On July 22 a Norwegian right-wing extremist detonated a bomb in the downtown district of the nation’s capital, killing eight people, and then went on to a nearby island where he shot a staggering 68 members of a youth organization of the social democrat party. While not nearly as deadly, the recent riots in London and other English cities have sent a shockwave through many European countries, too. Within a few short days at least four people were killed, millions of pounds worth of property was destroyed and thousands of people were arrested.
Unlike during the riots in France in 2005, most media sources did not use terms such as “race riots” or link the unrest to Islam and young Muslims -- undoubtedly also a result of the embarrassing early linkage of the Norway bombing to alleged Jihadists in the Western media. They did put the riots in a broader perspective of the failed politics of multiculturalism, as prominent politicians such as British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicholas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had recently proclaimed. Reactions by commentators and politicians to both events have been largely predictable and inconsequential, although some worrying trends are visible.
The (far) right responded to the Norwegian tragedy with a unanimous condemnation of the act -- but not the motivations. In fact, various “counterjihadist” authors (such as Oslo-based American author Bruce Bawer) and radical right politicians (such as Norwegian Progress Party leader Siv Jensen) used the opportunity to condemn the shooter as a madman while at the same time echoing his main concerns of an alleged Islamization of Europe. Some almost went as far as to suggest that this was both an irrational response to, and a logical consequence of, failed multiculturalism politics by mainstream (left-wing) parties. In other words, while the violence was, of course, not to be condoned, they did understand why the shooter had become so frustrated and why he felt so powerless as to resort to violence.
The (far) left obviously came to different conclusions. They saw the shooter as the logical consequence of increasing Islamophobia in (right-wing) media and political debate. Hence, rather than a madman, or lone wolf, he was the creation of insidious political forces which should be stopped. In addition to calling for an increased vigilance toward the far right in general, including political parties, they demanded a more civil debate on multiculturalism and a more tolerant policy towards immigrants and minorities. Some even went so far as to call for state monitoring of far-right chat rooms and websites and for increased censorship of the Internet. This again led to some strong reactions from the (radical) right, who spoke of a “witch hunt” and “Soviet-style state repression.”
Looking at the English riots
How different was the reaction to the English riots? At times with racist undertones, right-wing commentators and politicians responded with familiar authoritarianism and elitism to the riots. Blaming the nihilist “yob culture” of youth, and sometimes even “black culture” on the “cultural relativism” of the left, they called for a zero tolerance response with massive police force (some even wanted the army to be deployed). And, responding to the reported role of direct messaging and social media among rioters, they called for strict censorship and the monitoring of both. Cameron even hinted at a ban on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Now it was the turn of the left to play the role of defender of freedom and liberty. Seeing the riots mainly in terms of socio-economic deprivation and racism, they blamed the (right-wing) authorities for police discrimination, media sensationalism and anti-social politics, which have created an underclass that feels left without chances or hope. While violence was obviously not the answer, they understood these poor youths felt so frustrated and powerless that they saw no other option than to resort to it.
Neither the Norwegian tragedy nor the English riots are logical consequences of Europe’s multiethnic society and the alleged failure of multicultural politics (whatever that actually means). Although neither event might be unique, they are the work of only a tiny part of large groups of dissatisfied people. For very different reasons, a large and ever growing group of Europeans are fed up with politicians from both sides of the aisle and the way they have shaped, or failed to shape, their societies. Neither group is homogeneous, and so it is impossible to listen to “their voice.” The Norwegian terrorist drew upon a broad range of ideological positions and political camps, many of whom hate each other as much as they hate Muslim immigrants; the English rioters pitted black against Asian, black against white, white against white, etc. While the origins were local and fairly well defined -- police harassment, racism and unemployment -- the riots soon spread to areas and involved people who had little to do with these phenomena.
Hence, the answers to these events should be as complex as the frustrations underlying them. Moreover, they should be based on thorough police investigations and scientific research, clearly identifying causes and concerns, rather than on media mania and spur-of-the-moment crisis management. Censorship and state encroachments on the privacy of citizens should be absolute last resort measures, only to be discussed if everything else has failed. Rather than further muzzling the voices of the frustrated, European societies need truly open debates in which all voices are heard, and political elites should finally dare to develop and defend well-grounded policies to shape their multiethnic societies. It should be clear to all involved that every society has tensions and that developing multiethnic societies might even have more of them. No one policy will make everyone happy, but no policy at all makes no one happy.
*Cas Mudde is the Hampton and Esther Boswell distinguished university professor of political science at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, and author of “Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe.”