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Is global Islamophobia to blame for the Oslo massacres?

By George Morgan - posted Monday, 8 August 2011

Anders Behring Breivik, is in solitary confinement having admitted to the Oslo massacres of July 22 in which at least 77 people died. Most of the victims were members of the youth wing of the Norwegian Labour Party, a Party with a history of support for multiculturalism and religious tolerance.

Breivik allegedly believed he was part of a violent crusade against Islam; a shock troop in what Samuel Huntington has called the ‘clash of civilisations’. His lawyer has stated that he is probably insane a conjecture supported by some columnists and accredited experts on the psychology of mass murder. Such a characterisation is glib and strangely reassuring. How can anyone capable of such atrocities be anything but insane?

Whether or not this diagnosis is confirmed through legal process, it is important to recognise that it allows us to evade some complicated questions. If Breivik is a deranged monster, one who has lost all sense of moral proportion or attachment to reality, then there is less need to understand his acts in the context of the rise of new racial politics in the contemporary West.


Global Islamophobia differs from older forms of racism in that it does not only aim simply to force cultural minorities to assimilate or to curtail their movement and arrival on our beaches and at our border posts. Rather it offers a fundamental critique of liberal democracy itself and questions whether Western governments can ever manage globalisation, immigration and cultural difference.

The Oslo massacre shows the clear imprint of a global Islamophobia, a revanchist nationalist ideology that has gained popularity in many parts of the contemporary West – particularly in parts of Europe that traditionally were bastions of liberalism and tolerance, such as the Netherlands and Scandinavia, and is expressed with varying degrees of fanaticism.

Far from being a completely random and aberrant, the Oslo slaughter was very much grounded in a particular historical conjuncture framed by acute social and cultural tensions. While many right-wing political organisations have scurried to denounce Breivik and the murders for which he has claimed responsibility, it is clear that he drew on their (tortured) political logic to rationalise his actions. This logic runs as follows.

Firstly, Western nation states have lost the will and ability to control the flow of peoples from the global south, many of who are from Muslim backgrounds.

Secondly, such people retain attachments to cultural practices, moral codes and social networks that are incompatible with citizenship obligations in the receiving country. Therefore they are unassimilable in the conventional sense. Their primary public affiliations are transnational – residing in the ‘Islamic World’ – and they are indifferent to the rule of law and can never be organised into imagined communities of nation. Muslims are, we are told, unlike ‘us’. They are unable to become citizens of modern democracies.

Thirdly, it is not simply that they are recalcitrant, but rather that they are a ‘fifth column’, intent on undermining the societies that provide them with haven. The tabloid media encourage this view by ignoring the complex and variegated character of the Islamic societies (from Turkey to Saudi Arabia), the diverse connections between faith and politics, and caricaturing Islam as wholly ultra-conservative: patriarchal, theocratic and illiberal. Their coverage can lead us to assume that Muslims generally intend to colonise the West and impose Sharia law.


Lastly, such a threat is, we are told, constituted transnationally. It is not simply that political and social networks cross national borders it is that new communication technologies nourishes extremism. Such technologies mean that Muslims can be both here and there at the same time. Cyber-fanaticism is brewing in suburban bedrooms - radical Islamists writing of Jihad in emails, on bulletin boards, and social media.  Bomb plots, we learn from this coverage, takes root in ordinary places.

The lesson which many (including, apparently, Breivik) have drawn from this reasoning is that if the nation state is impotent in the face of this threat then it is up to citizens to take matters into their own hands. Cultural vigilantism can be expressed in more or less extreme ways.

Perversely, the peddlers of Islamophobia have reproduced the transnational character of ‘the enemy’. The English Defence League (EDL), which was formed in recent years out of networks of football supporters, eschews electoral politics in favour of mass actions (organised through social media) in places of cultural tension. Its leaders have been invited to speak at the rallies of the French National Front - which is ironic given the habitual Francophobia of the British Right – and the two compare notes on how Islam threatens their respective (fictionally nostalgic) national ways of life.

In the dark corners of the Internet, fascists from many lands are locking arms against globalisation. Breivik himself claimed to have links with the EDL (which, of course, they deny) and to have followed racial politics in the U.K. closely. An avid follower of debates around multiculturalism in different parts of the world, he praised the Howard Liberal government’s policy of encouraging women to have more babies believing this would lessen the pressure for immigration.

For their part Western nation states are certainly not prepared to accept reports of their demise and impotence. In devoting huge resources to combatting terrorism - sharing intelligence, synchronising policies and regimes of punishment, instituting systems of surveillance over Muslim communities across the world – they apply the blowtorch to millions of ordinary Islamic people in the West the vast majority of whom have no more association with global terror than I have to the Unabomber.

Perhaps the lesson of the Oslo killings is that it is time to recognise that the ideology of the war on terror has spawned the shadowy obverse of the Muslim folk devil who has preoccupied us for a decade or more: the new crusading xenophobes, the guardian angels of our ‘way of life’.

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About the Author

George Morgan is a senior lecturer in the school of humanities/centre for cultural research at the University of Western Sydney.

He is editor (along with Scott Poynting) of a new book Global Islamophobia to be published by Ashgate in early 2012.

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All articles by George Morgan

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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