Above: Anders Breivik, who killed 77 at a Norwegian Social Democrat youth camp last year.
It’s always unwise and often downright irresponsible to jump to conclusions about the motives and political profile of terrorists. When 77 people were picked off at a social democratic youth camp in Norway last year, there was a widespread assumption that this was the work of Islamists. It turned out, of course, that Anders Behring Breivik was a far-right anti-Muslim, probably acting alone. Exactly the opposite mistake has now been made by mainstream and left-wing commentators on the tragic events in Toulouse. Fiachra Gibbons wrote a piece in the Guardian that managed to get just about everything not just wrong, but wrong by 180 degrees:
Police are a long way yet from catching, never mind understanding, what was going through the head of someone who could catch a little girl by the hair so he wouldn’t have to waste a second bullet on her. But some things are already becoming clear. He shouted no jihadist or anti-Semitic slogans, going about his grisly business in the cold, military manner oddly similar to Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian gunman who massacred 77 people at a social democrats summer camp last summer.
As with Breivik, politicians will be quick to the thesis of the lone madman. Another lone madman influenced by nothing but his own distorted mind, like the lone gang of neo-Nazis who had been quietly killing Turks and Greeks in Germany for years unbothered by the police, who preferred to put the murders down to feuds or honour killings.
What could be the link, they ask, between Jewish children and French military personnel? The link is they are both seen – and not just by a far-right fringe – as symbols of all that has sabotaged la France forte, to borrow Sarkozy’s election slogan. Confessional schools, be they Jewish or an informal weekend madrassa, are seen as actively undermining the secular Republic by activists of groups like the Bloc Identitaire and the Front National, as well as some members of Sarkozy’s UMP, and even some on the left.
Now, I have no idea who Mr Gibbons is, and he is certainly not the only commentator to get this incident badly wrong, but I’ll bet you that he is on the “multicultural”/liberal/”left” and so predisposed to assume that the killings were the work of the white European far-right. His easy dismissal of the possibility that the killer might have been an Islamist jihadist (“He shouted no jihadist or anti-Semitic slogans“) suggests a predetermined inability to even entertain such a possibility (the article was published on 20 March, one day before the identity of the killer became known).
And that possibility was always there and fairly obvious. Just because the killer had struck at Muslim servicemen did not make it impossible that he was himself a Muslim, as anyone who has studied the form should know. As Nick Cohen notes in today’s Observer:
Breivik’s [and, as it turns out, Mehrah's - JD] mentality matched that of Parviz Khan, a bloodthirsty fanatic from Birmingham. At his trial in 2008, the police provided tapes of Khan saying that he would behead a British Muslim soldier like “you cut a pig”. Then he would “put it on a stick and say, this is to all Muslims, [you] want to join the kuffar army, this is what will happen to you”. In his study of the case, Shiraz Maher of King’s College London said that most terrorists spread fear indiscriminately. Khan and his fellow plotters were different. They aimed to terrify Muslims who choose to integrate, identify themselves as British and serve British institutions; to let them know that it was an act of “betrayal” to support their own country.
The first lesson from all of this is not to jump to conclusions before sufficient facts are known. The second is that it is not just unwise and distasteful, but also irresponsible, to seek to use tragedies like this to bolster your own political preconceptions. The third is that vulnerable minorities (Muslims in Europe, especially) are now at greater risk than ever, and we must all weigh our words carefully.
Just because it turns out that the killer was not a member of the far-right (actually, I’d argue that he was, but that’s another matter) does not make the nationalist racism of Sarkozy, as he attempts to steal votes from the fascist Front National, any less criminal. It just means that the simple cause-and-effect link to the killings that we on the left wanted to prove, has not been the case. That fact should not be a cause of pleasure or satisfaction to anyone, and it doesn’t invalidate our condemnations of Sarkozy. But, undoubtably the electoral gainers will be the Front National (who are, predicatably, cashing in already) and Sarkozy himself.
But we on the left – and, especially, that section of the left that was inclined to put the killings down to the “political context” – now have some explaining to do. As the simplistic “It is no coincidence that Sarkozy’s racism has been followed by one of the worst racist attacks in France in a generation” explanation has been blown out of the water, we are now obliged to offer our more considered analysis and explanation, in the light of what we now know.
I am not the first to note that when a terrorist is a white neo-Nazi, the liberal-left will focus on his ideology, beliefs and any evidence of a supportive mainstream discourse. However if a terrorist is an Islamist, the same people focus exclusively on his grievances and deprivations. Here’s a particularly crass example, all the more unpleasant because it doesn’t even mention antisemitism as a factor in the equation. Note, also, that the (non) “explanation” given in this dreadful little piece of hackery and insult-to-the-intelligence, could have been wheeled out just as well, had the perpetrator been a member of the white far-right.
The problem with much of the “left”, when it comes to Islamist terrorism, is that they (the “left”) deny any autonomy to the perpetrators. Unlike white far-right terrorists, Islamists are not (it would seem) thinking individuals, autonomous actors, motivated by any coherent ideology. They’re merely victims who react to external forces – racism, “islamophobia,” alienation, poverty, imperialism, etc, etc. The “left” (or at least, a large part of it) effectively infantilises these people, denying them even the perverse dignity of being responsible for their own actions, and of having their own internally coherent political agenda. And that is, ultimately, a form of racism in itself.
I’ll leave the last words to Nick Cohen, who in today’s Observer nailed down many of the points I was mulling over prior to posting this piece:
For conservatives, opposition to radical Islam and indulgence of the white far right allows them to ignore the persistence of racism, most notably in France. They want to comfort their voters by telling them that whatever charges their critics throw at them, they are not as misogynist, homophobic or anti-Semitic as their Islamist enemies are. For leftists, opposition to the white far right and indulgence of radical Islam allows them to hide the descent of their programme of identity politics into squalor and shame, most notably in Britain. As long as they have the British National Party and English Defence League to fight, leftists can forget about their failures to help liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims in their struggles against theocratic power.
Many on both sides will not admit that the motives and targets of totalitarian movements are often identical. After what Europe went through in the 20th century, their ignorance is beyond disgraceful. It is astonishing.