas have thought them through. Many have arrived at them on the basis of false evidence and misinformation. Every human on this planet has a racist side – and we’re all hard-wired to look for ‘out group’ enemies to increase our ‘in group’ bonding. So banning hate speak, censoring anti Islamic statements, that will not make Islamophobia go away. We should engage with the arguments, expose the contradictions, follow the ultimately dangerous and genocidal logic. Let’s shed daylight on this phenomenon, because if the experience of Bosnia teaches us anything, it just flourished buried under a rock.

This is where I actually think the internet, and the Anglo Saxon tradition of liberal debate does the exact opposite of what Nick Cohen suggests: it will eventually cleanse extremism with daylight. And this is where I have to share some of the blame. When encountering anti Islamic statements, I have always tried to resist equating the sin with the sinner, making a racist comment an indication of deep and abiding racism. But I have also failed to make that distinction sometimes, and therefore made the hatred unsayable, and more likely to find its outlet in violent or nefarious ways.

In this debate, we should be careful to separate out the separate strands of Islamophobia from the hardcore racist element.

those who fear Islam in itself
, let us remind them that to characterise this vast religion by the activities of Bin Laden would be as bad as characterising Christianity by the activities of Timothy McVeigh, or Judaism by those of Baruch Goldstein, or indeed Buddhism by the killings of the Aum Shurikyro cult behind the Sarin gas attack on Tokyo.

Indeed, analysing modern history by medieval standards plays into the hands of the fundamentalists who, by such simplistic standards, can rightly point out that in the last couple of decades, Christians killed each other by their thousands in Northern Ireland, by their millions in Rwanda and – apart from killing Muslims in Bosnia – Christians invaded with much bloodshed the Muslim states of Kuwait, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq

To the Neocons, who wanted to reshape the Middle East, and who believed Arab countries were dominated by corrupt Autocrats, we can point to the positive homegrown examples of revolution in the Arab spring, the faces of hope and resilience in Tahrir Square, the continued struggles in Syria, Libya and Bahrain, and prove that Islam is not always in love with dreams of a medieval caliphate.

To the militant atheists and anti-clericals, we can point out that secularism is not just a freedom from religion, but a freedom of religion, and that  Britain has – since the time of Elizabeth the First – moved progressively down the road that religion is a matter for private belief, and not to be castigated or controlled by the state. Forcing people not to believe in any God would be just as bad as forcing them to believe in One God. This is the hard core of tolerance, and cannot be defended with intolerance.

Finally, to the nostalgic socialists we can say: yes you had a point. Communism did manage to repress the nationalist and religious conflicts under its iron fist. But repression, censorship, banning religious symbols, closing mosques and churches, was merely a cork in a brewing bottle of venom which, when removed, exploded with even more force.

The solution to all extremism is exposure: exposure to facts, opposing ideas, diversity of debate.

So those who disagree with me… please start below.  


  1. Shaun Appleby

    Concur in most of that but can’t see indicting the Internet, it just hastens things.  Though, curiously, Breivart was an internationalist in his Internet tastes, which brings up an interesting point.  One can assert comfortably that al Qaeda and this moster are both involved in international movements.

    That’s the take-away from Oslo, not just that these extremists are capable of serious, targeted, political damage, but that they are a global phenomenon and they know it.  Read two interesting pieces recently; one on global trade called “Archipelago World,” which postulates that the global economy is shifting to a vertical rather than horizontal economic alignment:

    …what we’re seeing is an emerging world of sovereign states vertically integrating national interests across the public and private sectors – and then going out strategically to compete for resources, growth and job creation. Having previously understood global interdependence as a reason for horizontal integration across markets and regions, states as diverse as Finland, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Mexico are now pursuing distinct, often bilateral, strategies for economic and political security. This is the new dynamic of global competition – one with implications as profound as they can seem contradictory.

    Nader Mousavizadeh – How we got to the archipelago world Reuters 25 Jul 11

    The other that this current wave of xenophobia is premised, as evidenced by the polar shift from anti-Semitism to proto-Zionism among skinheads, on an international manifesto for the indigenous racial rights for whatever local tribe is having a meltdown over immigration; my guess is that this coalition divides the world neatly at the Christian/Islam axis in their minds and embraces most Western states; this could get very, very ugly.

    So you are right, Islamaphobia is the natural repository for the xenophobic, nativist, racist who wants to be seen in alignment with recent geopolitics.  It’s both an interesting trend and a disturbing one.

  2. Yep.

    All of my own misconseptions have been remedied by information. My prejudices against white southerners was cured by living there.

    Bigotry is simply ignorance. You cannot know many Muslims well to believe they all want to Take Over The World. You cannot know many Christians and still think they are all racists/hoomophobes/whatever. You cannot know many rich people and think they are all greedy pigs, or poor people and think they are all lazy slobs.

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