LONDON/ROME (Reuters) - Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik may have failed to ignite a race war with Muslims, but he succeeded in stoking anxieties about the stability of Europe’s increasingly diverse societies.
Though his talk of an international underground of killers - latter-day Crusaders he called the Knights Templar - seemed to be mere fantasy, and while his methods place him far beyond the pale of mainstream politics, many of his beliefs are to be found within the fold of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant populists.
“His ideological `manifesto’ is a distilled representation of a cultural crisis that pervades the European continent and finds expression in an increasingly xenophobic populism,” Kirsten Simonsen, a professor at Denmark’s Roskilde University, wrote in “Bloodlands”, a 2012 series of essays about Breivik.
Some notions - that Europe and its indigenous cultures are being weakened by immigration and multiculturalism - have been helping reshape the continent’s right-wing politics for years.
These beliefs occasionally find an echo on the margins of centre-right parties, among politicians seeking support from communities plagued by rising unemployment.
Mario Borghezio is a case in point.
The Italian politician set off a storm of outrage after Breivik’s gun and bomb massacre by declaring in a radio interview that its perpetrator had some “excellent” ideas.
Borghezio exemplifies a trend among populist anti-immigration groups - the use of the language of Western counter-terrorist efforts against al Qaeda to pursue what amounts to an anti-Islamic cultural campaign.
Human rights groups are increasingly alarmed, not just at the far right, but at what many see as the pandering to its Islamophobic stereotypes by Europe’s mainstream parties.
“We need our own ‘European Spring’ to overcome old and emerging forms of racism and intolerance,” Nils Muiznieks, the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, a governmental human rights body, wrote in a July 2012 blog.
Muslims, he said, had become the primary “other” in right-wing populist discourse in Europe, and needed to be accepted as an integral part of society, entitled to equality and dignity.
Political parties in Austria, Bulgaria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland had employed anti-Muslim rhetoric for political gain, he said.
Borghezio’s Breivik comment was denounced by his party, the pro-devolution, anti-immigrant Northern League, which apologized to Norway and temporarily suspended Borghezio from their ranks.
The European lawmaker argued the indignant reaction was misplaced, because he strongly condemned Breivik’s violence.
And yet, a year on, he still sees Breivik’s stance on some issues as attractive - particularly a perceived need to prevent Muslim immigration to Europe and combat Islamist extremism.
“Not all the ideas were criminal. It is the man who behaved in a criminal way,” Borghezio told Reuters.
Tough regulation of immigrants, particularly Muslims, was essential, he said. In many mosques in Italy, he said, Muslims in economic difficulty were encouraged by extremist Islamist organizations “to carry out antisocial and illegal acts”.
His comments echo the public position of many in Europe’s far-right networks: a sense that the continent is under threat from Islamic extremists and is being betrayed by a rapacious political elite that values cheap Muslim labor above the economic welfare of its own communities.
Security specialists worry that far-right social media commentary stigmatizing Europe’s Muslims may help push enthusiasts towards militancy, much as al Qaeda propaganda opened pathways to violence for numerous Islamist radicals.
In a 2012 report, European police agency Europol stated the threat of violent right-wing extremism “has reached new levels in Europe and should not be underestimated. The threat will most likely come from lone actors, but organized, underground groups also have the capability and intention to carry out attacks.”
Some argue Breivik might have had more chance of setting off the kind of religious war he imagined if he had targeted Muslims, so as to create a cycle of revenge killings, rather than killing young white Norwegians from the pro-immigration Labour party, which encouraged a rallying behind common values.
On September 3, 2011, six weeks after Breivik’s Utoeya massacre, Stephen Lennon, a leader of the rightist English Defence League, took to a podium in central London and warned against any repeat of the 2005 attacks by British Islamists on London’s transport network that killed 52 people.
“The Islamic community will feel the full force of the English Defence League if we see any of our citizens killed, maimed or hurt on British soil ever again,’ he said.
U.S.-based researcher Arun Kundnani, in a June 2012 paper for the Hague-based International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, asserts that in the past two decades rightist violence in Europe has been comparable to Islamist bloodshed.
By his count, since 1990, at least 249 people had died in incidents of far‐right violence in Europe, compared to 263 who have been killed by jihadist violence.
A 2012 report by a left-wing anti-racist group, Hope Not Hate, identified more than 100 groups it said were part of a so-called counter-jihadist movement promoting anti-Islamic agendas in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia, sharing anti-Islamic commentaries, photos, videos and rock music.
The groups, some of which Breivik quotes from in his manifesto, replaced the old racial nationalist politics of neo-Nazis with the language of cultural wars, Hope Not Hate said.
Immigration is an obsession with such groups.
Fifteen to 20 million Muslims, out of a total population of 500 million, are estimated to live in the 27-member European Union as well as non-EU members Norway and Switzerland.
France, a nation of 60 million people, is home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, estimated at about 5 million. Norway estimates two percent of its 5 million population are Muslims.
A 2011 Pew survey of 50 European countries said the Muslim share of the population was expected to grow from six percent of the region’s people in 2010 to eight in 2030, due in part to higher birth rates among Muslims than non-Muslims.
Breivik argued his 77 victims, mostly teenagers at the ruling Labour Party’s summer camp on Utoeya, deserved to die because they supported Muslim immigration, which he said was adulterating pure Norwegian blood.
In Norway itself, Breivik’s deeds rebounded against the right. The mainstream but anti-immigration Progress Party, briefly joined by Breivik, suffered a huge blow in municipal elections two months after the attack.
But a growing number of opinion surveys show Europeans increasingly receptive to the notion that immigration, especially by Muslims, should be curbed or halted.
A July 2011 Pew Attitudes survey found that, when asked whether Muslims wanted to adopt local customs or stay culturally distinct, majorities of European populations chose the latter answer. A Populus research service poll in 2011 of more than 5,000 people in Britain for the Left-wing Searchlight Educational Trust found deep resentment among a range of communities about immigration.
In June 2012 an Ipsos MORI poll on attitudes to immigration found that in seven out of nine EU member states surveyed the majority regarded immigration as having had a negative impact on their country: Sweden and Poland were the only exceptions.
Mainstream centre-political parties have tried to keep up with the trend, enacting a variety of measures in the social sphere that have sometimes inflamed tensions on the street.
France banned clothing that covers the face in April 2011 and Belgium followed suit in July of the same year, while similar legislation has been proposed in the Netherlands, Italy and some Spanish regions. Switzerland barred the construction of new minarets following a referendum in 2009.
There is a broad European shift away from overt skin-color racism to prejudices about culture and religion shaped in part by the West’s war on al Qaeda.
“The whole focus of far right activity in Europe has shifted from race, the idea that ‘blacks are inferior’, to wider issues of identity,” said Ted Cantle, executive chairman of the Institute of Community Cohesion, a think tank.
Multiculturalism is another bugbear of the far right, which tends to define it as an excessive tolerance of immigrant communities that amounts to Western cultural suicide.
Centre-right politicians who have also questioned multiculturalism and advocated the primacy of Western liberalism in recent years include British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. All did so facing domestic political pressure to take a tougher line on immigrants unwilling to adapt to host cultures.
Another example is Dutch populist Geert Wilders, head of the anti-immigration, anti-euro Freedom Party. Breivik’s manifesto reproduced anti-Islamic comments Wilders made to the Dutch parliament. Wilders has denounced Breivik and his actions.
Pepe Egger, head of Western European Forecasting for the UK-based Exclusive Analysis research house, says some of Breivik’s ideas are held quite widely among European political activists.
“The bizarre thing is that his ideas, as Islamophobic as they are, are almost mainstream in many European countries,” he told Reuters. “The perceived need to defend Europe against ‘Islamisation’ is not that far removed from what you can find in the opinion pieces in large daily newspapers.”
Additional reporting by James Mackenzie in Rome, Sara Webb in Amsterdam, Alistair Scrutton, Anna Ringstrom and Patrick Lannin in Stockholm, Michael Shields and Georgina Prodhan in Vienna, Jana Mlcochova and Jan Lopatka in Prague, Balazs Koranyi in Oslo; editing by Janet McBride