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July 26, 2011, Tuesday

Words do matter

After the Norway massacre in which a homegrown extreme-right Islamophobe killed dozens of people, a profound debate started in the United States and Europe on how this could happen.

One of the most sensitive elements in that discussion is the relationship between, on the one hand, violent actions by individual extremists and, on the other, the rising popularity of far-right populist parties in Europe and the growing influence of anti-Muslim ideologues in the US.

In other words: Should we blame extremist politicians and columnists for having prepared the ground for the kind of horrific actions that we saw in Norway? Or should we not make that link and, in the end, blame each and every individual for the acts that he commits?

Let me start with the reactions of the American anti-Muslim bloggers to the Norwegian drama. When it turned out that it was a blonde Norwegian who planted the bomb and killed dozens of children in cold blood, the Islam critics tried to downplay the right-wing anti-Muslim ideology driving the shooter. Anders Behring Breivik was a lonely lunatic who had acted on his own.

In a blog on the website of The Washington Post, someone compared the reactions of two of the most well-known professional Islamophobes, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, to the terrorist attack in Oslo with their usual habits of tarring all Muslims with responsibility for acts of Islamist terrorism. Geller is an outspoken critic of Islam who runs the blog “Atlas Shrugs.” She wrote that any assertion that she or other anti-jihad writers bore any responsibility for Mr. Breivik's actions was “ridiculous.” Spencer, who operates the “Jihad Watch” website and published several books unveiling Islam as a totalitarian ideology, angrily denied that what had happened in Norway “has anything remotely to do with anything we have ever advocated.”

As The Washington Post blogger put it: “Geller and Spencer are now pleading for the world not to do what they've spent their careers doing -- assigning collective blame for an act of terror through guilt-by-association. … They are now begging for the kind of tolerance and understanding they cheerfully refuse to grant to American Muslims.”

By the way, after this blog was published, it became known that Mr. Breivik had written a 1,500-page manifesto in which he explains his motives. That document contains dozens of quotations from Geller, Spencer and many other American bloggers and writers who have warned for years about the threat of Islam. According to some well-informed American specialists, we should not underestimate the influence of these American Islamophobes. According to Max Blumenthal, a writing fellow for the Nation Institute, “the Islamophobic crusade has gone beyond the right-wing pro-Israel activists, cyber-bigots and ambitious hucksters who conceived it. It now belongs to leading Republican presidential candidates, top-rated cable news hosts and crowds of Tea Party activists.”

In that same manifesto, Mr. Breivik also refers many times to European politicians he admires, like the Dutch populist Geert Wilders. Confronted with appreciation by a mass murderer, these politicians' reactions were copies of the American ones. Wilders said the killer was a “violent and sick character” and that he “did not share any of the views of Breivik.” Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant National Front in France, claimed her party has “nothing to do with the Norwegian slaughter, which is the work of a lone lunatic who must be ruthlessly punished.”

Back to The Washington Post blog. After having bashed the American anti-Muslim ideologues for their hypocrisy and double standards, the writer concludes by saying that all of us should take this lesson to heart: “Terrorist acts are committed by individuals, and it is those individuals who should be held responsible.”

After reading this conclusion, I was left with very ambiguous feelings. Should we deny any link between Mr. Breivik and the poisonous wells he drank from? Are people like Spencer or Wilders in no way responsible for the acts of an individual who has clearly stated that he was inspired by their ideas and success?

The answer is indeed a straightforward “No” if we look at the majority of reactions by European liberals. They abhor what happened in Norway and they totally disagree with Islamophobic politicians and writers. But they draw a clear line between the violent acts of Mr. Breivik, for which only he can be held accountable, and the aggressive words of his ideological enablers who should be free to express their despicable views. If we would hold Mr. Wilders and others in any way responsible for Mr. Breivik's cruelties, we would be making the same mistake as they do by blaming all Muslims for the terrorist acts of Osama bin Laden. Guilt-by-association is always wrong.

To be honest, I find it difficult to accept this rigid division of responsibilities. Mr. Breivik is definitively not a lunatic who got out of control. He is an ideological extremist who carefully planned his terrorist acts and who has a clear vision of the world and what he considers to be the threats to the open society he favors. His ideas are part of a much wider, growing right-wing movement in Europe and the US that, according to me, should not be able to get off the hook so easily by blaming all wrongs on a so-called crazy individual.

In order to understand what is happening in Europe and the US, we should not make the mistake to claim, as is often done in Turkey, that the new cultural conservatism that both Mr. Breivik and Mr. Wilders are championing is a copy of the fascist ideology of the 1930s.

There are clear differences and they are important in explaining the success of the current right-wing movement. The new populists distance themselves openly from the racism and authoritarianism of the past. They defend the Jewish state of Israel and gay rights, two positions that the “old” fascists would never support. Their focus is on anti-multiculturalism, anti-Islamization and the immediate threat to Western civilization as they define it.

On both issues, there is an overlap with the classic conservatives and even part of the social-democrats that enables them to reach out to parts of the electorate that the small post-war extreme right could never dream of. It also makes it much more difficult to isolate or marginalize this new movement. They are no longer harmless on the sidelines. Their ideas are the talk-of-the-town and, especially in northwestern Europe, their influence has reached government levels.

To pretend that this growing presence and popularity has absolutely no influence on some of their extreme supporters would, in my view, be dangerously naive. On the website of the American magazine Foreign Policy, I think two researchers strike the right balance in their assessment of the Norway tragedy. “No one really knows the exact relationship between extreme right-wing movements and political violence. Indeed, academics are still arguing, without resolution, about whether peaceful but extreme Islamist organizations are ‘gateways' into Islamist terrorism. Yet all terrorists believe they are defending a wider constituency, fighting for ideas that others agree with but are too ignorant or afraid to take action. … Like al-Qaeda, far-right terrorists often see themselves as vanguards -- striking a blow that will awaken the masses. There is no question that someone like Anders Behring Breivik is more likely to find that environment in Europe now than a decade ago. And though he may have acted alone, there are certainly more like him who share his concerns, his ideology and his belief that without immediate and drastic action Western civilization will be lost. The world can no longer afford to ignore this growing threat,” they say.

Whether they like it or not, Geller, Spencer, Wilders and Le Pen should realize that, although they are not directly responsible for the acts of people like Mr. Breivik, their words can and will be used by extremists to justify atrocities.

Hate speech should no longer be tolerated as the ultimate proof of freedom of expression but should be treated as the ugly and dangerous form of incitement it is because words do matter.

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