It is tempting to view Anders Behring Breivik, the self-described Christian crusader behind the July 22 massacre in Norway, as an isolated case of pure evil. Yet history has taught us that such acts of violence rarely occur independent of their social and cultural surroundings. The assassination of Sweden’s prime minister, Olof Palme, on a Stockholm street in 1986, like the January shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords outside a shopping mall in Arizona, took place at a time when caustic antigovernment rhetoric was widespread.
Mr. Breivik managed to commit two terrorist attacks in a single afternoon. But the hatred and contempt from which he drew his deranged determination were shared with many others throughout the international right-wing blogosphere.
The racism and bigotry that have simmered for years on anti-Islamic and anti-immigration Web sites in Norway and other European countries and in the United States made it possible for him to believe he was acting on behalf of a community that would thank him. As John Donne famously put it, “No man is an island … every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
Norway’s security police had estimated that only a small number of Norwegians belonged to domestic right-wing extremist groups in 2010 and that they did not pose a security threat — an estimate that clearly has turned out to be erroneous. There may be only a few known members of ragged and powerless white-power groups, but the thousands of right-wing extremists who don’t belong to recognized groups are harder to pin down.
The global Islamophobic blogosphere consists of loosely connected networks of people — including students, civil servants, capitalists, and neo-Nazis. Many do not even see themselves as “right-wing,” but as defenders of enlightened values, including feminism.
The Islamophobes of Norway have no manifesto, but they share three fundamental views: that Norway is in the hands of a treacherous, spineless, politically correct elite that has betrayed the pure spirit of Norwegian culture by permitting demographic contamination; that Muslims will never be truly integrated (even if they pretend to be); and that there is a Muslim conspiracy to gain political dominance across Europe.
Hatred of Muslims and resentment of the left — one of us has repeatedly received resentful diatribes against the “multiculturalist elite,” and was mentioned in Mr. Breivik’s own writings — is not confined to Norway. Mr. Breivik has praised Gates of Vienna, a Web site that compares contemporary Europe to long-ago wars with the Ottomans. He has praised writers like Bruce Bawer, the American author of “While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within,” and Bat Ye’Or, the pseudonym for the British author of the conspiratorial “Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis.” He is an enthusiastic reader of the virulently anti-Islamic blog of Pamela Geller, an American who leads the group “Stop Islamization of America” and gained notoriety for her opposition to an Islamic center near ground zero in Manhattan.
Europe’s new right is, in other words, not neo-Nazi; it has swapped anti-Semitism for Islamophobia. After a hiatus of several hundred years, fear of Islam reemerged around 1989, as the Cold War was ending and Iranian mullahs issued a fatwa against the British writer Salman Rushdie. It gained popularity as increasing numbers of Muslims entered Europe as immigrants in the 1990s, and became widespread in the aftermath of 9/11. Traditional racism may actually be waning in several European countries, but hostility toward Islam and animosity toward Muslim immigrants and their children is on the rise.
Norwegian society is changing, and rapid immigration has no doubt led to tensions. In a country of under 5 million people, the number of immigrants and their children has doubled to over 550,000 in the last 15 years. Many of them are Poles and Swedes seeking work, and their presence is uncontroversial. Others have arrived as refugees and asylum-seekers from countries like Somalia, Iraq and Bosnia. And a substantial number have come to Norway to join relatives or spouses already in the country. About 200,000 — including more than 30,000 Pakistanis — have roots in Muslim countries.
Because of our healthy economy, fueled by North Sea oil, controversies over immigration tend to concern culture rather than economics. The perception that immigrants are patriarchal and insular has sparked controversies over everything from school excursions to swimming lessons to disrespect for female teachers. Yet many “new Norwegians” fully participate in society. Indeed, some of them were at work in the government buildings destroyed last week; others were taking part in the Utoya summer camp.
Conceding that a culturally diverse society raises knotty and complex social and political questions is one thing. It is quite another to state that a multicultural society is impossible, or that Islam is incompatible with democracy. Yet the blogosphere to which Mr. Breivik belonged took these views as a basic premise.
It is too early to tell if anything positive can emerge from this tragedy. In the upcoming elections, Norway’s Labor Party will likely receive many sympathy votes and the right could be adversely affected by its associations with Islamophobia. In the long run, the situation is less certain. In other Scandinavian countries, Social Democrats have been pushed to the right by anti-immigration parties. We hope that Norway’s longstanding consensus about immigration and integration policies will not be eroded.
Until last week, Norwegian authorities did not see the far right as a security threat. Mr. Breivik has now shown that those who claim to protect the next generation of Norwegians against Islamist extremism are, in fact, the greater menace.
Jostein Gaarder, the author of Sophie’s World and many other books and Thomas Hylland Eriksen, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo.