26 July 2011

Rebellion Against Pluralism

If we are to make sense of the horrific terror attack that shook Norway this past Friday, we must try to place it in the context of recent European politics. That context, in turn, points to one fact more than any other: over the last decade, Europeans have grown increasingly obsessed with the threat supposedly posed by foreigners, immigrants, and Muslims.

All over the continent, far-right parties have been celebrating remarkable successes. Establishment politicians, once keen to display their enlightened attitudes towards outsiders, have honed their populist rhetoric against foreigners. Books about the doom that would ensue if ethnic Europeans should become minorities in their own countries—like Germany Does Away with Itself, Thilo Sarrazin’s runaway success last year—have topped bestseller lists week in and week out.

Naturally, some commentators have expressed concern about these developments. But both in newsrooms and on the streets they mostly have been decried as fools whose obsession with multiculturalism is a naïve remnant of a more innocent era. Nothing wrong with their good intentions, Europeans of all nationalities and social strata intone, but they are sadly inapplicable to the 21st century, when islamofascism in general, and hordes of unwashed Muslims in particular, are threatening the European way of life.

Anders Behring Breivik, who has admitted responsibility for the death of seventy six innocents, is undoubtedly a madman. But madmen can be spurred on by anything in their environment they are able to construe as legitimation or encouragement—and, in recent years, there was plenty of that to go around in Europe.


It is alarming that Breivik fed on ideas that are now fairly mainstream in Europe. Remarkably, he does not hail from the hard core of Scandinavia’s neo-Nazi movement. Even when he did post on Nordisk, a neo-Nazi internet forum run out of Sweden, he was careful to call himself a conservative nationalist.

Nor is Breivik, as media reports at first suggested, a religious fundamentalist. Though he at times donned the cloak of Christianity as an easy way to explain why Muslims should be driven out of Europe, he has also admitted to not being a very religious man.

Instead, Breivik’s extremismis rooted in the recent backlash against the supposed threat to Europe’s identity. He doesn’t want to turn Norway into a Christian theocracy. Nor does he long for the heroes of fascism. On the contrary, he simply hopes to roll back the changes that have taken place in Europe in recent decades to return to some imagined idyll of what secular, democratic, mono-ethnic Europe was like in the postwar era. Worryingly, that is an aspiration many Europeans share.


Domestic terrorism has long haunted Europe. But Breivik is a new kind of domestic terrorist. Never before has somebody murdered on such a horrific scale with his particular cause in mind. That doesn’t mean, though, that others might not try to follow his lead.

In the 1970s, the RAF and other left-wing terror groups proved remarkably difficult to dismantle thanks to their large support networks. A majority of the population was horrified by their attacks, of course. But there were also many ordinary citizens who agreed that some form of urban guerilla movement against capitalism was necessary.

Today, populist, anti-Muslim terror groups might be able to draw on a similarly large support network. Ordinary Europeans, even most xenophobic or Islamophobic ones, do not support violence. But the animus against the outsiders in their midst is virulent and widespread enough that a substantial minority might well conclude that an urban guerilla movement is the last best hope to restore the untroubled, mono-ethnic democracies of yore. A populist terror movement with material and ideological backup from such accomplices might prove as resilient as the RAF once was.


One aspect of the attack that has so far been greeted with silence is that it was a targeted attack on Europe’s left. Breivik did not choose to kill immigrants or torch mosques. (If he had, then the apostles of the populist backlash might sadly have been more forthcoming in their support.) Instead, he attacked the offices of Norway’s left-wing Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and went on a rampage against teenage supporters of the country’s Labour Party.

Questioned by the police on Monday, Breivik explained these at first sight baffling targets by blaming Labour for allowing Muslims to immigrate to Norway and for advocating multiculturalism. For Breivik, the greatest threat to Europe may come from the outside—but the responsibility for the continent’s current woes lies within.

The leaders of Europe’s left urgently have to decide how to respond to this charge, which in more polite terms has long filled the pages of the continent’s tabloids. Will they say loud and clear that different races and cultures can—and, for lack of a viable alternative, will have to—coexist? Or will they accompany their easy condemnations of Breivik with sly insinuations that it is the Muslim immigrants themselves who are truly to blame for rising ethnic tensions?

If the last years are anything to go by, Europe’s left may well make the ignominious latter choice. It is telling, for example, that the leaders of the German Social Democrats, after initially seeking to expel Sarrazin for his stating his opinion that Germans are genetically predestined to be more intelligent than Turks, meekly allowed him to remain a party member.

Shamefully, then, it is not clear which road the left will take. On the one hand, they find Breivik’s ideas despicable. On the other, they are terrified of losing the good will of their own voters if they stand up against racism and xenophobia. In the end, cowardice may well beat out responsibility.


If the left is at a loss as to its own position, part of the reason lies in the continent-wide confusion about multiculturalism. At least since Angela Merkel and David Cameron loudly rejected multiculturalism in dueling speeches in the past year, the term has become a useful shorthand for everyting the populists don’t like: Islam and any kind of extra-European immigration, of course; but also the loss of cultural traditions, the EU’s encroachment on national sovereignty, and even certain forms of cultural relativism.

That all of these rather diverse grievances conveniently can be attacked under one label is in the interest of the populists. But Europe’s left only has itself to blame for allowing its position on multiculturalism to be caricatured in this manner. After all, its own pronouncements on the topic have long been insufficiently nuanced.

In the heyday of left-wing support for multiculturalism, the majority of left-wingers rather sensibly argued that a peaceful coexistence between natives and immigrants was possible. An influx of foreign cultures could enrich Europe. Integration would be a two-way street, in which Europeans would learn to appreciate immigrant cultures, even as immigrants came to accept Europe’s political values and legal systems.

At the same time, a small yet vocal minority conceived of multiculturalism as a much more radical project. They saw it not as an attempt to embark on a pluralistic, multiethnic future but rather as a way to expiate their countries’ past sins—colonialism, complicity with the Nazis, the holocaust, as the case may be—by affirming that all political positions and belief systems are equally reasonable.

From the outset, multiculturalism was thus an ambiguous concept. It referred both to what in a liberal democracy should be self-evident (that people of different cultures and ethnicities can be full citizens of the same polity) and to what in a liberal democracy should be beyond the pale (the thought that intolerance, religious fundamentalism, and dictatorship are on a par with freedom and human rights).

The populist right, latching onto the crazy interpretation of multiculturalism, cleverly began to attack it for being a form of national self-abnegation. Then it went on to draw the unwarranted conclusion that everything associated with multiculturalism—including even the essential liberal-democratic ideal that the state should not have preferences in questions of race or relgion—is deeply misguided.

The left, meanwhile, has been throwing out the baby with the bathwater. After having tolerated a pernicious form of cultural relativism under the banner of multiculturalism, it now refuses to defend anything at all that the populist right chooses to associate with multiculturalism. If we want to keep our jobs, hundreds of scared left-wing parliamentarians whisper to each other in the beleaguered halls of power, we had better shut up about our commitment to ethnic pluralism and religious tolerance . . .


Jens Stoltenberg, Norway’s prime minister, found moving words in the immediate aftermath of the attacks: “You will not destroy us. You will not destroy our democracy or our ideals for a better world.”

He issued that rallying cry when most people still assumed that an Islamist group had laid the massive bomb that detonated in Oslo’s government district. Though we now know that a domestic terrorist is responsible for the worst loss of life in Norway since 1945, that doesn’t diminish the aptness of his words.

Stoltenberg was right to say that we have to defend our ideals—democracy, human rights, and a firm opposition to all forms of racism—against anyone who tries to destroy them. That certainly includes al Qaeda. But it also includes the dangerous populists in our own midst.

Over the last year, conservative politicians like Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, and David Cameron have exploited the populist backlash for electoral gain. It now seems that in doing so they have inadvertently given some degree of ideological cover to madmen like Breivik. We should recognize his actions as a desperate warning sign. If politicians on the right don’t tone down their attacks on pluralism–and if politicians on the left don’t step up to defend their beliefs–they will only embolden a terror movement with the potential to tear European democracies asunder.

The threats to our ideals for a better world don’t just emanate from Yemen or Pakistan; they are also to be found in the Bundestag, the Assemblée Nationale, and the House of Commons. Even there, these threats do not only come from loud speeches on the right side of the house; sadly, they are also constituted by the even louder silence on the left.

Image: Smoke rises from buildings in Oslo, July 22, 2011. From detnews.com.

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  • Yascha Mounk
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