7-26-2011By Joëlle Fiss
Senior Associate, Fighting Discrimination Program
The mass killings targeting young teenagers in Norway have sent shockwaves of horror around the globe. No wonder. The alleged murderer Anders Behring Breivik—while pleading not guilty—has admitted to killing 76 people—who he believes promoted “multiculturalism” and enabled “the ongoing Islamic colonization of Europe.” As more information trickles in, notably through the analysis of his 1,500 page testament, we also learn that this self-proclaimed Christian nationalist was inspired to recreate a Knights Templar in Europe to fight a holy war against Islam.
Norway is hardly a country that grabs media headlines on interethnic or religious tensions, extreme right-wing fundamentalism, Islamophobia, or hate speech. The country prides itself for being open. Anti-immigrant populism is less visible than in other parts of Western Europe. In fact, it is only in the past few decades that Norway became a more multicultural society, with immigrant population estimated at half a million or 11-12 percent. Many thought the Norwegian police had right-wing movements under control and political violence was low. Furthermore, hate crimes are relatively infrequent in comparison to other Western states.
The unlikelihood of this sudden bloodshed should raise alarm bells for all of us. Hatred can erupt into violence at any given moment—when and where you least expect it. That is why it is so important for governments to make sure that they are well prepared to prevent hatred from spiraling out of control, and to adequately respond to them if they occur.
Human Rights First’s Ten-Point Plan for Combating Hate Crimes calls on governments to take concrete steps to combat hate-motivated violence. One of them is to consistently speak out against intolerance and bigotry. Norway should be proud of its nationwide reaction to the tragedy. Its top leaders, as well as the young victims—still trembling from the shock on television—all spoke up for unity, multiculturalism, and democracy.Today, the killer in Norway is said to have been inspired by the hateful discourse of anti-Muslim bloggers in the US, as well as Islamophobic right-wing activists in Europe and the U.S. It remains to be seen if he acted alone. International cooperation should be encouraged to jointly investigate that. Already, the Polish security services established where Breivik bought the chemicals for his bomb, and the British police are investigating the possibility of Breivik’s ties to hate groups off the continent.
It’s important to remember that hate speech can go beyond poisoning a public debate: it can genuinely hurt and weaken the sense of security of the targeted group. Human Rights First has come up with guidelines on How to Confront Hatred Without Restricting Freedom of Expression. We urge governments to conduct outreach and education efforts to communities and civil society groups, working to reduce fear and assist victims. In this respect, the U.S. and European governments would do well to reach out across political party lines and condemn virulent hate speech against Muslims that occurs more and more frequently.
The irrational fear of Muslims that dominated Breivik’s ideology led to the massacre in Norway. It should not be disregarded as a purely European phenomenon. In recent years, American anti-Muslim activists have also gained ground in some circles, including those who exploit American’s fears of Islamic extremism. It’s a worthy time to note that in 2009, the Department of Homeland Security reported on “Right-wing Extremism” which suggested how violence could stem from white supremacist groups residing in the U.S. The report was widely attacked and hurriedly withdrawn. Let’s not forget that hatred can come from all sides of the spectrum, and they are all equally important to fight.