Now, Norway has its very own Timothy McVeigh …
As with the Oklahoma City bombing 16 years ago, the initial public reaction to the horrific events in and near Oslo was to finger Muslim extremists. The online comment boards of the New York Times quickly filled with denunciations of “radical Islam” and “a religion of hate.” A few voices cautioned that little was yet known about the killer or killers. But – as with Oklahoma City – most felt comfortable in the assumption that the jihadis had struck again.
Now that 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik has confessed to police that he did indeed set off the bomb at a government building in Oslo, then went to a youth camp on nearby a island and methodically hunted down and executed 68 people, attention is shifting to the growing popularity of right-wing, anti-immigrant parties in Western Europe.
But rather than wonder why Europeans seem to be increasingly sympathetic toward xenophobic neo-fascism, the continent’s leaders should ask themselves why they’ve given their people with legitimate concerns about their economic and cultural future no place else to go.
Before going on his murder spree, Breivik posted a 1,500-page manifesto, laying out his belief that “cultural Marxists” were using multiculturalism to destroy Christian European culture, setting the stage for a Muslim takeover of Europe.
In a 22-minute-long video posted online, Breivik claims that it’s time for European Christians to strike back against this elite that’s betraying its own people and history.
At the end, the video shows several photos of Breivik in uniform, including one in a scuba outfit aiming what looks like a sniper rifle.
Much of this, of course, rings of the same sort of paranoid delusional mythology that neo-Nazis and Christian Identity extremists have spouted in the US. The Pacific Northwest, in particular, has seen this sort of thing before. For more than 20 years, the Aryan Nation’s Richard Butler made his compound in northern Idaho into what he called “the international headquarter of the white race.” Robert Matthews – head of a murderous white nationalist crime gang that called itself The Order – died in a fiery shootout with federal agents on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound in 1984
But the dynamics surrounding the immigration debate in Europe are different than those in the US. Immigration certainly arouses deep passions (and more than its share of irrational fear) in America, but you don’t see that translating into widespread electoral successes for nativist political policies in most of the country (Arizona being one notable exception).
Europe, on the other hand, has leapt in recent decades into a grand social, cultural and economic experiment. The 27 nations of the European Union have ceded major areas of control traditionally claimed by nation-states to multi-national organizations and agencies. The goal is to see if – after a blood-soaked 20th century that saw two devastating wars fought on European soil – the many cultures and languages of Europe can transform themselves from a cauldron of ethnic, religious and political hatreds into a prosperous federation of cooperative neighbors and business partners.
It seems to me that despite the daily drumbeat of euro-skepticism emanating from US editorial pages and TV commentaries, the European experiment has, on balance, been working out rather well. Standards of living are high, people have access to health care, education, and a wide range of social supports that, to an American, seems at times astonishing.You’d be hard-pressed to conclude that Europeans don’t live a life at least as free, comfortable and fulfilling as Americans do.
But the upheaval of dissolving traditional structures of governance, replacing long-cherished currencies and breaking down barriers to the free flow of people and commerce has left many Europeans feeling that their world is changing in ways they’re not always comfortable with. For many, immigration becomes a catch-all that gives shape to these worries.
Increasingly, white Europeans find themselves having to rub shoulders with darker folks who speak unfamiliar languages, eat strange foods and believe in a foreign God. While much of this is the chickens of Europe’s colonial past in Africa, Asia and the Middle East coming home to roost, some is undoubtedly fostered by a conscious decision to embrace multiculturalism. Europe’s liberal elite see themselves as tolerant of cultural differences and believe that diversity is a worthwhile social goal.
Most Europeans I’ve met agree, at least in theory. And they enjoy their global reputation of open-mindedness. They also love to contrast their enlightened social attitudes to what they see as the often-provincial and selfish Americans.
But behind that, many are worried about the pace and direction of the changes. And they are concerned that their cultural values could be rejected or even overturned by immigrants who want the freedom and prosperity of Europe but want to retain their cultural identities from home. Much of this anxiety focuses on immigrant Muslims.
From a French ban on face-covering Islamic headwear to a Swiss referendum that bans minarets (in a country with 400,000 Muslims and exactly four minarets), Europeans have been reacting to the increasing Muslim population with proposals that range from sensible to xenophobic to just silly.
When a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim extremist murdered the controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004 because he felt van Gogh had insulted Islam, the Dutch were stunned. Many in a country that prided itself on liberalism and tolerance felt their values were under assault. Right-wing Dutch immigration minister Rita Verdonk subsequently required potential immigrants to Holland to watch a film that included scenes of gay men kissing and a topless woman at a Dutch beach. The message? This is how we live here. We like living this way. If this offends you, maybe you should live somewhere else.
Verdonk – already a highly controversial figure in The Netherlands – was loudly criticized as being disrespectful of other cultures. But for many otherwise-tolerant Dutch citizens, it seemed a reasonable way of making the point that immigrants need to respect the culture of their new host country.
It seems to me the reason the right-wing nativist parties have been gaining strength across Europe is that the mainstream parties have not addressed their citizens’ legitimate fears. Complaints about immigration are routinely dismissed as racist and xenophobic, not worthy of the new, enlightened Europe.
Meanwhile, parties that in the past were regarded as near-fascist have toned down the rhetoric. Their often-cranky founders are being replaced by younger, more-media-savvy leaders who see the opportunity to gain power by giving voice to the worries that the mainstream parties have marginalized.
By failing to take seriously the legitimate concerns raised by large-scale immigration, the political elite in Europe has abandoned the debate to the right-wing. And a growing number of Europeans are finding themselves pulling the lever for parties whose economic and social policies they may find repellent, but who speak to their concerns in a way the political establishment is unwilling to do.
In recent months, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron have all made statements calling for a re-thinking of what “multi-culti” means on the ground. In 2009 Sarkozy initiated a much-ridiculed nationwide “dialogue” on national identity and “French-ness”. Some have dismissed this as political pandering from politicians looking to shore up their right flank, and there’s merit to that.
But I think it’s time for Europe’s leaders to realize they can’t shame their citizens out of their discomfort with immigration by telling them they’re racists. There are real and legitimate fears of cultural and economic dislocation that European immigration policies have helped foster.
And until the political mainstream is prepared to have that discussion, they’ll continue to see people shifting their votes to parties that are.