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The Breivik Atrocity – A False Trail of Fear

July 30, 2011

So what’s been going on in the past month since I entered my bubble of learning here in Bahrain? For a month I have had to suspend my usual practice of scouring the local and international media. The BBC website was more or less my only source of news. Now I’m catching up.

The tragedy in Norway was probably the number one story in the Western media. Assassinations in Afghanistan, killings in Karachi and the constant blood-letting in Syria and Libya have taken second place to an event the more shocking to Europeans because it took place in a land of pristine fjords and  quiet social democracy  – a country whose people are not known for their demonstrative nature. One that that has ploughed its own quiet furrow, husbanding its oil wealth and providing its citizens with one of the highest standards of living on the continent.

Blood stands out more on snow and ice than it does on mud and sand.

Commentators have leapt on the Breivik outrage to grind their axes. A few days ago Gavin Hewitt of the BBC in Norway and the Politics of Hate, traced the growth of right-wing militias from the white supremacist gun clubs in the US in the 80s, through to Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber. He warns of a growing threat from those who do not accept the new multicultural face of many European societies.

Here in the Middle East, Ajaz Zaka Sayed, published in Saudi Arabia’s Arab News, asks in Norway killings expose politics of hate whether we are approaching the end of days, and jumps upon the hasty assumption of media commentators  – who should know better – that the acts were the work of Al Qaeda. The comments of CNN’s bombastic Richard Quest seem to have to reinforced Sayed’s pre-existing view that a rising tide of Islamophobia will eventually lead to a the “next great war between Islam and the West”.  He cites large tracts in Breivik’s “manifesto” to claim that the world is ganging up on Muslims.

With all due respect to both commentators, I disagree.

McVeigh’s destruction of a government building in Okahoma City at the cost of over two hundred lives did not spark mass insurrection in the United States as armies of tattoed Nazis waged war on the federal government. It provoked a reaction of horror and disgust across the political spectrum. More recently, so did the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords by another white supremacist with an ingrowing psychosis.

Americans, as I see it, have more to fear from the likes of the Tea Party, who seek to preserve a way of life rather than destroy it, yet threaten what remains of that way of life by their short-sightedness. They are not the spiritual descendants of McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski the Unabomber, whose lone campaign from his shack in the mountains spread fear throughout the USA for over a decade. Some members of the Tea Party, in their desire to return to a reality that never existed, seem prepared to destroy the very edifice through which their country and their families have prospered since World War 2 – the global financial system  – by forcing America into debt default.

It does not seem to occur to them that by bringing the world’s largest economy to its knees, and the hated Barack Obama with it, they risk not only their own welfare, but also that of countless millions across the world.

Back to the apocalyptics who fear war between Islam and the West. If we define this war as a military confrontation on a grand scale, it will not happen, because it would be no contest. Only a fool goes into a war he knows he cannot win. If however we define Sayed’s war as a campaign of attrition, of asymmetric confrontation, you could say that we are in that today, as exemplified by Afghanistan. But  horrific as that confrontation is, it barely registers on a scale of magnitude when set against the great wars of the 20th century.

Sayed speaks of Breivik’s ramblings as the Mein Kampf of our times. To develop that analogy, it is unlikely that in 2011, Hitler would have been able to come to power, let alone do his dirty work without the world knowing about it instantly.

Our fear should not be of an all-encompassing clash of civilisations, but of hundreds of dirty wars, sapping the resources of nations and destroying the lives of those caught up in them. And those wars are as likely to be between Muslims, as in Libya and Pakistan today, as between adherents of different faiths.

As for Islamophobia in Europe and the Western world in general, I don’t see a worsening trend, and I don’t see Breivik as a harbinger of a fascist revival leaving wholesale destruction in its path. Yes, Western anti-terrorist agencies were caught on the hop. But do not doubt that they are as capable of thwarting right wing extremists as they have been in dealing with salafist factions, not to mention the left-wing fringe groups of whom we have heard little outside South America over the past couple of decades. Where are the successors of the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof group?

I may be accused of gross complacency, but in my view, the most likely outcome of Anders Breivik’s demonic act will be yet another extension of the surveillance societies in which most of us now live.

We are coming to realise that the price of freedom from global warfare afforded by the ultimate deterrent is that the tectonic plates of the world order do not shift so abruptly. In place of nuclear conflagration – certainly for the rest of my lifetime – we face the consequences of many small and vicious wars of all complexions. And in those countries spared those wars, sporadic acts of atrocity and revenge, often inspired by the protagonists.

I am convinced that just as modern drugs can contain the worst consequences of HIV, Islamophobia can be contained long enough for the succeeding generations in the West to become comfortable with the person on the next seat on the bus wearing the hijab. Over time, even the timorous minority will no more be threatened by groups of men praying in a mosque than by worshippers in the Baptist church next door.  

But of another thing I am sure. As the fear of one “other” subsides, new fears will take its place, and new “others” will surface. Will the new others be those who control access to rare mineral resources on which our technology depends? Or those who control our water resources? Or our arable land? Over the next twenty or thirty years we will find out. By that time we might be worrying about more potent threats than today’s supposed enemies within.

So let us weep for the victims of a demented Norwegian, but let’s not obsess about the long-term consequences of his act. Although it may not seem that way to Norwegians paralysed with shock and grief, there are other issues that are likely to remain on centre stage for the conceivable future.

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