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Breivik and the problem of ideology


From ‘evil’ Muslim, to ‘mad’ Christian, to ‘bad’ racist – problems with public discourses on Anders Breivik.

The terrible events in Norway have shifted, if perhaps only temporarily, the attention of the media and policy makers from Islamist-related extremism to Far-Right extremism. However, the assumptions made about the motivating ideology of the attacks raise a number of important issues that need to be considered more broadly in thinking about extremism. This article seeks to highlight some of these assumptions and their related problems, as well as pointing the reader to some of the useful academic research in the field. It is based on some of the early information coming out of the attacks and is intended as an early response to these issues, not a definitive statement of fact.

Different preconceptions about how certain ideologies motivate violent actions (or are more likely to do so) were hinted at in the Guardian and Dr Chris Allen in an opinion piece also pointed to the original false assumptions that it was an Islamist attack, before moving onto discuss how Far-Right extremism has been largely ignored. Dr Allen has written extensively about Islamophobia and would be a useful starting point for readers interested in understanding more about this issue, a theme that might shed light on some of the influences on Breivik’s writings.

These preconceptions were highlighted by the erroneous assumption, made early on by some American news outlets, that the attacks were the result of Islamist groups. At this stage expressions of disgust were directed at the ‘evil’ actors who carried out these attacks. However, the assumptions then shifted to the idea that Breivik was a Christian fundamentalist. Notwithstanding that this assumption has been broadly dismissed now, see this article by Massimo Introvigne at CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions) for why it seems unlikely that Breivik would have identified himself as a Christian fundamentalist. What is interesting to note, however, was that whilst it was assumed that his motivation was a form of Christianity, the normative labels shifted from ‘evil’ to ‘mad’.

The assumption behind this is, I would argue, because whilst many Western commentators are used to thinking of Islam as an ideology that is easily capable of legitimating violence, Christianity is generally thought of as a peaceful religion. Both these assumptions are deeply problematic and are representative of Western-centric discourses that have constructed positive assumptions about Christianity and negative assumptions about Islam.

To read more about the negative assumptions about Muslim communities, see a recent report written by researchers at London Metropolitan University (Hickman et al, 2011) into how Muslim communities are constructed as ‘suspect’ in similar ways to how Irish communities were thought of during the ‘Irish troubles’ (Hillyard, 1993). In countering the idea that Christian ideologies are not (or no longer) capable of legitimating violence, see Juergensmeyer’s (2003: 19-43) research into the Reformation Lutheran Church and its involvement with bombings of abortion clinics.

The result of these preconceptions is that it is assumed that if a Christian acts violently, it must be due to a mental deficiency, not as a result of some identifiable Christian ideology. However, the identification of Breivik as a fundamentalist Christian in the media only persisted for a short time, after which the focus shifted to his political beliefs and where they related to secular party ideologies, such as those of the English Defence League (EDL).

In an interview on the BBC programme Newsnight (25th July, 2011), the leader of the EDL was keen to point out that whilst they shared ideological elements with Breivik, they would never act violently (an assertion repeated on their website). Breivik was not a racist, the argument goes, he was a bad racist (not withstanding that the EDL would not label themselves as ‘racist’). The move to violence from non-violent Far-Right beliefs to violent Far-Right beliefs is an under-researched area, but one that could arguably be enriched by thinking outside of labels assigned to movements (‘extremist’; ‘Islamist’; ‘Far-Right’, etc.) to thinking about the specific beliefs, in particular those non-negotiable beliefs, which can be seen to motivate violent responses. In this area, research such as that by Francis and Knott (2011), whilst in this case concentrating on the responses to the Rushdie controversy, nevertheless suggest a way of thinking outside of religious/secular boundaries and instead focusing on the role that non-negotiable beliefs play in confrontations between groups.

Beyond this thesis, there is plenty of data relating to the broader appeal of Far-Right ideologies. For example, we are able to speak with greater confidence about the growth of popularity of Far-Right political parties as part of the development of a post-materialist spectrum in Western politics, see Cole (2005) for a brief summary and findings based on party manifestoes. However, this does not completely discount ‘old political’ economic indicators, as we see in Borisyuk et al (2007) who point to job status and educational attainment as significant variables in determining likelihood for voting for Far-Right (BNP) as opposed to Right-wing (UKIP) parties.

Understanding broader issues relating to support for Far-Right parties does not in itself help us understand whether this growing support could lead to more Breivik-style attacks. Certainly there is a common perception that lone-wolf attacks are emblematic of the Far-Right strategy (within violent movements) of resistance and on this topic, Chermak et al (2010) look at perceptions of risk by 50 state police agencies in the United States, in particular looking at the risk posed by lone-wolf, Far-Right criminality and the potential for Far-Right/Islamic Jihadist collaboration. In focusing on this area, they note that the Far-Right movement has discussed the strategic use of lone-wolf attacks since the 1960s and have shifted tactics to reflect this since the 1980s in order to protect leaders from infiltration by law agencies. They point to data from the US Extremist Crime Database that since 1990 there were over 4000 criminal events related to Far-Right supporters, including over 300 homicide incidents involving more than 550 homicide victims (over 375 if the Oklahoma City bombing is not included). They also draw attention to, as an example, high-profile attacks in 2009, which included 3 police officers killed in Pittsburgh, 2 in Florida, a security guard in Washington DC and an abortion provider in Kansas all by lone-wolf Far-Fight extremists.

However, it is too easy to pigeon-hole Far-Right violent crime as a unique kind of event typified by lone-wolf actors and this common assumption could lead to a failure to properly tackle Far-Right crime. Challenging the kind of assumptions laid out by Chermak et al, Gruenewald (2011) compares data on Far-Right homicides with more common forms of homicide and finds that there are surprisingly little differences in terms of weapons used (rebutting the assumption that in general Far-Right extremists prefer the use of firearms) and familiarity of victims, for example. He also points out that a distinction should be made between actuarial and symbolic hate crimes – as a significant number of Far-Right crimes seem to include a ‘for-profit’ element, even if targets are selected along ideological lines. His findings contradict the common wisdom that Far-Right crime is generally perpetuated by ‘mission offenders’ (out to purify the world through removal of racial, religious and sexual-orientation minorities). He also suggests that more research on past criminality of Far-Right offenders would shed more light on pathways to violence. On the debate about whether lone wolves are a significant threat to the West it might also be useful to draw on a discussion about lone wolves in relation to Islamist threats, in particular note that Sageman’s 2008 (Leaderless Jihad) influential account suggests that contemporary attacks no longer seek direction and training from central al Qaeda command, whilst Hoffman and, more recently Klausen disagree. Klausen points to a large body of data relating to UK Islamist plots in which she points out to clear links to central al Qaeda structures, thus undermining the Islamist lone wolf theory. Comments about the relative strategy and difficulty of undertaking lone wolf attacks are discussed in these works.

These contradictory accounts that I focused on above (but note that the Chermak et al data-set was drawn from perceptions of risk, albeit by law-enforcement professionals) form part of a growing body of literature seeking to understand the nature and potential of Far-Right violence. Further considerations must include the problem of assigning any kind of ideological label at all to attackers such as Breivik. For example, as with David Copeland – the London nailbomber – there is a mix of ideological influences on Breivik, but little clear in-depth participation with any one particular group. As was also the case with Copeland, a lot of the future debate will undoubtedly centre on whether Breivik is insane or not (and whether he is insane enough not to legally be held to account for his actions). Certainly some of the comments coming out of the police interrogations suggest that identifying his ideas with any particular ideology, including Far-Right ideologies, should be undertaken with caution.

This article is an early discussion piece. It is intended to invite comment as well as highlight problems within some of the debates currently taking place in the media. If you would like to suggest research relevant to this field, or submit a reaction to this article, please email the Editor, Matthew Francis, at [email protected]  In the meantime, we will continue to add relevant research to the site to aid visitors to understand more about the issues mentioned in this article.

Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Dr Matthew Francis, and not of  Dr Francis recently completed a PhD in understanding the move to violence in religious and non-religious groups and in addition to editing this site is also a Researcher at the Religious Literacy Leadership Programme based at Goldsmiths.

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