Three weeks ago London marked the sixth anniversary of the 7/7 tube bombings. Now Oslo will have its own heart-wrenching day of remembrance every year.  Even for those who lived through 7/7 – not to mention countless other bombings, from IRA to neo-Nazi, that London has witnessed in the past few decades – there was still something viscerally shocking about Anders Breivik’s murderous rampage through Oslo and Utoya, the mindlessness of the massacre combined with its cold-eyed homicidal brutality.

It was inevitable, perhaps, that Breivik’s attack would first be portrayed as an Islamist plot. For some, any form of terrorism is marked ‘Muslim’ and they wish to look no further.  The irony, however, is not just that Breivik’s hatred of Islam should lead to a horror that many took to be Islamic, but also that nothing so resembles Breivik’s mindset as that of an Islamist jihadist.

Jihadists view themselves as political soldiers, bringing terror to the West in response to Western interference in Muslim lands. Breivik believes he is waging war against the Muslim takeover of a Christian Europe. Both use the language of the ‘clash of civilizations’ to justify their atrocities. In some sense, their perverted ideology drove their actions. But in neither case are these political acts in any traditional sense. Rather, what unites Breivik and the jihadists is the arbitrary, nihilistic character of their violence that, for all their rhetoric, is disengaged from any political cause.

When, last year, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly attempted to bring carnage to the streets of Stockholm by trying to blow himself up amongst a crowd of Christmas shoppers, I wrote in the Swedish newspaper Expressen, that ‘The first lesson is the need flatly to reject the fiction that the bombing was a response, however perverted, to some sense of political grievance.’ The bombing ‘was no more a response to Muslim grievances (real or perceived) than the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in America was a response to the perceived evils of the US government.’ Al-Abdaly, I observed,  ‘seems to have been driven not so much by political fury as by a hatred for the world around him and a deep indifference to the consequences of his actions. However far you stretch the concept of ‘political’, it is nevertheless still impossible to imagine how setting out to murder dozens of Christmas shoppers could be any kind of political response.’ This has been true of virtually every Islamist bombing, from the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11 to the two car bombs parked outside Tiger Tiger, a central London nightclub, in 2007 to the attack on a Marrakesh café earlier this year. It was true of the Oklahoma City outrage. And it is true of the Utoya massacre.

Both jihadists and Breivik seem to be driven not so much by political ideology as by a desperate and perverted search for identity, a search shaped by a sense of cultural paranoia, a cloying self-pity and a claustrophobic victimhood. Islamists want to resurrect an ‘authentic’ Islam that never existed in the first place and to enforce that identity upon all Muslims. Breivik similarly wants to establish an authentically Christian Europe, again that has never existed, swept clean of Muslim pollution. His use of the red cross symbol of the Knight Templars suggests a Christianity learnt from the pages of Dan Brown.

All this makes ironic Breivic’s assault on multiculturalism. Multiculturalism has in recent years come to have two meanings that are all too rarely distinguished. On the one hand, it refers to a society made diverse by mass immigration, on the other, to the political policies deemed necessary to manage such diversity. The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is wonderfully positive.  Multiculturalism in this sense is an argument for open borders and open minds. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It is about forcing people into particular ethnic and cultural boxes, and framing public policy by virtue of the boxes into which people have been put. Far from opening up society, such policies have in the main helped to close borders, whether physical or in the imagination.

The paradox of multiculturalism as a political process is that it undermines much of what is valuable about diversity as lived experience. Diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to burst out of our boxes, to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgments upon them, and decide which may be better and which may be worse.  It is important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can help create a more universal language of citizenship. But it is precisely such dialogue and debate that the political process of pushing people into ethnic and cultural boxes makes so much more difficult.

That is why I have long been a defender of diversity but a critic of multiculturalism. Breivik, on the other hand, opposes diversity precisely because he wants to put people into cultural boxes. Christianity, he wrote in his online manifesto, is ‘a cultural, social, identity and moral platform’.  So is Islam. There can be no compromise between the two, no fouling of the platform, no polluting of the culture, not muddying of the identity, by acknowledging that the other may be any less than barbarian. The irony of Breivik’s ‘clash of civilizations’ fantasy is that it is one that he shares with jihadists, for whom too it provides a sense of identity and belonging by setting up a cartoon enemy. ‘There is no doubt that the clash of civilizations exists’, Osama bin Laden told an Al Jazeera journalist a month after 9/11. ‘No true believer would doubt these truths.’

During the Cold War, the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov observes in his book The Fear of Barbarians, the faultlines that divided the world were broadly ideological. Today, he argues, the world is structured not so much by ideology as by emotion, and in particular the emotions of fear and resentment. Anti-Western sentiment results from a sense of ‘humiliation, real or imaginary’ which has bred a sense of resentment, particularly within Muslim communities, towards Europe and the United States, which are ‘held responsible for private misery and public powerlessness.’   And in the West, attitudes have been shaped by fear of terrorism, immigration and the ‘other’, and by resentment about the loss of power and prestige abroad, and the supposed erosion of ‘Western’ or ‘Christian’ culture at home. No worldview better expresses that sense of fear and resentment than the clash of civilization which, for both sides, has become a way of understanding notions of belongingness and enmity in emotional rather than in ideological terms.

Perhaps the most important similarity between Breivik and jihadists is that both despise the idea of an open, liberal society, shaped by debate, dialogue and the clash of diverse values and beliefs and amenable to change.  That is why it is important not to listen to the growing chorus of voices that suggest that the key lesson to be learnt from Breivik’s terror is that Norway has become too open, too liberal and too tolerant a nation, too slack in its security, too unprepared for horrors such as this.

Over the past ten years, the response to Islamic jihadism in Britain, America and elsewhere has been shaped by a sense of fear and panic that has made it far easier for the authorities to increase surveillance, extend police powers, and erode free speech. The war on terror has led to such abominations as Guantanamo Bay, ‘extraordinary rendition’ and torture. In trampling down on fundamental liberties in this fashion Western leaders have in effect done the terrorists’ work for them.

The same must not be allowed to happen in response to Breivik. Just as the right has stoked up fears about the ‘Muslim takeover’ of the West and about the creation of ‘Eurabia’, so many on the left are now promoting alarm about a neo-fascist network intent on sowing terror. There is, in fact, no evidence that Breivic was part of any conspiracy involving neo-fascist groups. Nor is there even much evidence that attacks such as Breivic’s are linked to the strength of far-right ideology. As the academic Robert Ford, a leading researcher into far-right movements, has pointed out, there is ‘no research showing massacres occur more frequently in countries with prominent extreme right movements than in countries without such movements’. We need to challenge neo-fascism and anti-Muslim bigotry, just as we need to challenge Islamism, But in both cases we also need to keep a sense of perspective about the nature of the threat.

Norway’s relative openness and liberalism are among its best attributes. If the nation were to become closed, illiberal and paranoid it would be no safer. But Breivik would have won.

UPDATE: a shortened version of this essay was published in the Norwegian newspaper Bergens Tidende.


  1. Another well-argued piece, Kenan. I find myself consistently agreeing with your views on multiculturalism and identity politics in your essays, so much so to the point that I worry I’m turning into a ‘fanboy’ with a compromised critical eye for your writing. But I can’t help it if I genuinely feel that you’re right about something.

  2. CK

    I really liked your argument of being pro diversity and not in favour of “multi-kulti” as they say it in Germany. Made me think.

  3. David Carr

    As meticulously as Kenan has unpacked aspects of multiculturalism’s roots in a counter-enlightenment ideology, I wonder if he also apply his insights on liberalism to this issue. Liberalism would seem in part to empower the Right in a few ways.

    When it comes down to it, liberals, social democrats, etc. have historically rushed to the defense of the state even if it means killing off the Left and allying with fascists or Stalinists. See Germany 1919, Spain 1936. Gilles Dauve has written about this in his “When Insurrections Die,” but reading Orwell’s _Homage to Catalonia_ will give one a good idea of this too.

    Liberals tend to shun any focus on a critical examination of the social relations of capitalism (even when calling for reform), and are often the proponents of cultural/identity politics/and postmodern type critiques that share much with the Right, rely largely on moralism, or leave no possibility for class struggle analysis.

    Liberals, politicians, union bureaucrats, etc. also have a tendency to put the breaks on the militancy of rank and file movements, and to act as mediators between workers and the ruling class in the interests of the latter, often to defend their own existence and place at the table.

    My three examples are relevant to Breivik because they all put off any real confrontation with an owning class that creates delusional crusaders like him. Breivik’s half baked non-critique is a reflection of the dominant shallow ideas of the day.

    • I agree that questions of power and class relations are crucial and that liberal thinking often ignores or obscures such relations. I also agree that liberals often do reactionaries’ dirty work for them. But I think, too, that we face a more immediate problem. Liberals, and many on the left too, have effectively given up defending on basic liberal values such as secularism, free of expression and equality. The erosion of such values is hugely detrimental to progressive movements. That is why it is incumbent on us to challenge ideas such as multiculturalism and to defend basic, liberal, democratic ideas.

  4. john constant

    I agree very, very much with Maliks analysis that the politics of multiculturalism undermines diversity through removing an individuals sense of their right to determine their own cultural identity. I have friends formerly involved in the far-right who tell me that this issue is what is driving the sense of white disenfranchisement and belief that they are being alienated from their own culture. The problem has long gone beyond the ‘their stealing our jobs’ position. There is also a parallel disillusionment with capitalism as evidenced by the national-anarchy movement. I agree that this is not a political act of terror, however i believe that the acts of terror that malik speaks about are largely religious, ideological and utopian in intent and are attempts to ‘immanentize the eschaton’ – force an apocalypse – to randomly inspire a cultural war to bring about totalitarian ‘utopias’. And the root of it is a terribly sad and pathetic sense of helplessness and alienation that starts in the bedroom in front of a computer with a bunch of conspiracy theories that which frighteningly turns into a cultural movment. However every freedom and element of individual and personal choice of belief and action that is removed by any government as a reaction to these attacks serves, as Malik suggests, to perpetuate them rather than stop them. The problem is far too subtle to be left for politicians to deal with.

    • The idea of being ‘alienated from their own culture’ is itself the problem. It embodies an idea of culture as fixed, and a proprietary attitude towards culture, which is rooted in a multicultural view of the world. And that’s the irony – racists want their own plot on the multicultural map. The biggest indictment of multiculturalism, perhaps, is that it has turned racism into another form of cultural identity. As for the suggestion that contemporary acts of terror are attempts to ‘immanentize the eschaton’, ‘force an apocalypse’, or inspire a cultural war, I think you give the terrorists too much credit. These are arbitrary, nihilistic howls of rage driven by an indifference to the welfare and good of other people.

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    • constantjohn

      I believe the violence is utterly incoherent and I’m under no illusion that there is some kind of vision or strategy behind these acts of violence only that ‘apocalyptic’ feelings can grow within individuals to point where they become acted out, and, in this case also attempting to attach themselves to a poltical aganda. Or rather use the political agenda as the crucible to cook their resentment in whilst harnessing the means and support to fulfill the violent fantasies through enaging other people in their beliefs.

      Eschalogical thinking has been going on for millenia, and maybe these days such individuals fall into the painful contradiction that they are at the same time utterly powerless as individuals to change society yet able to gather enough resources together to have a show of power.

      I am also a fan of yours Mr Malik.

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