Norway's warning about xenophobic politics and religion

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
23 Jul 2011

While the full horror and extent of the terror attacks in Norway on 22 July 2011 are still being absorbed, political reaction is following hard on the heels of the humanitarian revulsion. But within this commentariat response there are already disturbing signs that xenophobic politics, of the kind apparently displayed by "Christian and conservative" suspect Anders Behring Breivik, are being allowed more leeway and headroom.

Commentators in Britain and elsewhere in mainland Europe have been quick off the mark in suggesting that the "openess, tolerance and cultural diversity" favoured by the main parties and the leading opinion formers in Norway may now be under pressure and will need reconsidering.

Opinion polls are being cited to suggest that a growing number of Norwegians are becoming "sceptical" about multiculturalism, the growth of Islam and more liberal immigration policies, BBC Radio 4 reported this evening, suggesting inter alia that following the awful killings apparently carried out by Mr Breivik (and possibly others), the political debate on such subjects may have to become "more robust". By this they meant more implicitly rejectionist.

Such a conclusion, presented as a mere 'common sense assessment', is extremely disturbing. Are supposedly mainstream commentators really saying that if someone who is anti-immigration, anti-multicultural and anti-Islam goes around killing people, the appropriate response might be to ask whether he is at least a little bit right about these issues? That suggestion ought to horrify the 'mainstream', but apparently it doesn't.

Actually, the "time for more robustness" response gives a good indication of how reactionary politics has always worked - or rather, has usually been allowed to work - in the presence of far-right extremism. The growth of racist political parties in Britain is commonly presented not as a challenge to struggle more rigorously against racism, but as a signal of the need to accommodate it into a 'softer' version for popular consumption - as has happened in Italy among the descendants of Mussolini and other rightists, for example.

So it is that in election debates, and at other times when the tabloid media stokes social panic, the main political parties in Britain have fairly readily acceded to the view that the anti-immigration rhetoric of the BNP has popular resonance and needs to be built into a 'mainstream' approach to policy, albeit in 'nicer' and 'more reasonable' ways.

For this reason, since the 1950s, the unwritten code underpinning the immigration policies of successive Tory and Labour (now Coalition) governments has been that a stiff dose of racism at the front door, disguised as 'toughness' towards 'foreigners', is probably the best way to prevent racism growing too rapidly inside the house. This is a profoundly and dangerously mistaken view - the opposite of the truth, in fact. Fear breeds fear, within and without.

Equally, it would be distastrous to conclude that a lurch towards xenophobia, less 'tolerance' and a 'civilised' (effectively white) nationalism is somehow the best way of finding an 'answer' to the kind of violent extremism that apparently lies behind the shocking recent attacks in Norway. This kind of thing isn't a cure. It's a way of spreading the disease you are claiming to combat.

What is equally clear, however, is that something much stronger than 'well-meaning liberalism' will be needed to defend the concrete virtues of liberality within a mixed and often divided society. It is tough-minded, thoughtful beliefs that resist incipient evil and hold out for a genuine common good, not flabby ones. For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's radical (but also rather traditional) Christian faith was able to resist Nazism at great cost in 1930s and 1940s Germany, while the vast majority of 'civic Christianity' collapsed in the face of a voracious form of nationalism that delighted in wearing Christian garb, gobbled up 'official' religion, and spat out vapid political liberalism just as easily.

In that era, Marxists, Christians, Atheists (and others who were supposed to be ideologically opposed to one another) actually found themselves on the same side against the Nazis - partly because of the scale of the unfolding horror, but also because they had convictions that were sufficiently strongly nourished and nourishing in their universalism to be able to resist an (often only partially visible) totalitarian undertow.

Modern Europe is not the Germany of the 1930s. Nevertheless, we are seeing widespread economic instability, the growth of the far right, and regular evidence that particular groups (including migrants, ethnic minorities and Roma people) can become easy scapegoats for widespread insecurities and fears. Such signs of accumulating malaise should not be treated lightly or complacently, nurtured by the belief that "it could never happen here".

Those who believe strongly not just in a vaguely 'tolerant' society, but in one where social and economic justice is paramount, and where barriers of race, gender, class, sexuality, dis/ability, violence and wealth are actively challenged, must indeed seek a "robust debate" about these issues. But that debate should not be on terms laid down by those who seek to trade on fear or to use victimising violence. Similarly, the alliances we need most are among people of active goodwill (whatever religious or non-religious label they use) who are ready to challenge the idea of conceding, directly or indirectly, to gut prejudices talked up by the far right.

For Christians, such 'alternative robustness' has to include acknowledging, and seeking to address and combat, the sometimes disturbing links in our midst between ideological 'Christianism' (as I think it deserves to be called), anti-foreigner nationalism, and the growth of a sometimes naive and sometimes malevolent 'Christianophobia' narrative. The latter can be seen emerging as talk of 'Christian persecution' within Britain. It is part of a fearful, defensive response to the the growth of socio-cultural diversity in Western societies, and to the corresponding demise of a 'Christendom' culture that privileged one kind of civic religion.

This elision of defensive with more assertive forms of Christianised opposition to pluralism is something Ekklesia has been seeking to warn about for some time. Indeed, in his 2005 book Faith and Politics After Christendom (Paternoster Press), my colleague Jonathan Bartley wrote soberly of the growth of Christian extremism within post-Christendom, and of and the risk and possibility that in some of its forms it might turn to violence.

In the case of Mr Breivik, it will not be difficult, as more information emerges, for mainstream church leaders to aver that his Christian self-identifying has little to do with regular Christianity. The far right has often been willing to wear Christian garb, however ill-fitting. Nevertheless, there are certain kinds of apparently more 'mainstream' pro-Christendom rhetoric that can also end up feeding the violent nationalism that Breivik seems to have espoused. This has been seen readily in other parts of eastern and central Europe. It is manifest in the fundamentalist language of 'Qur'an-burner' Pastor Terry Jones. And it is is seen in the worrying overlap between the 'Christian country' vocabulary habituated by some in the British churches, and the more aggressive 'Christian Britain' stance adopted by those around the BNP, the English Defence League (which Mr Breivik seems to have admired) and similar groups.

Norway's tragedy, which will rightly consume our human concern and prayers for the immediate future, is therefore also an opportunity for us to excavate the unpleasant underbelly of far-right nationalist politics in Europe, to recognise its links to a certain kind of reactionary Christian thinking, and to realise the need to move together in a very different direction.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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