‘We want to create a European version of al-Qaeda’, the ‘most successful revolutionary movement in the world’. So claimed Anders Behring Breivik at his trial in Oslo last week. In his sick, twisted, paranoid fantasy world, Breivik sees himself as warrior defending Christian Europe against a Muslim invasion. Yet, nothing so resembles Breivik’s mindset as that of an Islamist jihadist. Not just because Breivik admires the organizational ability of al-Qaeda, but because both Breivik and jihadists draw upon the same deluded notions of culture, identity and belongingness.
In his book, The Fear of Barbarians, the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov observes that whereas during the Cold War the faultlines that divided the world were broadly ideological, today the world is structured not so much by ideology as by emotion, and in particular the emotions of fear and resentment. There is today, he suggests, a deep-rooted fear of the ‘Other’ driven by a sense of ‘humiliation, real and imaginary’ that has bred resentments against those ‘held responsible for private misery and public powerlessness’. So it is for both jihadists and for figures like Breivik.
At the heart of the worldview of both jihadists and Breivik is the vision of a world torn apart by a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Islam and the West. An idea first popularized by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington a decade before 9/11, it has, for many, come to define the decade after. It has become a means through which to express the sense of fear and resentment of which Todorov writes, a way of understanding notions of belongingness and enmity in emotional rather than ideological terms.
This sense of fear and resentment runs much wider and deeper than simply among jihadis or far-right terrorists. The idea that ‘Christian Europe’ is under threat, for instance, that Muslim immigration amounts to an invasion, that Europe is about to be transformed into ‘Eurabia’ and that Western civilization is facing collapse finds a widespread hearing. In his much-lauded book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe Christopher Caldwell, a columnist for the Financial Times and an editor of the conservative American magazine the Weekly Standard, suggests that immigration is akin to colonization and that ‘Islam has broken’ the fundamentals of the European tradition, ‘not enhancing or validating European culture’, but ‘supplanting it.’ Christianity, the British writer Melanie Phillips claims in her book The World Turned Upside Down, ‘is under direct and unremitting cultural assault from those who want to destroy the bedrock values of Western civilization’. It is not possible, the American philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris suggests in his book The End of Faith, ‘to be a good Muslim, to have military and economic power, and to not pose an unconscionable threat to the civil societies of others’; Harris has suggested, too, that ‘the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists‘. In his polemical screed America Alone, the Canadian journalist talks of the Madrid train bombings and of 7/7 as the ‘opening shots of a European civil war’ that will lead to ‘societal collapse’, ‘fascist revivalism’ and a never-to-return journey into ‘the long Eurabian night’.
These are not marginal figures, nor simply conservative ones – Harris, for instance, is a card-carrying liberal, as are many others with similar views. I am not suggesting that they are responsible for Breivik’s deluded fantasies, still less for his homicidal frenzy. What I am suggesting is that the culture of delusion, upon which both Breivik and jihadists feed, runs deep.
But while Breivik draws upon this culture of delusion, his actions are not ‘political’ in any traditional sense. 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 in 2010 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.’ 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 is true, too, of Breivik’s homicidal frenzy. He, like jihadists, is driven less by political ideology than 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.
All this makes ironic Breivic’s assault on multiculturalism. There has been much discussion over the past week about Breivik’s venomous hatred for multiculturalism, and about how we should respond. Many feel that faced with a monster like Breivik, we must close ranks and defend that which he wishes to destroy. It is a version of an argument that has gained ground as rightwing leaders, from Angela Merkel down, have in recent years become more fierce in their criticism of multiculturalism. This is to misunderstand both multiculturalism and Breivik’s hatred. The real target of Breivik’s assault is not so much on multiculturalism as immigrants, immigration and diversity.
Multiculturalism has in recent years come to have two meanings that are all too rarely distinguished. The first is the lived experience of diversity. The second is multiculturalism as a political process, the aim of which is to manage that diversity. The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and celebrate. It is a case for cultural diversity, mass immigration, open borders and open minds. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.
I have long been a critic of multiculturalism precisely because I am a defender of diversity. The irony of multiculturalism as a political process is that it undermines much of what is valuable about diversity as lived experience. Diversity is important because that it allows us to expand our horizons, to engage in a much wider political and culture dialogue that can, ironically, help create a more universal language of citizenship. The more the authorities put people into ethnic boxes, however, the more we think of cultures as homogenous groups, the less we are able to engage in such dialogue.
Breivik does not oppose multiculturalism because he wants to defend diversity. Rather, he opposes diversity precisely because he wants to put people into cultural boxes, in his case primarily labelled ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslim’. In his twisted, fantasy world the presence of Muslims in the Christian box pollutes and defiles it and needs to be eliminated.
For all his hatred of multiculturalism, Breivik’s belief in the ‘clash of civilizations’ draws upon ideas that, in a different way, underlie multicultural thinking, too. In court and in his online manifesto, Breivik describes multiculturalism as a ‘hate ideology’, laments its ‘deconstruction of European cultures and traditions’, and sees himself as acting ‘in defence of my culture and of my people’. This is the language of culture and identity – and of victimhood – that multiculturalism has done so much to foster in recent years. Multicultural policies have fed the culture of delusion as much as ‘clash of civilizations’ ideas have done.
For the left, Breivik’s warped mind reveals the dangers of rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry and of the conservative challenge to multiculturalism. For the right, his murderous rampage exposes the perils of mainstream politicians refusing to take a stand against immigration and multiculturalism. The problem that neither side seems willing to address is the way that both right and left, both multiculturalists and clash of civilization warriors, continue to feed the culture of delusion.
A shortened version of this post will appear in the Swedish newspaper Expressen. The ‘clash of civilisations’ image comes from the Muslim Times.