The Culture War rages on

Maryam Ansari speculates on what the Norway Attacks suggest about the significance of Islamophobia in Western society


The recent attacks in Norway were orchestrated by 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik on 22 July, gaining him widespread international notoriety, particularly for shattering the unblemished peace record the country had sustained over the years. The right-wing extremist carried out two sequential attacks, killing at least 91 people. First, he detonated a bomb near government offices in Oslo, and then carried on to an 80-minute shooting rampage in Utoeya, where the Norwegian Labour Party was holding a youth summer camp for its members.

The colossal manifesto left behind by the killer, which had also been made public online before the attacks, clearly exposed his cause by supplying specific details on his “crusade” against the “Muslim invasion” of Europe. The reason why he targeted Labour was also made apparent, in his rants against “Cultural Marxist” or leftist European governments, which, in his mind, allowed for liberal immigration and multiculturalist policies.

Amongst his greatest influences, he mentioned anti-Islamic writers and bloggers such as Robert Spencer, Bat Ye’or, Pamela Gellar, Koenraad Elst and Daniel Pipes, some of whom have expressed regret for this association, and all of whom deny any responsibility for inspiring Breivik’s actions. And rightly so, as it would indeed be wrong to apportion blame to these people for merely speaking their minds; article 10 of the Human Rights Act grants everyone that right. However, it would also be unwise to exempt them from any blame whatsoever, not for the attacks per se, but rather for their unrestrained Islamophobic ranting. The result of such writing has been not only to construct Islam as the undignified ‘Other’ to the civilized West, an aim which has been arguably achieved, but more significantly as a monolithic, dangerous and warmongering enemy that is out to destroy the West altogether as a result of globalization, which actually works both ways. The widely public images and speeches then, do every now and then, pose a danger of providing certain influence or reassurance to influential or mentally unstable subjects, as Breivik is suspected to be, into carrying out irrational actions.

What the attack truly represented was Islamophobia at its crudest, and at its most uninhibited; a sort of misguided Islamophobia, if you will, for these and other anti-Islamic activists; first in its largely white, Norwegian target, and foremost, in its inconceivable and horrific methods. While abhorring the methods, however, the cause or ideology, no doubt, is these writers’ very own.

It is not just sensationalist bloggers and writers who are responsible for this fear mongering, however. Notions of Islam’s ‘incompatibility’ with the West are also largely present in academia, government politics, and the mainstream media.

It has become so commonplace to see Jihadists as a common enemy of the West that even the press were quick to jump to conclusions in the Norway case and point the finger at “Muslim terrorists” for the attacks. Wall-Street Journal’s first speculation on the attacks erroneously stated, “In Jihadist eyes Norway will forever remain guilty of being a liberal nation”. Later on, when the facts were in, it dealt with the mistake by simply changing the paragraph on its website to say, “We are confident that Norway, like other free societies beset by terror, will respond with courage and resilience”. Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, on the other hand, admitted to her initial error, but was far from apologetic in her tone as she concluded her new post by claiming that “there are many more jihadists than blond Norwegians out to kill Americans, and we should keep our eye on the systemic and far more potent threats that stem from an ideological war with the West.” The New York Times also admitted to their error, justifying it by writing, “There was ample reason for concern that terrorists might be responsible”. The subtle implication here is that the word ‘terrorist’ no longer applies to this case. Much of the Western media’s coverage followed suit after the facts were in by the shift in terminology from ‘Muslim terrorists’ to ‘right-wing extremist’.

The word “Islam”, explains Professor Ivor Gaber from the University of Bedfordshire, has become an “automatic adjective” for the term “terrorism”, due to journalistic responsiveness to dominant news narratives, to which I would also add the media’s general concerns about the selling and readership of sensationalist stories, as another explanation.

Why else would a shocking 70 per cent of Americans have opposed the construction of a Mosque near Ground Zero last year, if not because of the knee-jerk association between Islam and terrorism?

I do not propose censorship or limits to speech. What I do ask of writers, journalists, academics and politicians alike is to proceed with a sense of caution. Like it or not, these are figures which are often trusted or looked up to by society at large. Exercising unrestrained bias in blogs, or worse still, producing faulty speculation rather than factual analysis in respected news outlets, could have grave consequences. The latter should have been learned from the Oklahoma bombings in ´95, where, similarly, Muslims were blamed and accosted for a terrorist attack carried out by a white American, before the latter was confirmed. If not then, again we have the chance to learn it now from the Norway case. But unfortunately, Islamophobia has become so deeply entrenched in Western societies that this looks like an issue we’ll have to face again and again in the years to come.


Maryam Ansari 


Image credit – Khanillion