Come let us mock at the Great! — Media reactions to the Oslo terrorist attack
Edward Bernays could not have scripted the immediate aftermath of the Oslo bomb blasts with more precision. A nephew of the famous psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, Bernays is often referred to as the ‘father of public relations.’ Influenced by his uncle’s theories as well as the work of Gustave LeBon and Wilfred Trotter, Bernay was an advocate of social manipulation by appealing to the unconscious. He believed in the mass promulgation of information in order to intelligently affect public opinion and therefore control it. Over the last few decades, the threat of ‘Islamic’ terrorism has been made into an ever-looming specter so that the knee-jerk reaction after a bombing or any violent attack is an assumption that it was conducted by ‘violent Islamist jihadis.’ This is precisely what happened after the Oslo blasts and the youth camp killings.
The Norwegian press began the frenzy by suggesting that a group founded by an Iraqi Kurdish cleric, Mullah Krekar, called the Ansar ul-Islam was behind the attack and newspapers all over the world used their ‘experts’ to try and analyse who the perpetrators could be. The Guardian, in an article covering the blast on Friday the 22nd, inserted a paragraph towards the end of the article, mentioning the arrest of 3 Muslims from Iraq, Uzbekistan and China who were charged with trying to make peroxide bombs. At the end of the article the reporter wrote that Norway’s security would have to become stricter because it was a Swedish Muslim, Taimur Abdul Wahab who bombed Stockholm.
The Independent dispatched its “religious affairs correspondent” who promptly wrote an article entitled ‘Analysis: Jihadist Networks have long singled out Norway.’ The whole article explored why radical Islamists might be drawn to attacking Northern European countries and having written two thirds of the piece the reporter, as a caveat or an ‘escape clause’, wrote ‘if jihadis did carry out today’s attacks they have passed a new milestone.’ The article then ended with a terrorism expert pontificating that ‘no one should be surprised if this bombing turns out to be a jihadist attack.’ The New York Times wrote that a group called the Ansar al-Jihad al-Aalami might be responsible for the attack and then revised its position to cite official sources that doubted the existence of such a group.
The few examples I have given above are from Western newspapers that are generally perceived to be ‘liberal’ in their reporting and analysis. As it turned out the killer was a strapping Norwegian man with a shock of blonde hair who wanted to carry out his duty as a Commander of the Knights Templar and was adamant on promoting a crusade against Muslims and Islam. Today, Anders Behring Breivik is being labeled a “lone madman” but this analysis is too facile and too easy to be allowed to take root. Implicit in claiming that he is insane is an argument for continuing to focus on the Muslim world as the root of terrorist activity. The 1500 page document that Breivik has left behind, in which he demonstrates his ideological commitment and shows how connected he was to similar right-wing organisations across Europe, could easily have been written by an al-Qaeda propagandist but whereas the latter is seen as a rational and calculating enemy, Breivik and his ilk are dismissed without any thought. This in essence demonstrates the power of what Edward Bernays advocated.
In recent years Europe has seen the reemergence of ultra-nationalist right-wing parties that share a common hatred of immigration and particularly Muslim migration to Europe amongst other things. A few weeks ago the English Defense League (EDL), which basically has a one point anti-Muslim agenda, held a rally in Cambridge against the construction of a new mosque. This platform drew much admiration from Breivik who also praised groups such as ‘Stop the Islamification of Europe.’ The EDL identified Norway as a potential ‘Islamohell’ because of the ruling Labour Party’s perceived support of pro-Palestinian and pro-Islamic issues. Following the bombings, The Wall Street Journal blamed the Labour Party for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and for demanding that Israel end the Gaza Seige and followed the ‘herd’ in blaming the attacks on Islamist militants. The article would have pleased Breivik who saw the Labour Party as ‘traitors.’
Today, a number of European countries have to deal with the increasingly vocal, and often increasingly violent, presence of nationalist right-wing parties. While it has become fashionable to see a jihadi lurking behind every corner and the term ‘Islamofascism’ is analysed every day in many newspapers, it is important for Europe to take cognizance of the threat that ‘traditional’ fascism poses in their societies. The increasing political popularity of Jean-Marie LePen in France, Jorge Haider in Austria and others in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and other countries have proved this trend. David Cameron also illustrated this tendency in a speech earlier this year where is talked about ‘the failure of multiculturalism’ and the need to “acknowledge that this threat [terrorism] comes overwhelmingly from young men who follow a completely perverse and warped interpretation of Islam...” Angela Merkel, in a speech to a Christian Democrat Party conclave said that care must be taken to ensure that mosque cupolas are not demonstratively higher than church towers.
Of course this does not mean that the threat from certain Muslim groups has diminished but it is high time that Europe begins to put its own house in order before preaching to others. To dismiss Breivik as an anomalous ‘evil madman’- in the words of the Russian spokesperson- whose actions are not symptomatic of a wider malaise is tantamount to ignoring a clear warning of what is to come. Incidentally, Breivik expressed admiration for Putin’s style of leadership and also praised a number of other conservative leaders from around the world. Notably the press is still refusing to call Breivik a terrorist, a term apparently patented for Muslims, and descriptions are limited to attacker, assailant and vigilante. The resurgence of a rabid nationalist right wing in so many countries should be the real cause for consternation: after all it was the European right that perpetrated some of the most horrific crimes of the 19th and 20th centuries.The author, a research scholar at Cambridge University, may be contacted at bilehra14[@]gmail.com