Norway: “A Very Old War”

Norwegian Prime Minister's Office after the July 22, 2011 bombing
The Prime Minister's Office building in Oslo after the 7/22/2011 bombing - Creative Commons (Johannes Grødem)

I’m very reluctant to comment on last Friday’s tragic events in Norway. (1) The story is still evolving. (2) I’m not an expert on Norway, or on right-wing extremism in Europe. And (3) as a historian, I’d always prefer to analyze events from a temporal distance.

But… I do teach modern European history regularly, and will surely be asked about the bombing/shooting by my students when classes resume next month. So to help me think through how to frame this for students, I’m planning a post today and then another later in the week in which I’ll share a few of my early reactions. (Today’s post in the World War I “Over There” series will be published this afternoon.) In the process, I hope to give some historical context for what’s been reported about the suspect, Anders Behring Breivik. In particular, his identification of two groups as the chief villains in his neurotic narrative: Muslims and “cultural Marxists.”

Part 1: “We are in the new phase of a very old war”

The first page of Breivik's "European Declaration of Independence"
The first page of Breivik's "European Declaration of Independence" - Public domain

So writes Breivik (allegedly) in the 1500-page manifesto that came to light over the weekend and was parsed by international media on Sunday. Its title, 2083, refers to Breivik’s prediction for the date of the ultimate triumph of his so-called “Patriotic Resistance Movement.” Not coincidentally, as this NY Times article among others pointed out, 2083 will also be the 400th anniversary of the battle at which an alliance of European Christians finally defeated the Ottoman armies besieging Vienna, ending a period of Turkish expansion into southeastern and central Europe that began in the Late Middle Ages.

(“We are in the new phase of a very old war” is the slogan of a blog called Gates of Vienna, at which Breivik was supposedly a frequent commenter. Though one of its authors took pains, in a Sunday post in English and Norwegian, to stress that he did not know Breivik and condemned the killings.)

Of course, it has now been centuries since a Muslim-majority country invaded Europe; indeed, the 19th and 20th centuries featured multiple instances of ostensibly Christian countries exercising imperial influence in the Islamic world. But to Breivik, the “war” continued by other means: post-WWII immigration to Europe of Muslims from countries like Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and the stark contrast between non-Muslim and Muslim European fertility rates (1.7 vs. 2.5, respectively, for the period 2005-2010). Elsewhere in his manifesto, Breivik bemoans the growing percentage of the European population that is Muslim, predicting that it will rise to 30-50% by 2070.

In this respect, he is merely repeating a common fear that has found expression, particularly (though not exclusively) on the political right wing, in a variety of ways less bloody than Breivik’s actions. Consider this 2009 article from the conservative-leaning British newspaper The Daily Telegraph. The author takes a slightly more measured tone than the title implies (“Muslim Europe: The demographic time bomb transforming our continent”), but he still warns that “a recent rush into the EU [European Union] by migrants, including millions of Muslims, will change the continent beyond recognition over the next two decades, and almost no policy-makers are talking about it.”

Earlier that year, FOX News offered a similar report in this country, suggesting that Brussels might move from being the capital of Belgium (and the seat of several EU institutions) to the “capital of Eurabia.” Coined (or, repurposed) by the Egyptian-born British writer Bat Ye’or, “Eurabia” has become shorthand among like-minded critics for the impending demographic domination of Europe by Muslims. (For a relatively cautious evaluation of this thesis, see Niall Ferguson’s 2004 essay, which he closes by confessing that seeing a model of a minaret at Oxford University made him think of Edward Gibbon’s “decline and fall” of the Roman Empire.)

Now, demographic analysis like this is complex and volatile, not least because countries like France don’t ask about religion in their national census. But for a reasonable point of departure… The nonpartisan, widely respected Pew Forum (quoted in the Daily Telegraph article) issued a report earlier this year estimating Europe’s Muslim population as of 2010 at 44.1 million, or 6% of the total populace, up from  29.6 million/4.1% in 1990. By 2030, Pew’s researchers estimated, the percentage would rise to 8%. For the record, Norway’s population is about 3% Muslim, but Pew estimates that share to grow to over 6% by 2030, giving Norway a projected increase larger than all European countries but Ireland and Finland. While these changes are small, they pose important social, economic, cultural, and political challenges, in particular because the Muslim population tends to be both younger and poorer than other Europeans (further complicating already bitter debates about the ongoing viability of the welfare state and how to respond to the Great Recession).

But such data point to nothing remotely like “Eurabia.” And, at least at this moment in history, “powerful” or “privileged” are not the first words that would come to mind in describing Europe’s Muslim minority. Quite the contrary. According to surveys conducted by the left-wing Open Society Foundation, one out of three European Muslims has experienced discrimination, most often in relation to employment (or lack thereof).

Muslim Frenchwomen on the Champs-Elysées
Muslim Frenchwomen on the Champs-Elysées - Creative Commons (zoetnet)

And several recent developments in western European politics seem to indicate that more mainstream politicians have adapted the far right’s long-practiced tactics of anti-immigrant scapegoating and anti-Islamic fear-mongering. In addition to the widely-criticized (by Christian churches, among others) French law forbidding Muslim women from wearing the burqa or niqab in public (which went into effect this past spring with relatively little protest or actual enforcement, hardly surprising given the tiny number of Frenchwomen who wear such garments), a majority (57.5%) of Swiss voters in November 2009 approved a ban on the construction of any new minarets. Only four already existed. Critics of the ban noted that, in their pre-vote advertising, supporters deployed the minaret as an image that simultaneously conjured fears of terrorism (the minaret as missile) and of Muslim population explosion (the minaret as… well, this is a family blog). (Click through to this 2009 article from the German magazine Der Spiegel to judge for yourself; a woman with a veiled face also gets caricatured.)

Center-right parties across Europe have become more and more prone to endorsing such measures (or, at least, engaging in such demagoguery), though, as the Wall Street Journal noted, “Norway’s oil wealth and relatively open society seem to have blunted such forces.” Unlike Sweden and Denmark, the country has no mainstream party occupying a position on the far right, and Breivik broke away from supporting the populist Progress Party, which denounced the bombing and island killings as “horrible and cowardly attacks…contrary to the principles and values underpinning the Norwegian society.”

Ironically, initial reactions to the tragedy raised the specter of Islamist terrorism, since other European countries have been targeted by Al-Qaida and similar groups in the years since 9/11. Indeed, some analysts had earlier suggested that “Muslim bashing” by European politicians invited further such attacks. (Though it’s also been observed that terrorism in Europe, until very recently, was perpetrated far more often by European ethnic separatists — e.g., the Basque ETA, the Corsican FLNC — than by foreign or immigrant Islamists.) More common was the hypothesis suggested by Kristin Sundt, pastor of Minneapolis’ Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church, who was paraphrased in Saturday’s Star Tribune as saying that “Norway’s participation in [the] NATO bombing of Libya may have made it a terrorist target,” though the reporter prudently added, “even though links to Islamic terrorists weren’t clear Friday.”

The pastor was on the right track, but didn’t look back quite far enough in European history to draw the correct conclusion. According to CNN’s summary of the 2083 manifesto, Breivik “was moved to action dating to ‘my government’s involvement’ in NATO’s 1999 strikes during the Kosovo campaign, claiming this wrongly targeted ‘our Serbian brothers [who] wanted to drive Islam out by deporting the Albanian Muslims back to Albania.'”

"Battle of Kosovo" film poster
Poster for the Yugoslav film "The Battle of Kosovo," which premiered in 1989, the 600th anniversary of the actual battle - Wikimedia

Elsewhere in the document, he professed a desire to meet Radovan Karadzic (the former Bosnian Serb general accused of war crimes against Bosnian Muslims and Croats), contending that “for his efforts to rid Serbia of Islam he will always be considered and remembered as an honourable Crusader and a European war hero.”

This characterization of a man who ordered the massacre of over 8000 Muslims at Srebrenica feeds back into the “Gates of Vienna” narrative, which (like Serbian nationalist historiography) celebrates the 1389 Battle of Kosovo as marking the Serbian defense of Christendom against a renewed Muslim push to conquer Europe (so that line of interpretation goes, at least). And, of course, Breivik styled himself a modern-day Knight Templar, after the crusading order that fought Turkish and Egyptian Muslims in the 12th and 13th centuries.

If I can get to it, later in the week I’ll do my best to situate Breivik’s hostility towards “multiculturalism” and “cultural Marxists” in the context of modern European history.

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