The terror of Oslo and Utøya has given us Norwegians a shared trauma that will stay with us for ever. We are also bonded by our sympathy for the survivors, and the family and friends of the 77 people killed last July. In the aftermath of the attack we gathered in marches and public displays of sorrow.
But I fear this response differs little from how we would have reacted to a natural disaster or a fatal accident of the same dimensions. As the trial against self-confessed killer Anders Behring Breivik starts, Norwegian politics seems to be back to normal. Though Behring Breivik’s deeds, trial and psyche totally dominate the national media, we seem to be shying away from the political matters close to the terrorist’s heart.
This winter Norway signed an agreement to return young asylum seekers to Ethiopia. These children have lived all their lives in our country, they speak Norwegian and go to Norwegian schools. A coalition of organisations tried to stop this forced return to an unstable dictatorship, but the deportations seem likely to begin. The love that should be the answer to Behring Breivik’s hatred has not extended to these children, nor to Palestinians, Kurds or other refugees.
In the same manner, the debate on Islam and Islamophobia has hardened rather than softened after 22/7. In the aftermath of the killings, some anti-Islamic organisations and websites showed remorse, but that phase passed, and now the venom is even stronger.
Those who insist that Islam poses a threat to Europeans and Norwegians, and claim the past 1,500 years is a story of a never-ending clash between a Christian civilisation and Islamic barbary, are just as insistent as before. Instead of opening a door to decent debate, the terror has cemented divisions. Both rightwing politicians, and anti-islamic webpages sites like document.no has after some months of afterthought return to business as usual. Norwegian newspapers still have to shut down their web debates due to verbal abuse every time an article or comment on Islam or immigration is published.
Both these subjectsgo to the core of Behring Breivik’s ideology. And even though many words have been used to declare how 22/7 has and will change Norway, it is still exactly the same people who oppose the inhumanity of our immigration policies, and the same rightwingers who criticise anything that looks like “giving in to Islam”. Alongside this, the Islamophobes object to claims that they have something in common with Behring Breivik, and they are now fighting even harder to defend their paranoia.
After the attack, prime minister Stoltenberg stated that Norway’s response would be more democracy and more openness. Politicians of all parties joined him in a declaration that the elections last September would be the nation’s answer to the terror. People should turn up and vote to defend democracy. But the count showed no significant growth in turnout.
The debate and discourse on the terror of 22/7 is more and more focused on details: of the act itself, of the mistakes of the police and government and, most of all, of Behring Breivik’s biography. We are looking so intensely into the eyes of the terrorist that we are becoming blind. We know all his guns, his suits and uniforms, his family and friends. He is becoming a celebrity, an icon of evil. But we close our eyes to the fact that Behring Breivik’s worldview is shared by many all over Europe.
The collective disgust for his acts is not matched by the same unanimous disgust for his motives. On YouTube, underneath the BBC’s September documentary on 22/7, you can read comments such as the following, by people who claim to be Norwegian: “this what happens when you destroy once a peacuful nation like norway when you bring muslims , africans and 3rd world scum”.
The Norwegian prime minister, and many with him, said we should not let the terrorist change us. We have succeeded to the extent that debating Behring Breivik’s connection to contemporary political life has become taboo. I believe we should change after Utøya. We should reconsider the most serious question of them all: how do we deal with a future where people of different religions and cultures live side by side in Europe? And how do we deal with the ideology that tells us this is impossible? We need to poison the soil that Behring Breivik grew from.
This is what is at stake during Behring Breivik’s trial: more than his punishment, it is how we will understand 22/7. What will our children read in their textbooks in 15 years’ time? Will it be seen as the mad act of Behring Breivik alone, or as the product of a growing Islamophobia and political hatred? The conclusion will follow us for generations.
Aslak Sira Myhre is the director of the House of Literature in Oslo, an author and the former leader of the Red Electoral Alliance.