Breivik’s Swamp

Was the Oslo killer radicalized by what he read online?

Getty Images
Getty Images

We hope, and perhaps need, a man who would gun down teenagers in cold blood to be mad. How could a man who is not insane carry out such heinous acts? What possible justification could make anyone act so barbarously? And yet all around the world when others have carried out atrocities of similar horror — from the genocidaires of Rwanda to the al Qaeda butchers of Baghdad — those of us lucky enough to live in the safe and comfortable global north have asked — what made them do it? Their political ideology? Their interpretation of their religion? Calling them mad is not enough.

So when Anders Behring Breivik says that his killing spree on Friday, July 22, was "gruesome but necessary" — as he reportedly told his lawyer — we must not just dismiss him as mad, but ask why he thinks so. Having left a 1,500-page manifesto and a YouTube video — all conveniently in serviceable English for the international audience — he clearly wants to be understood.

To do so requires an appreciation of a transatlantic movement that often calls itself "the counter-jihad." As his writings indicate, Breivik is clearly a product of this predominantly web-based community of anti-Muslim, anti-government, and anti-immigration bloggers, writers, and activists — no matter how much the movement’s leading lights may deny this and denounce his actions.

Many of the first articles in the international media trying to understand Breivik called him a far-right extremist. While this is perhaps true in the widest sense, the label confuses more than it explains. The postwar European far-right has tended to be neo-Nazi and fascist. Most of these groups, be they political parties in some countries or barely organized football hooligans in others, have on the whole shared an obsession with Jews as the evil "other," and the connections and cross-fertilization between European fascists and the North American far-right in its various forms — from the Christian Identity movement to right-wing militias to some so-called paleoconservatives — has long been well documented and understood.

In contrast, the counter-jihad movement defines itself in part in opposition to neo-Nazis, indeed taking great pains to attempt to show that the Nazis were "socialists." This is taken to rather silly lengths where modern European social democrats (and even U.S. President Barack Obama and American Democrats) are called "socialists" alongside other "socialists" like Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Marx, and — of course — Hitler. Breivik’s manifesto reproduces in full an essay by a well-known Norwegian counter-jihad writer called only "Fjordman" that argues that socialists and Nazis are one. This may seem ridiculous to anyone with a grasp of modern world history, but clearly was very important in leading Breivik to target a youth camp of the Norwegian Labour Party.

The opposition to neo-Nazism is most visible in the counter-jihad’s overt philo-Semitism. This takes the form of a strong defense of Israel and the policies of Israeli right-wing parties, including the denial of there being "occupied territories" — only Judea and Samaria, the biblical names for the West Bank. This has led to the inclusion in the counter-jihad movement of various hawkish American voices, both Jewish — for example, Daniel Pipes — and some Christian evangelicals. And whereas anti-Semitism is banished, it has been replaced with a rabid fear of Islam and of Muslims. Nevertheless, by focusing on the religion and culture of European Muslims being a threat, along with its proud philo-Semitism, the movement deems itself to be non-racist.

If there is an intellectual inspiration for the counter-jihad, it has been provided by the work of British-Swiss "historian" Bat Ye’or, who argues in a 2005 book and elsewhere that we are witnessing the gradual and willful takeover of Europe by Islam — the "Eurabia" thesis. Breivik cites Ye’or’s work dozens of times in his manifesto.

The Eurabia plan, Ye’or contends, originated with French leaders in the 1950s as a way to create an axis between Europe and the Arab world to counterbalance the United States and the Soviet Union. The creation of the European Union is supposedly at the heart of this scheme; the method: allowing the mass migration of Muslims into Europe to change the demographic balance. Hence counter-jihadists like Breivik see Muslim immigration to Europe as part of a jihad against the West.

Ye’or’s acolytes see this "invasion" as not only condoned but actively encouraged by European political and cultural elites — who either want or are too naive to see the "Islamization" of Europe. This, therefore, is a Manichaean conflict between the Judeo-Christian and Islamic worlds, with counter-jihad voices continually stating that there can be no accommodation between the two. Victory or submission are the only possible outcomes. If one was to take this proposition seriously, both Breivik’s "logic" of targeting the ruling Norwegian Labour Party and the ferocity of his assault begins to make some sense.

The counter-jihad began in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as a collection of bloggers concerned about jihadi terrorism aimed at the West. With the bombings in Madrid and London, among numerous other plots and attacks in Europe (and to a lesser extent in North America), along with the political divisions caused by the Iraq war, the thesis became more widely known and influential on the Internet. One leading blogger of the counter-jihad has described the movement as a network of networks, perhaps ironically echoing many counterterrorism experts’ description of al Qaeda.

This makes its hard to write a formal history of the inherently nebulous movement, but one important date is October 2007, when an early gathering of various activists took place in Brussels called "Counter Jihad 2007." Some of the meetings were inside the European Parliament — the very belly of the purported Eurabian beast — because the rooms could be booked by their hosts, the Belgian right-wing political party Vlaams Belang (VB). VB’s main focus is on the secession of Flanders from Belgium, but it is also very skeptical of the EU and of anti-Muslim immigration.

Other conferences have followed and from them new networks have emerged, including SIOE and SIOA. The organization SIOA (Stop Islamization of America) has in particular become very prominent, organizing the protest rallies against the so called "Ground Zero Mosque." A meeting was meant to have taken place this month in Strasbourg, bringing together both European and American counter-jihad supporters, although it was canceled at the last moment for reasons that are currently still contested. But the 2007 meeting remains noteworthy, as it indicates the impact of the counter-jihad rhetoric and thinking on European populist-right politics.

Populist right-wing politicians across Europe have echoed many of the anti-Islamization themes of the counter-jihad — most notably Geert Wilders and the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands — but the influence is also particularly clear to see across the Nordic region. Stopping Muslim immigration and criticizing Muslim immigrants for insufficient integration has become a winning political issue, up to a point, for the Norwegian Progress Party (of which Breivik was once a member), the Danish People’s Party, the Sweden Democrats, and the True Finns. In that sense, Breivik is just one terrible extreme of a discontent with social change felt across all the Nordic social democracies.

Having watched the counter-jihad develop for more than five years, I had always thought that its most negative impact would be on community cohesion within multicultural European countries. For example, alongside their support for populist-right anti-immigrant parties, the counter-jihadists have cheered the development of anti-Muslim street movements like the English Defence League that have provoked trouble in European cities, turning from protests into riots and requiring huge policing efforts.

The counter-jihad flirts with violent imagery, but I did not expect that anyone would commit a massacre on the scale of what Breivik has just done. Nor, I am sure, did most of the counter-jihadists. Still, the movement has some serious soul-searching to do. The numerous bloggers and activists of the counter-jihad may not call for direct violence, but they have painted a picture of a world where conflict with both immigrants and Europe’s supposed multicultural elite is inevitable. In that sense, they may not have given Breivik his orders, but they paved the road down which he chose to walk.

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