Norway's terror - Lessons learned?

Left- and right-wing politicians and commentators in Europe are grappling with the lessons to be learned from the terrorist attack in Norway -- and what it means for debate about immigration.

Since the horrific attacks by Anders Breivik, rather than calls for vengeance, European newspapers have been full of reflection about the tenor of their national debates on multiculturalism and immigration.

Though most commentators agree that the lone gunman was far removed from any mainstream political Islamophobia or anti-multiculturalism, there is a new focus on the tone of discussion. Norwegian statesman Thorbjørn Jagland warned that leaders will be "playing with fire" if they use rhetoric that could be exploited by extremists in the future.

This Western European-wide reflection is rare. Living with multiculturalism is a common theme of political discussion in Europe , but each nation's individual circumstances mean there is normally no common ‘problem', let alone a common search for a solution. France might be fighting over a burka ban while Swedish thinkers grapple with attacks on Jewish residents, and Britain argues over immigration figures.

I live in Denmark, a nation that was praised by the killer for its stance on what he perceived as an "ideological war" against Islam.

Denmark is a very homogenous society that has, like the rest of Europe, experienced increasing (but low) levels of non-Western immigration. Here -- unlike in Norway -- advocates of anti-multicultural sentiment have gained overt political power. The third-largest political party and key supporter of the current liberal/conservative administration is the Danish People's Party, which has argued that this is not "naturally" a country of immigration, and should not be multi-ethnic or multi-cultural.

(Other countries where such parties have had electoral success include the Netherlands, France, and Switzerland. A good overview of European administrations' attitudes to inclusion can be seen at this website.)

Denmark was the first nation to introduce a Minister for Integration. Although ‘Integration' is nearly synonymous with ‘assimilation', this term is no longer strong enough for some. The current Minister for Integration, from the centre-right Venstre Party, recently stated, "Danish culture is mainly about trust and freedom. In those areas we have painted ourselves into a corner out of mistaken tolerance. In recent years this has been tied to the concept of integration, and that is not workable. I find the expression assimilation better."

In an expression that caused criticism from some political rivals but support from many, he declared: "The way I see it, when you choose Denmark, you choose Denmark because you want to become Danish".

And he explained further on his blog: "I am well-disposed towards a certain form of immigration - but I will fight tooth and nail (that is, of course democratically...) against multiculturalism. This deceitful assertion that all cultures are equal."

Over the past few years, condemning multiculturalism has entered the mainstream, with the leaders of both the UK and Germany pronouncing that "state multiculturalism" is a failure.

Both politicians have been criticized -- more loudly since the attack in Norway -- for appealing to anti-immigration sentiment without explaining exactly what they define as "state multiculturalism", or what they would actually like to see it replaced with. (Perhaps assimilation? If so, Denmark's efforts in this regard do not appear at first sight to be more successful at reducing discord.)

One feature of the Danish debate on immigration-related issues is that immigrants (and certainly Muslim immigrants) tend to be treated as a monolithic group, and the different voices of immigrants are often missing from discussion.

But since the attack by Breivik, the focus has shifted. Now the discussion is about whether the rhetoric used by politicians and opinion leaders could be improved.

Unfortunately, the debate about the debate is split along familiar political lines. When it comes to accepting and dealing with the implications of this tragedy, it turns out, politicians of all stripes reveal themselves as assimilationists. The events of July have not been regarded as a new development but have been absorbed into the remorseless current of left-right point-scoring - darkening the waters, perhaps, but not changing the flow of the river.

In Denmark, Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, those on the left are decrying the tenor of commentary from the right. The very same commentators who have previously attacked attempts to lump together mainstream Muslim leaders and extremist Islamic terrorists now call right-wing intellectuals and politicians to account for the fact their names appeared  in Breivik's bizarre ‘manifesto'.

Citing freedom of speech and the need for unfettered discussion, those on the right warn  the attack should not be allowed to scare people away from robust, honest debate. Breivik was a madman, they argue, and not part of a political movement. Jagland, the former Norwegian prime minister, has been criticized (as in this piece by right-of-center British commentator Toby Young) for being used by the "pro-immigration Left".

It is interesting to note the shifts in position. Consider UK conservative Boris Johnson, who said after the 2005 London bombings: "The problem is Islam. Islam is the problem." Here was Johnson on Breivik: "He killed in the name of Christianity - and yet of course we don't blame Christians or ‘Christendom'. Nor, by the same token, should we blame ‘Islam' for all acts of terror committed by young Muslim males."

So even if the commentariat insists as one that the events in Norway prove they were right all along, it's encouraging that at least some of them seem to be subtly shifting ground on what they were right about.

And all agree - even if it is only demonstrated in finger pointing - that as far as they as individuals have anything to do with it, the flow of Europe continues to be away from extremism.

Perhaps the politicians could be excused for not learning anything about multicultural debate from the actions of a lone extremist killer -- for the stark reason that he has nothing to teach us about philosophy, or politics or rhetoric -- as extracts from his incoherent manifesto make plain.

But as an opportunity to lift the tenor of debate, or make it more inclusive, it seems unlikely that the attack in Norway will bring about a meaningful change across Europe. The moment of shared contemplation and reflection will end, with the attack folded into an ongoing match between left and right.