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Eye on the News

Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt
Understanding the Breivik Verdict
The mass murderer’s ideology, shared by others, poses a threat to Enlightenment values.
6 September 2012

On August 24 in Oslo, terrorist and mass murderer Anders Breivik was sentenced to the toughest sentence under Norwegian law: 21 years in prison, with the possibility of prolongation should it be determined, 21 years from now, that he remains dangerous. Considering Breivik’s crimes, the gravity of the verdict came as no surprise. On July 22, 2011, Breivik attempted to assassinate the Norwegian head of state with a bomb before gunning down over 60 innocent young members of the Labour Party at a summer camp. He claimed that Labour members were “cultural Marxists” responsible for an impending Muslim takeover of Europe.

Still, the sentence leaves important questions. How could Breivik have come so far in his planning for the massacres without being detected? How widespread is his viewpoint in Norway and in Europe as a whole? And what, exactly, is the character of this viewpoint? Breivik’s ideology is so extreme that an important part of the Norwegian court case dealt with the question of his sanity. Was he clinically insane, meaning that he shouldn’t be sentenced under a legal procedure presupposing the accused’s soundness of mind? Should he rather be confined, indefinitely, to an asylum or hospital? Or are his deeds, terrible as they are, the coherent product of an extreme but not clinically pathological political ideology? Two groups of psychiatrists submitted reports that reached opposite conclusions on this question. In the end, the court determined that Breivik was sane, and as a result he faces a normal jail sentence.

Certainly Breivik’s 1,500-page Internet manifesto does not appear to be a schizoprenic text. Some of its contents are clearly copied and pasted from other sources, but other parts he apparently wrote himself. Like the complicated logistics of his murderous acts, the manifesto text displays a high degree of coherence.

Breivik believes that Muslims should be forced back to the Middle East to set up their caliphate there, just as many Islamists may wish. His real enemies, the “cultural Marxists” of the West, should be executed. Decadent liberals should be allowed to survive, but only in segregated, guarded ghetto zones of inner cities, where they can be prevented from influencing public life. The state he envisions would restore conservative European, Christian values. The quarreling sects of Christianity would reunite under a warrior Pope. Political parties could be allowed some minor influence, but the overall government would be led by Crusaders like himself. A knightly order of his own imagination, a revived Knights Templar, would help forge this new society, which would be controlled by a Guardian Council.

This political ideology is obviously not the personal invention of a single, crazy individual. It has deep roots in the extreme European Right that produced Nazism, fascism, and radical conservatism. It is the tradition of Counter-Enlightenment, which arose against nascent liberal democracy and rule of law in the eighteenth century and has held its place on the European Right ever since. Breivik’s dream is totalitarian: democracy should be severely restrained, political rights should be the privilege of certain citizens over others, theology should regain a central role in politics, and modernity itself should be rolled back. It’s no coincidence that Breivik’s manifesto is rife with references to the Serbian right wing of the 1990s and 2000s—one of the most virulent political phenomena in recent European history. Breivik’s heroes are radical nationalist Serbs like Radovan Karadzic and Radko Mladic, both currently under trial in the Hague for genocidal violence.

But the Serbian Right is only the tip of the iceberg. Political criticism of modernity appears to have gained momentum in Europe in recent years. It is a rather diverse movement, encompassing both populist-nationalist and national-conservative parties within the democratic systems of Western Europe. These include the Danish People’s Party, the Dutch Party for Freedom or PVV, the French National Front, the Swiss People’s Party, and the Italian Northern League. More extreme parts of the wave comprise other movements incompatible with liberal democracy, including fascistic Christian-nationalist revival parties like those seen in Serbia.

A sinister connection between the cultural Right and important centers of religious power may not exist in Western Europe the way it does in Serbia, but a variation of the same culture-borne ideology thrives. Sometimes referred to as “differentialism,” its basic assumption is that essential and unbridgeable differences exist among cultural and religious groups, and that these groups should live separately, with different laws, institutions, and territories. Differentialism is the multiculturalism of the Right. Its adherents would have it that the war between Christianity and Islam—ranging from large-scale violence in the Balkans to low-intensity, ideological civil wars in Western Europe—is inevitable. It’s also desirable, some assert, because the struggle reveals that culture and religion are crucial factors in the existence of a people. Such thinking flourishes in multiple variations. What they all share is a basis in culture and religion; they can, in fact, all be categorized collectively as variants of “culturalism.” The European nationalist parties on the extreme Right are the monoculturalist standard-bearers for this coherent ideology, which inspired Breivik’s opposition to multiculturalism.

Certain insights arise from this understanding. One is, as Norwegian historian Øystein Sørensen has argued, that Islamist Iran bears the closest resemblance to Breivik’s dream among existing political systems today. The Iranian regime is totalitarian in its theocratic policy, persecution of infidels, strict control of domestic liberals, and acceptance of supreme leadership of a Guardian Council. While connecting Breivik’s Christian fascism to the right wing has not been difficult for most observers, not nearly as many understand that the Islamists’ political fantasies belong to the same political realm. Because the two are opponents, even deadly enemies, few make this ideological connection. We seem to have forgotten that extreme right-wing parties are particularists: they each favor a selected group, which is why they are typically enemies rather than allies. Just think of the French and German nationalisms of the nineteenth century. So Breivik reminds us of something we tend to forget: all theocratic totalitarianisms possess structural similarities and belong on the extreme right of the political spectrum.

Another important insight is that Breivik’s sinister ideology allows us to distinguish, quite clearly, his attack on multiculturalism from the Enlightenment criticism of multiculturalism. The two criticisms of multiculturalism, in fact, come from completely opposed camps. Breivik attacks its “multi,” while Enlightenment critics attack its “culturalism.” Breivik opposes multiculturalism with monoculturalism. He wants to pitch Christian values against Muslim values in a violent Crusade. But the Enlightenment critique of multiculturalism realizes that both multiculturalism and Breivik’s monoculturalism are but variants of the same error—culturalism. Both versions hold that individuals are determined by their culture, that they have no free will to influence the course of their lives.

The Enlightenment’s universal humanism refuses to give special rights to any culture or religion, be it Breivik’s monoculturalism or the gaudy priests of multiculturalism. It claims instead that no culture or religion deserves special group privileges that violate individual human rights. Cultures and religions, in fact, don’t have rights—only individuals do. The space of all religions in a democracy must be contained by the basic principles of human rights, no matter which gods those religions favor. Breivik, by contrast, cares not at all for human rights; they belong to what he wants to eradicate. In his murderous way, Breivik has demonstrated that the limits of multiculturalism must be set, not by the phantasms of the Counter-Enlightenment, but by enlightened human rights.

In finding Breivik both sane and guilty, the Oslo verdict makes clear that his crimes were premeditated and political, not the acts of a confused lunatic. This sound conclusion brings not only legal justice but also transparency to his apocalyptic deeds and to the challenge democracy and human rights face from culturalism.

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