Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik may have failed to ignite a race war with Muslims, but he succeeded in stoking anxieties about the stability of Europe’s increasingly diverse societies.
Though his talk of an international underground of killers—latter-day Crusaders he called the Knights Templar—seemed to be mere fantasy, and while his methods place him far beyond the pale of mainstream politics, many of his beliefs are to be found within the fold of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant populists.
“His ideological ‘manifesto’ is a distilled representation of a cultural crisis that pervades the European continent and finds expression in an increasingly xenophobic populism,” Kirsten Simonsen, a professor at Denmark’s Roskilde University, wrote in “Bloodlands”, a 2012 series of essays about Breivik.
Some notions—that Europe and its indigenous cultures are being weakened by immigration and multiculturalism—have been helping reshape the continent’s right-wing politics for years.
These beliefs occasionally find an echo on the margins of centre-right parties, among politicians seeking support from communities plagued by rising unemployment.
In a 2012 report, European police agency Europol stated the threat of violent right-wing extremism “has reached new levels in Europe and should not be underestimated. The threat will most likely come from lone actors, but organized, underground groups also have the capability and intention to carry out attacks.”
Some argue Breivik might have had more chance of setting off the kind of religious war he imagined if he had targeted Muslims, so as to create a cycle of revenge killings, rather than killing young white Norwegians from the pro-immigration Labour party, which encouraged a rallying behind common values.
U.S.-based researcher Arun Kundnani, in a June 2012 paper for the Hague-based International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, asserts that in the past two decades rightist violence in Europe has been comparable to Islamist bloodshed.
By his count, since 1990, at least 249 people had died in incidents of far-right violence in Europe, compared to 263 who have been killed by jihadist violence.
Fifteen to 20 million Muslims, out of a total population of 500 million, are estimated to live in the 27-member European Union as well as non-EU members Norway and Switzerland.
France, a nation of 60 million people, is home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, estimated at about 5 million. Norway estimates two percent of its 5 million population are Muslims.
A 2011 Pew survey of 50 European countries said the Muslim share of the population was expected to grow from six percent of the region’s people in 2010 to eight in 2030, due in part to higher birth rates among Muslims than non-Muslims.
In Norway itself, Breivik’s deeds rebounded against the right. The mainstream but anti-immigration Progress Party, briefly joined by Breivik, suffered a huge blow in municipal elections two months after the attack.
But a growing number of opinion surveys show Europeans increasingly receptive to the notion that immigration, especially by Muslims, should be curbed or halted.
In June 2012 an Ipsos MORI poll on attitudes to immigration found that in seven out of nine EU member states surveyed the majority regarded immigration as having had a negative impact on their country: Sweden and Poland were the only exceptions.
Pepe Egger, head of Western European Forecasting for the UK-based Exclusive Analysis research house, says some of Breivik’s ideas are held quite widely among European political activists.
“The bizarre thing is that his ideas, as Islamophobic as they are, are almost mainstream in many European countries,” he told Reuters. “The perceived need to defend Europe against ‘Islamisation’ is not that far removed from what you can find in the opinion pieces in large daily newspapers.”