The terrorist tragedy in Norway should spur an urgent Europe-wide debate on the challenge of countering violent extremism, whether domestic or imported.
In fact, the conversation should be global. Europe is not alone in finding it difficult to build – and sustain – societies which embrace diversity. Minorities, including Christians, Hindus and Islamic minority sects, face discrimination and violence in many parts of the Muslim world. Hindu Fundamentalists are a threat to India’s inter-communal peace and harmony.
Events in Norway are a powerful reminder that no country can claim to be safe from terror. Also, in an inter-connected and globalised world, where people, ideas and bombs can move rapidly across borders, extremism cannot be tackled by any one country alone.
Anders Behring Breivik may have been a lone, unhinged, gunman seeped in anti-Islamic sentiments picked up from Islamophobic websites in Europe and in the United States. Let’s not fool ourselves, however: the climate of hate, intolerance and xenophobia propagated by far-right parties is certainly helping create an “enabling” environment for violence by self-appointed “counter-jihadists”.
The poisonous rhetoric of the extreme right is filtering into Western political mainstream. European leaders with their claims that multiculturalism has failed have not helped.
A commentary by Friends of Europe trustees published earlier this year, “An 8-point strategy to revitalize the EU”, underlined the need for EU institutions together with EU member governments to challenge populist parties more forcefully, not pander to them.
“Instead of implicitly accepting the far-right rhetoric against immigrants and multiculturalism, EU political leaders at all levels must develop a convincing counter-narrative to the deceptively simple anti-European rhetoric of the far right, and place closer integration far higher on the political agenda,” the commentary said.
“Europe must continue to be a place which welcomes immigrants who are needed to ensure the sustainability of our welfare systems, and the dynamism of our economies,” it added.
Cecilia Malmstrom, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, is among the small number of EU policymakers who has expressed concern at the rise of far-right parties in Europe and their success in spreading fear of Islam.
“This creates a very negative environment, and sadly there are too few leaders today who stand up for diversity and for the importance of having open, democratic, and tolerant societies where everybody is welcome,” Malmstrom said in a post on her blog.
Ask Sajjad Karim, the British Muslim member of European Parliament who has seen his house surrounded by 40 demonstrators of the English Defence League which says it is against “radical Islam”. The Conservative MEP has said he believes they wanted to intimidate him, his wife and young daughter as they are Muslim, “MEP Sajjad Karim ‘threatened’ over EDL protest by home”.
The EU and the US, among others, are engaged in active discussions on countering radicalization. Their focus, however, is mainly on “Islamist” groups, especially so-called “home-grown” American and European radicals of Muslim descent (or Muslim converts) who risk being recruited by Al Qaeda.
The danger from Al Qaeda remains. However, a stronger focus is required on inconvenient truths which are much too often swept under the carpet: the rise in many parts of the world of groups and organizations which fuel hatred and violence on religious, ethnic and cultural grounds.
The counter-narrative to the toxic anti-immigrant rants of the European far right requires a cool-headed separation of fact from fiction. It is easy – but wrong – to blame Europe’s economic troubles on immigrants. It is simple – but false – to argue that all Muslims are misfits, potential terrorists and marginalized outsiders who cannot speak local languages and adhere to orthodox views.
Many Europeans are clearly tempted to find scapegoats at a time of unease and uncertainty over Europe’s economic future, the perceived threat posed by globalization and Europe’s place in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world.
But if Europe is to meet the many challenges of the 21st Century, its leaders must be able to counter the simple ideology of hate being peddled by the far-right.
The truth is more upbeat than the far-right would have us believe: Europe is a vibrant and dynamic mix of people of many faiths, beliefs, cultures, languages and traditions. Instead of denouncing it as a problem, Europeans should celebrate the diversity of their societies.