The Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik appears very interested in the Balkans. A lot of space in his ponderous 1,518-page ‘manifesto’ is devoted to discussing Balkan themes. This is not limited merely to praising Radovan Karadzic (‘for his efforts to rid Serbia of Islam he will always be remembered as an honourable Crusader and a European war hero’), supporting the past Serb ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks and Albanians, condemning Kosovo’s independence and demanding that all Bosniaks and Muslim Albanians be deported from Europe (while the Muslim Turkish populations of Cyprus and western Anatolia are to be deported to central Anatolia). It involves also lengthy ruminations on hundreds of years of Ottoman and Turkish history, in which Breivik demonises all aspects of the Ottoman heritage.
Some commentators have argued that this psychopathic mass-murderer represents such an exceptional case that his actual beliefs are irrelevant to understanding his actions. According to Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, ‘The Norwegian tragedy is just that, a tragedy. It does not signify anything and should not be forced to do so. A man so insane he can see nothing wrong in shooting dead 68 young people in cold blood is so exceptional as to be of interest to criminology and brain science, but not to politics.’ As a rule, Jenkins is absolutely wrong about everything, and this is no exception. Breivik represents the exemplar of an extremely dangerous trend in Western and European politics, and his interest in the Balkans – or rather, in his own mythologised narrative of Balkan history – flows naturally from this.
Breivik’s actions are exceptional, but his views are not. His views on Islam and on immigration are in some important respects typical of the right-wing Islamophobic current, some of whose prominent members and groups he cites or sympathises with in his manifesto: Geert Wilders, Robert Spencer, Melanie Phillips, Srdja Trifkovic, Mark Steyn, the English Defence League (EDL) and others. He sees immigration, particularly Muslim immigration, coupled with liberal multiculturalism and political correctness, as a mortal threat to European or Western society. Such views are often justified by their holders as being ‘pro-Western’, whereby ‘the West’ is counterposed to ‘Islam’, as if the two were binary opposites. In reality, the very opposite is true: modern European civilisation was built upon foundations that were Islamic as well as Christian, Jewish, pagan and others. The Enlightenment gave rise to a Europe in which the sectarian religious animosities that characterised the pre-Enlightenment age could be transcended; modern Western liberal and secular values are founded upon the principle of religious toleration.
Far from being ‘pro-Western’; our contemporary right-wing Islamophobes, in seeking to rekindle the religious divide between Christians and Muslims that characterised pre-Enlightenment Europe, reject Western values in favour of pre-Western values. During their successful Vienna War of 1683-1699 against the Ottoman Empire, Austrian Habsburg forces slaughtered, plundered, expelled or forcibly converted to Christianity the Muslim population of the Hungarian and Croatian territories they reconquered, which were forcibly de-Islamised; the Austrians burned the Ottoman Bosnian city of Sarajevo to the ground. The subsequent Ottoman Bosnian victory over Habsburg forces in the Battle of Banja Luka of 1737 saved the Bosnian Muslims from their destruction as a people that an Austrian conquest of Bosnia would have involved. Yet when the Austrian Habsburgs did finally succeed in occupying Sarajevo and Bosnia in 1878, they protected the Muslim population and respected the Islamic religion. Europe, in the interval, had experienced the Enlightenment. It is the pre-Enlightenment Europe to which today’s right-wing Islamophobes look back nostalgically; something symbolised in the name of the anti-Islamic hate-blog, ‘Gates of Vienna’, named after the Ottoman siege of Vienna of 1683 and cited approvingly by Breivik. Hence Breivik’s own obsessive demonising of the Ottoman ‘other’ and its history, all the way back to the Middle Ages.
The right-wing Islamophobes are the mirror-image of the Islamists they claim to oppose. Nineteenth-century opponents of liberal secular values frequently became anti-Semites, seeing the Jews, as they did, as the beneficiaries of these values, to which the Jews owed their emancipation. Today’s Muslim opponents of the Enlightenment have inherited Christian anti-Semitism, whereas the Christian reactionaries have transferred their animosity to a different – Muslim – minority. Apologists blame individuals like Breivik and groups like the EDL and British National Party (BNP) on supposedly ‘objective’ problems of aggressive Islam and immigration that mainstream politicians are supposedly failing to tackle. Just as apologists for Islamism blame it on supposed ‘root causes’ to be found in US imperialism or the behaviour of Israel. Just as earlier apologists for anti-Semitism blamed anti-Semitism on the Jews. The Islamophobes point to Muslim support for Islamic extremism as their anti-Semitic predecessors once pointed to Jewish support for communism. As their Islamist counterparts point to Jewish support for Zionism. And so on.
Such chauvinistic ideologies are not caused by the minority or foreign groups that they target. Undeniably, popular anti-Semitism before World War II tended to be strongest in countries with large, visible Jewish populations, like Poland and Romania, just as popular Islamophobia today is often strongest in West European cities that have experienced large-scale Muslim immigration, but this does not mean that the victims of the bigotry are to blame. Muslim immigration does not automatically give rise to Islamophobia, any more than Zionism automatically gives rise to Muslim anti-Semitism, or ‘US imperialism’ gives rise to Islamist terrorism. Right-wing Islamophobia, Islamism, anti-immigrant racism and modern anti-Semitism are all, in their different ways, expressions of a more general reaction against, and rejection of, modernity and what it implies.
Interestingly, Breivik, who apparently never had a proper girlfriend and lived with his mother until he was thirty, shares Islamism’s extreme misogyny and gender insecurity. His manifesto rails against the ‘feminisation of European culture’ and the supposed emasculation of the contemporary European male, complaining that Muslim immigrants are systematically raping white European women, but that ‘As a Western man, I would be tempted to say that Western women have to some extent brought this upon themselves. They have been waging an ideological, psychological and economic war against European men for several generations now, believing that this would make you “free”… Western women have been subjected to systematic Marxist indoctrination meant to turn you into a weapon of mass destruction against your own civilisation, a strategy that has been remarkably successful.’ But of course, not all Islamophobes are straightforwardly conservative; some oppose Muslims and Islam on the grounds that the latter are sexist and homophobic. Such syntheses of liberalism and illiberalism are nothing new; European fascism and its sympathisers of the 1920s, 30s and 40s had their liberal roots and tendencies too, however paradoxical that might sound (readers are recommended to read Julian Jackson’s excellent France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944, that describes the synthesis of liberal, conservative Catholic and radical right-wing currents that found expression in the 1940s Vichy regime in France).
What our contemporary Islamophobes share – conservatives and ‘liberals’ alike – is conformism, xenophobia, fear of change, hostility to diversity, paranoia about minorities and a longing for the order and certainties of a lost, idealised ‘golden age’ that, in some cases, may not even be very long ago. In the Nordic countries, home of the Jante Law, where an apparently model liberalism frequently masks extreme conformism and insularity, where foreign guests and immigrants usually find it very difficult to fit in (in a way that they don’t in London or New York, for example), and where virulent anti-immigration parties such as the Danish People’s Party and Sweden Democrats have enjoyed success at the polls, this takes its own particular form. Far from needing to be shielded from greater diversity, my feeling is that the Nordic world would benefit from more of it; that even if Norway has no pressing economic reason to join the EU, immersion and participation in the common European project would benefit it culturally and spiritually. But for all that, the sickness that created Breivik is a European and global sickness, not just a Nordic sickness.
This brings us back to the Balkans, a region that resembles the Nordic world in the extent of its often stultifying insularity. For all that Serbia appeared to pursue its own sonderweg during the late 1980s and 1990s, at another level, the Serbian nationalist right and anti-democratic left were exemplars and pioneers of what became an all-European anti-immigrant and Islamophobic trend. Serbian nationalist and Communist hardliners railed against the restrictions supposedly placed on Serbia by membership of a multinational community – the Yugoslav federation. They railed against high Muslim and Albanian birth-rates that were resulting in the Serbs being ‘out-bred’, while lamenting the lower birth-rate among Serbs as symptomatic of national decline. They railed against the supposed mass immigration of ethnic Albanians from Albania into Kosovo; against the supposed Kosovo Albanian cultural ‘otherness’ and refusal to assimilate; against Kosovo Albanians allegedly raping Serb women while the authorities stood idly by. They lamented the supposed corruption and decline of their national culture while indulging in medievalist escapism. All these themes have now been taken up by nationalists in other European countries. For example, in Breivik’s words, ‘The Muslims in Bosnian Serbia; the so called Bosniaks and Albanians had waged deliberate demographic warfare (indirect genocide) against Serbs for decades. This type of warfare is one of the most destructive forms of Jihad and is quite similar to what we are experiencing now in Western Europe.’
Andrew Gilligan, writing in the Telegraph, has claimed that the danger posed by far-right (i.e. white, Christian) terrorists like Breivik is simply not on the same order of magnitude as that posed by al-Qaeda: ‘Over the last 10 years, nationalist terrorists, even counting Breivik, have killed about 200 Westerners; al-Qaeda has killed about 4,000… The white Right should not be ignored by the security authorities – but it would be dangerous to divert our attention from the real threat.’ But this is wrong: tens of thousands of Muslims were killed by white Christians in Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya in the 1990s. Breivik has praised the killers, both Radovan Karadzic and Vladimir Putin; the numbers of their victims in Europe dwarf those of al Qaeda.
The danger is that Breivik is the harbinger of a trend. Extremism and chauvinism among the majority will always ultimately be more dangerous than extremism and chauvinism among minorities. Right-wing populists such as Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen may not themselves incite violence, and cannot be equated with a killer like Breivik. But the climate of intolerance they are promoting threatens to give rise to many more Breiviks. The Islamophobic, anti-immigration far-right is the no. 1 internal threat in Western Europe to European society and Western values today.
This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.
Tasiilaq, East Greenland
V.I.Lenin once wrote that class-conscious workers should ‘conduct systematic propaganda and prepare the ground for the settlement of conflicts that may arise over the secession of nations, not in the “Russian way”, but only in the way they were settled in 1905 between Norway and Sweden.’ Quite. When surveying the bloodshed and horror resulting from attempts to suppress national ‘separatism’, from Kosovo and Chechnya to Kashmir and Sri Lanka, it is worth remembering that it really does not have to be this way.
The Nordic peoples have a long and strong tradition of national separatism, and it is one they should feel proud of. For over a hundred years from the end of the fourteenth century, all the Nordic lands from Greenland to Finland were formally united under a single crown, but since then there has been a steady process of Nordic Balkanisation. Sweden broke away from the Danish-dominated Union of Kalmar in 1523, and it is true that it took years of warfare before Denmark recognised the secession, but that was a long time ago. More recently, Norway seceded from Sweden in 1905 and Iceland from Denmark in 1944, in both cases peacefully and without bloodshed. This may be due in part to the strong Nordic tradition of representative bodies, and respect thereof; the Icelandic parliament that declared independence could trace its origins back to the year 930.
Yet there was nothing primordial or pre-ordained about some of the nation-states that today seem immutable parts of the map of Europe. Until the Napoleonic wars, Norway had been in stable union with Denmark for many centuries, while Finland was merely a part of Sweden where a Swedish-speaking elite ruled over a Finnish-majority population. We do not know whether, or how quickly, Norway and Finland would have emerged as independent states had it not been for the ‘accident’ of the Russian conquest of Finland and the Swedish conquest of Norway early in the nineteenth century. Today, the Nordic countries are not as nationally homogenous as they are commonly perceived to be by outsiders and it is far from certain that the process of Nordic Balkanisation has come to an end, yet it is extremely unlikely that these factors will ever result in bloodshed.
Iceland was before 1944 an autonomous territory under the Danish crown. Other such autonomous Nordic territories exist today: Greenland and the Faroe Islands, both autonomous under Denmark with representatives in the Danish parliament, but strong pro-independence sentiments among parts of the populations; and the Aland Islands, an autonomous Finnish territory where Swedish is the language of the administration and population. A distant cousin that still bears a certain family resemblance is the Isle of Man, a self-governing possession of the British Crown whose parliament, the Tynwald, was established by Man’s Norse rulers during the Middle Ages and has been in continuous existence ever since. It is entirely conceivable that the Faroes and Greenland, at least, may become independent at some time in the future, following the Icelandic example. Greenland has already seceded from the European Union, in 1985. Yet it is questionable how much real difference independence would make, either to the lives of the populations or to their functional relationships with their parent countries. Today, Iceland’s Reykjavik Airport (not to be confused with Keflavik International Airport) mostly operates domestic flights – its only international flights are to Greenland and the Faroes, which until the 1940s were not ‘international’ vis-a-vis Iceland.
As much as the Nordic countries have benefited from their traditions of administrative continuity, they all bear hallmarks of the diversity of their backgrounds, a diversity that was not always dealt with gently. Parts of southern Sweden were originally part of Denmark and spoke Danish; Sweden’s King Charles XI, faced with their pro-Danish irredentism, was a seventeenth-century pioneer in forced linguistic assimilation. The small, originally semi-nomadic Sami people who inhabit the Arctic north of Norway, Finland and Sweden (the region commonly referred to as Lapland), with a smaller community in neighbouring Russia, were for centuries subject to often brutal forced assimilation that really only came to an end in the 1960s, as the Nordic nations improved their behaviour under the influence of anti-colonial struggles elsewhere in the world. There remains today much Sami resentment at this treatment; a strong Sami patriotism was apparent to me when I visited the Norwegian Sami capital of Karasjok in 2004; at the Sami themepark of Sampi, the tags on the exhibits were written in Sami and English but not in Norwegian – something that the attendant appeared proud to acknowledge. The Norwegian Sami have their own parliament in Karasjok, built to resemble a traditional Sami dwelling. The Swedish and Finnish Sami have their own parliaments as well; the three representative bodies enjoy a consultative relationship.
The Sami parliament at Karasjok
The Norwegians themselves have two versions of the Norwegian language – the traditional Danish-influenced Bokmal deriving from the long era of union with Denmark and the more patriotically inspired Nynorsk, supposedly ‘purified’ of Danish influences, though it is Bokmal that is the dominant version. Finland, for centuries part of Sweden, is a formally bilingual Finnish- and Swedish-speaking country; the Finnish national hero Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, who led Finland against the Russians in its war of independence and in World War II, was himself a Swedish speaker who did not speak Finnish very well. It was the Russians, however, who established Helsinki as the capital of Finland; today, Helsinki’s Uspenski Cathedral lays claim to being the largest Russian Orthodox Church in western Europe. Russian influence is also apparent on the fringes of the Norwegian world; the town of Kirkenes, close to the Russian border, has street signs in both Norwegian and Russian and a prominent statue of a Soviet soldier, in memory of the Soviet liberators of World War II. Still more remote, Norway’s Svalbard islands are the site of the Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg; with its Soviet-era architecture and bust of Lenin in the village centre, Barentsburg is more different in appearance from the neighbouring settlement of Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s typically-Norwegian administrative centre, than St Petersburg is from Oslo.
It is Greenland, however, where the Nordic world’s capacity for cultural synthesis is perhaps most striking; the village of Kulusuk, the gateway into east Greenland, is only a short flight westward from Reykjavik, yet comes as something of a culture shock after the cosy Icelandic capital. Reykjavik city centre boasts a London telephone box and Tube sign and the same shops and latte-serving cafes as other West European capitals. Two hours away in Kulusuk, there are brightly coloured houses and a wooden Lutheran church similar to those found in Iceland, Norway and Svalbard, but the villagers have no rubbish disposal service or running water (the pipes would freeze in the winter). Kulusuk’s larger neighbour Tasiilaq, however, with a population of less than two thousand, is large enough to support supermarkets stocked with imported European goods. Under Danish rule, parts of the Inuit Greenland population have gone technologically from the stone age to the twenty-first century in little more than a hundred years. The experience of Danish colonisation and rapid modernisation has not been uniformly happy; in his brilliant novel, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, the Danish author Peter Hoeg portrays the unhappiness of his mixed-race Danish-Greenlandic heroine Smilla, who spent her formative years in Greenland and was never able to adjust to life in Denmark – her brother committed suicide. Still, the experience of the Greenland Inuit at European hands may be favourably compared with that of other Native Americans; although demographically a small nation (smaller than South Ossetia), Greenland enjoys almost complete autonomy and a bilingual Greenlandic and Danish administration, numerically dominated by native Greenlanders. Should Greenland choose to secede fully, Denmark is unlikely to respond with destruction or genocide.
This positive historical experience, of bilingual nations seceding from, or enjoying extensive autonomy under parent countries, is one that other parts of Europe should emulate. And to some extent they have. Lenin was inspired by the example of Norway’s peaceful secession from Sweden, and was a prominent advocate of the right of nations to self-determination (as an aside, Russia has historically been influenced by its Nordic neighbours; the medieval reach of the Nordic peoples stretched from Canada to Constantinople and the Caspian, and it was the Scandinavian Varangians who founded the medieval state of Kievan Rus, the precursor of Russia. Peter the Great built St Petersburg on occupied Swedish territory. More recently, Lenin himself was of an ethnically mixed background that included Swedish roots). Under the Communists, the Soviet nationalities were organised on the basis of different levels of republican statehood or autonomy. There was of course a lot of hypocrisy in the Communist treatment of the Soviet nationalities, and Soviet brutality was at times equal to anything the Western colonial powers produced – witness Stalin’s genocide of the Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tartars and others. Nevertheless, the fact that the break-up of the Soviet Union was ultimately less bloody than that of the French, British or Portuguese colonial empires was due in part to the fact that, under the Soviet constitutional system, the right of members of the Soviet federation to secede was formally guaranteed.
Where the break-up was more bloody, as it was in Chechnya as well as in the former Yugoslavia (also organised on the basis of Leninist nationality principles), this was in large part due to the fact that the system had not been developed to its logical conclusion. Thus, under the Yugoslav constitution, the right of Yugoslavia’s constituent republics to secede was not spelled out, although it was strongly implied, while Kosovo was accorded a lower status than the formally sovereign republics, although it was a member of the Yugoslav federation. Chechnya, in the Russian Federation, enjoyed a lower status still, being not even a member of the Soviet Union. These factors were used as justification for the wars waged by the enemies of self-determination. In Yugoslavia’s case, a lot of nonsense was spoken by ill-intentioned or ill-informed individuals about the constituent republics of the federation having nothing to do with the constituent nations, and having purely ‘administrative borders’ that could be legitimately redrawn at will by fascist dictators and terrorists in the event of the federation’s break-up – myths I have refuted in my book, The History of Bosnia. But leaving aside the wording of constitutions, it is clear that when nations secede, they must in practice do so on the basis of existing ‘administrative’ borders – as was the case with Norway, Iceland and the former European colonies in Africa and elsewhere – if there is to be any chance of the experience being peaceful. The secession of individual nations from a multinational whole is not a matter of arbitrarily drawing lines on a map; it occurs in a context shaped by centuries of history that cannot simply be swept away.
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