White supremacist murderers' conspiracy theories have entered mainstream European politics – Professor Nasar Meer
Tackling hatred in our societies is a pressing challenge, and one more important that the recent politicking over the Hate Crime and Public Order Bill might suggest.
For, as we approach decade since Norway, a small and prosperous northern European country, witnessed the deadliest mass shooting by a lone perpetrator in modern history, societies around the world have struggled to learn its lessons.
Anders Behring Breivik’s murderous rampage at a summer camp held by the youth wing of the Norwegian Labour Party on the island of Utoya, not far from Oslo, killed 69 young people and a further 18 people in the coordinated bomb attacks on the mainland. Many others were left maimed and injured.
Breivik’s main targets were what he called “multiculturalists and cultural Marxists”, gunned down for undermining his vision of a white Christian Europe. “As we all know”, he wrote in his manifesto shared online before the attacks, “the root of Europe’s problems is the lack of cultural self-confidence and nationalism.”
Today on Utoya, mounted on a wall as you approach the former cafe, hangs a chilling time line. Counting not years, months or even weeks, this time-line details in minutes and seconds the final anxious text messages between children on the island and their parents on the Norwegian mainland.
The timeline rests amongst a number of buildings preserved to commemorate the victims, by turning the space into a teaching and learning centre to support anti-racism work in Norway and beyond.
Having worked with anti-racism activists there, taking the same ferry as Brevik to cross the short stretch of water, and treading the same ground in the climb up to cafe, I can only testify to the impression it leaves.
The success of the commemoration is matched by the broader failure to heed its warning.
The events that took place on Utoya, and what has happened subsequently in white supremacist attacks in places including Christchurch, San Diego, Hanau and elsewhere in recent years, are intimately related, not only to each other but to the ways white supremacy has become increasingly normalised in liberal democracies.
The University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD) recently reported a 320 per cent increase in far-right terrorism in the West between 2013 and 2018, and earlier this year Germany’s justice minister Christine Lambrecht stated that “far-right terror is the biggest threat to our democracy right now”.
The transnational connection here is key.
Brenton Tarrant, the Australian who gunned down 51 adults and children during Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand, chalked Brevik’s name on his weapons and live-streamed his attack to many of Brevik’s Facebook followers.
Tarrant also made prominent on his weapons the insignia “14 WORDS” – referencing the “white genocide” motto propagated by David Lane (a neo-Nazi who died in a US prison in 2007): “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
Adopted by supporters of the 45th President of the United States, in Charlottesville, Virginia, 14 words was rendered down to five in the slogan “you will not replace us”.
In this respect Brevik, Tarrant and others are not lone wolves but practitioners of a lethal ideology where non-whites, especially Muslims, are seen as invaders, intent on replacing the white majority in Europe and the West more broadly through a numerical challenge, political subversion and cultural domination.
Europe has its own version of this ‘replacement’ theory in the French writer Renaud Camus whose 2012 book Le grand replacement (The Great Replacement) has found immense traction in many countries, and is the flagstone of transnational organisation Generation Identity, which is active on many UK university campuses.
The simple thesis is that Europeans are threatened with “replacement” by “non-Europeans” – just as the manifesto’s of Brevik and Tarrant maintained.
What is so harrowing is that this conspiracy theory is foundational to the public discourse of political parties who are now part of the mainstream in European politics, including some who hold office in national, regional or local government.
This includes the Freedom Party of Austria, the French National Front (renamed National Rally), the Sweden Democrats, Fidesz in Hungary, Finns Party, the Danish People’s Party, Italy’s Lega Nord, the New Flemish Alliance in Belgium, and the AfD in Germany.
Such electoral success offers case studies in how racism has been made normal, aided and abetted by political commentators who draw from a common well. We can see this in the frequent discussion of ‘populism’ as a legitimate response to racial diversity, seeming reasonable that it should give majority-white populations an explanation of inequality, hardship or simply the changing nature of their societies – much of which has nothing to do with migration.
Just as on Utoya, those who make a virtue of these arguments traffic in ideas of racial hierarchy and blame systemic failures on minority communities. They revise history to pit the ‘left behind’ against minorities, or tell us that racism is in fact caused by migration.
If Utoya taught us one thing, it is that there is not a normal, reasonable amount of white supremacy that should be accommodated, a lesson I fear that we are failing to learn.
On 16 September, Nasar Meer, professor of race, identity and citizenship at Edinburgh University, will give a public address in the Edinburgh Race Lecture series, entitled “After Utoya – Sifting the wreckage of white supremacy”
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