- - Saturday, July 30, 2011

BERLIN — Europeans are debating immigration and multiculturalism with new urgency after the massacre of 77 people in Oslo, victims of a mass murderer who says he wanted to ignite a crusade against Islam.

Anders Behring Breivik, who has confessed to the slayings but has pleaded not guilty to the crimes in court, said that multiculturalism is ruining Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel in October and British Prime Minister David Cameron in February said it had failed.

What’s more, anti-immigration and anti-Islam political groups have made gains in parliaments across Europe, while countries like France and Belgium have banned Islamic attire such as burqas, headscarves and veils — moves that challenge the European ideal of liberal, tolerant society.

“There is a lack of open and honest debate on immigration issues, and it would be [wrong to dismiss] this man [Mr. Breivik] and his unhappiness with immigration pertaining only to someone on the margins of society,” said Lilit Gevorgyan, an analyst in the London office of IHS Global Insight, an international economic analysis think tank.

“Society itself [must] face this issue and deconstruct the often scare-mongering arguments that the right wing bring,” she said.

German political scientist Florian Hartleb notes that populist right-wing groups using anti-Islam rhetoric are making gains in European governments, including famously tolerant Scandinavia. He says “multiculturalism has [offered] a certain kind of vision” for Europe over the years.

“But there has been a very negative debate on this topic - especially combined with Islamism,” says Mr. Hartleb, who specializes in populism at the Center for European Studies, the Brussels-based think tank of the center-right European People’s Party. “This anti-Islam topic is a winning formula for right-wing groups.”

Cultural divide

Though multiculturalism has taken on a generally negative connotation in Europe, it’s meaning differs according to the political perspective of the person using the term, analysts say.

“Left of the center or center-right governments like you have in [Great Britain] are all converging on the same point, which is that multiculturalism … has got out of hand,” says British author Alana Lentin, who co-wrote “Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age.

“The liberal approach is that this has caused separation between different groups of people, which is negative and we need more integration — which is a code word for assimilation — and the rightist version of that is that we need a return to very strong national values, away from cultural diversity and so on.”

Muslims are the focus of these debates. According to the Pew Foundation, Muslims number about 16 million in the European Union and account for about 2 percent to 4 percent of the populations of most Western European countries.

In countries such as France, Germany and Britain, they migrated from former colonies or came as “guest workers” since the 1960s to fill labor shortages in booming economies. Countries such as those in Scandinavia have taken in refugees from Iraq and other trouble spots. Recently, Italy and France have faced increasing immigration from Tunisia and Libya.

Many have accused Muslim immigrants of not doing enough to assimilate to their adopted countries. Flashpoints between immigrant and host communities have centered on wearing veils and building mosques, obvious symbols of a non-Christian culture in Europe.

But some say the drive for assimilation is unrealistic due to discrimination against immigrants and inequalities in education, housing and the labor market. “On the one hand, people were being told that they have to assimilated, while on the other hand, they were being told, well, ‘You’re never going to actually get the same rights as everyone else, no matter how hard you try,’” says Ms. Lentin.

Political dimension

In a speech to young members of her Christian Democratic Union party, Mrs. Merkel in October said the idea of people from different cultures living “happily side by side … has failed utterly.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Cameron in February called for “a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism” in addressing cultural differences, especially those of Islamist extremists. He extolled the freedoms of a liberal society, which “says to its citizens: This is what defines us as a society. To belong here is to believe these things.”

In Norway, the populist Progress Party campaigned on anti-immigration issues and won 23 percent of the vote in 2009, making it the country’s second-largest political party. Progress Party leader Siv Jensen coined the term “snikislamisering,” which translates to “sneaking Islamization,” to describe the perceived threat of Muslim culture.

Mr. Breivik once belonged to the Progress Party but abandoned it, saying that his goals could only be achieved through armed struggle rather than the democratic process.

The 1,500-page manifesto Mr. Breivk posted online before launching his attacks is filled with biographical details and bomb-making instructions as well as his agenda against “cultural Marxism,” multiculturalism and the “Islamization” of Europe.

Figures on the right, particularly those the suspect praised in the document — including British newspaper columnists, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the far-right English Defense League (EDL) — have been quick to distance themselves from Mr. Breivik’s actions.

But some also have expressed sympathy with his sentiments.

In a July 25 Wall Street Journal editorial, author Bruce Bawer, who is frequently quoted in the manifesto, called Mr. Breivik, “both highly intelligent and very well read in European history and the history of modern ideas.” He described as “chilling … the way [Mr. Breivik] moves from a legitimate concern about genuine problems to an unspeakably evil ‘solution.’”

EDL leader Stephen Lennon pointed out that Mr. Breivik labeled his group’s members as “naive fools” for their rejection of violence, but he said the underlying issues are urgent.

“The fact is there is an undercurrent of anger across the whole of Britain and the whole of Europe,” he told the BBC. “God forbid that this ever happens on British soil, but I think we could be five to 10 years away.”

In Italy, Mario Borghezio, member of the European Parliament for the far-right Northern League, the junior party in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition government, called some of Mr. Breivik’s ideas “excellent” and said they represent the views of perhaps 100 million Europeans.

Mr. Borghezio’s comments brought him a three-month suspension from his party on Friday.

‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’

Hans Rustad, editor of the Norwegian right-wing website document.no, says he had been in touch with Mr. Breivik, who posted many complementary comments on the site and even offered advice on its management.

“I think he is an exceptional case because he is a psychopath, he is a nihilist,” Mr. Rustad told The Washington Times. “But one must ask oneself why has the right wing grown over the last decades.

“The media has been trying to boycott his thoughts, but this is like ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’: You have to go and listen, to try and understand what is in his mind, how did he come to this,” Mr. Rustad said, referring to the book about the war crimes trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann.

While the far right in Norway hasn’t had the same influence of many of their European counterparts, it has played a role in the public discourse.

“The extreme right in Norway is very small,” said Kari Helene Partapuoli, director of the Norwegian Center Against Racism. “I would say they pose a very small threat.

“But the anti-Muslim sentiments, the threat of multiculturalism, the feeling that our culture is under attack and the idea of a silent takeover - these sorts of paranoid theories find some sort of resonance in the mainstream debate that we have.”

Still, most agree that the vast majority of populist, anti-immigration political parties, and even far-right groups in Europe, do not condone violence.

“It wouldn’t be fair to say that the right-wing populists are the root or the cause for Breivik,” said Mr. Hartleb. “In general, the right-wing groups are much more moderate and don’t want to use force — as he did in such a brutal way.”

Even so, since the attacks there is a new urgency that the views that Mr. Breivik apparently shares with many Europeans need to be addressed head-on.

“We should take this opportunity to really challenge ideas such as that in 20 or 30 years the European majority is going to be Muslim, that immigrants are stealing work, or that they come to the EU just to seek benefits,” Ms. Gevorgyan said.