One of the first reactions to the terrible incident in Norway I came across was by a Facebook friend and acquitance of my wife’s. Without any shred of evidence, he blamed “the bastard sons of Muhammad” for the attacks,which were supposedly revenge for the Danish cartoons reprinted in Norway in 2006. The man is a prominent broadcast journalist in his country. The gut reaction in Europe today is to blame Muslims, just like Jews were cast as scapegoats before 1945.
At 22:32 local time tonight, NRK announced that a man had been arrested and charged with both the bombing in central Oslo and the shootings at Utøya. He is a 32 year old Norwegian man and does not seem to be a Muslim.
As tends to happen in situations like this, people jumped to the (in this case mistaken) conclusion that Islamists were behind the atrocity. The news media quickly find some “analyst” or other, usually strong on opinion and links with government and weak on intellectual substance. Those who are knowledgeable, understanding and argue responsibly are rarely heard. Earlier in the evening, an expert on Norwegian TV cautioned against drawing hasty conclusions but added that such coordinated attacks bore the hallmark of Al Qaeda. People are said to have carried anti-Al Qaeda placards in central Oslo hours after the events. According to NRK, there are “many reports that Muslims are being harrassed on the streets of Oslo.” A man is alleged to have been dragged off a bus and beaten up. (http://www.nrk.no/nyheter/norge/1.7723535)
The religion or lack of religion of the person who detonated the bomb and pulled the trigger makes no difference to the parents of the young people shot. But sadly, the Islamophobic current in Europe and North America is so strong that it seems very difficult to swim against it. As soon as some atrocity is committed, journalists and supposed experts point their fingers at Muslims. Now that it turns out the suspect is a Norwegian, we are unlikely to hear pundits pontificate about the essential Viking savagery and bloodthirst of the Scandinavians. Nobody will commit the same category error they commit when somebody claiming to act in the name of Islam carries out an act of violence.
The reaction by my wife’s friend was extremely irresponsible and borders on hate-speech. He may have been writing in a private capacity on Facebook, but because he is a well-known broadcaster he reaches many people and should exercise more caution. Even more irresponsible was the New York Times’ decision to print the suggestion by Will McCants, an American security ”intellectual” with apparently strong links to the Norwegian military, that a specific Islamist group was behind the attacks. This was repeated by the Guardian, The Telegraph and The Independent in the UK. The Independent have substantially rewritten their report (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/terror-returns-to-hit-norway-2319030.html) since the evening of the 22nd July. After I posted a comment on it, they have also disabled comments. The previous version of the article made a telling but disturbing link between race, ideology and religion. It said that the physical appearance of the man arrested indicated that he was a right-wing extremist rather than a Muslim. There are anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant chauvinist groups on the right whose members have brown skin like Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. There are also tall, blond Norwegian Muslims, although Anders Behring Breivik does not seem to be one. People with different physical traits can and do belong to all kinds of religions and ideologies. Religion and ideology do not change a person’s body, nor do skin and hair colour determine a person’s beliefs. If a bomb had gone off in a Protestant neighbourhood of Belfast, would journalists say that a Catholic-looking man was seen in the vicinity? Probably not, because the idea of typically Catholic physical features is absurd. Yet such absurdities are conventional wisdom when there is a suspicion, however unfounded, that Islam is involved. Like its closest relative, Christianity, Islam is a universalistic creed with believers of all races and political persuasions.
The initial media coverage of these tragic events tells us a lot about the world we live in. It is the same world that gave rise to National Socialism, the Khmer Rouge and the Interahamwe. Not much has changed since the 1930s. The tendency to stereotype and scapegoat ethnic and religious minorities is the same as it was before Auschwitz. Just like anti-semitism was once respectable mainstream opinion, today Islamophobia is. As has been from Hitler and Goebbels to Radio Milles Collines, the modern mass media play a key role in reflecting and shaping popular opinion. During the Rwandan genocide, hate radio mobilised the perpetrators to action. If instead of immediately assuming that “it was the Muslims who dunnit” and speculating about cartoons, Afghanistan and Libya, the Norwegian and international media had reported differently, maybe two young women at Grønland and a man on an Oslo bus would not have been harmed. And if, instead of a supposedly non-Muslim Norwegian, a Norwegian or foreign Muslim suspect had been arrested, we would perhaps have seen pogroms on a larger scale. We do things when we use words, and we all have a responsibility to not harm our fellow human beings through language. This is true for all but particularly for journalists and the supposed intellectual authorities the media give voice to
The following is a very quick translation of an article published on the website of NRK, the Norwegian public service broadcaster, at 22:43 CET (http://www.nrk.no/nyheter/norge/1.7723431)
The arrested person is Norwegian
The man who has been arrested after the shooting at Utøya is Norwegian, says Storberget. Witnesses NRK have spoken with say the man is tall, blond and spoke Østland dialect.
– The offender is Norwegian. He has been charged with what has happened at Utøya, says Justice Minister Knut Storberget.
A total of at least 17 people have been killed after attacks on the government quarter in Oslo and the Labour Party youth camp on Utøya Island outside Oslo. According to the police, the death toll will rise.
Police confirmed that the same offender is behind both attacks.
– The arrested man is 32 years old, and he is an ethnic Norwegian, says police chief Sveinung Sponheim in Oslo.
Unknown if more are involved
According to witnesses NRK have spoken with, the man is tall, blond and spoke Østland dialect.
– It is imperative to create security, but not least, to find the perpetrators and the person or persons responsible, says Storberget.
The Justice Minister will neither confirm nor deny whether the man is known to the police.
– I am not aware that any threats have been made prior to this attack, he continued.
The Justice Minister stresses that the police do not know whether the man acted on his own or whether more people were involved in the attack.
– You will not destroy us
– Today Norway has been hit by two cowardly and bloody attacks. We do not know who is behind them, said Stoltenberg.
– This is a very taxing evening. The days ahead will be even harder.We share the suffering of the wounded, and we sympathise with their relatives. I have a message to those who attacked us: You will not destroy us
At least 17 killed
A fake policeman is said to have been seen at both crime scenes.
Police say the perpetrator arrested at Utøya can be linked to both the attack on government buildings and the shooting drama at Utøya.
Earlier this evening, police arrested one man, but it is unknown whether more perpetrators are involved.
– The person was dressed as a policeman when he arrived to the island, regional police information chief in Nordre Buskerud, Bjørn Erik Sem-Jacobsen, told NRK.