After Norway, Europe ponders if it can cool heated anti-Muslim words

Oslo, Norway - After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a debate erupted in Western countries over how to approach the more moderate but influential voices of Islamic fundamentalism: Outlawing them, tolerating them or engaging them in dialogue.

Now, in the wake of the July 22 attacks in Norway, a similar discussion has broken out in Europe over how to handle a potentially threatening group with a similar world view but an opposite perspective: the continent’s many angry but generally non-violent voices of anti-Muslim conservatism.

On Monday, the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg stepped into the fray after a number of Europeans had suggested outlawing or silencing anti-Muslim voices.

“I would like to ask from this podium that we avoid starting a witch-hunt on expression,” Mr. Stoltenberg told the Norwegian parliament in a special session. He noted that Norwegians have a history of frank and intense debate over immigration, religious minorities and cultural conflict, and that this freedom of speech should not be disturbed.

“Everyone had to choose their own path in a landscape filled by shock, fear and despair,” he said, in a day filled with heart-wrenching mourning for the 77 victims, most of them very young, of the car-bomb and shooting attacks. “But the Norwegian people found their way home again.”

There was a growing sense of realization that, although self-described anti-Muslim and anti-multiculturalism terrorist Anders Behring Breivik was acting on his own when his huge bomb and rifle rampage shattered Norway’s peace last Friday, he was nevertheless part of a large and potentially influential network of like-minded extremists, some of them with political parties or Internet platforms.

This has led some politicians to suggest that the tone of the debate be moderated in order to prevent inflaming extremists into further such attacks or inspiring young people to take up the cause.

Thorbjørn Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister and current chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, said in an interview Sunday that European right-wing politicians need to be careful about the words they use, lest they inflame moderates.

“We should be very cautious now, we should not play with fire,” he told the Observer. “Therefore I think the words we are using are very important because it can lead to much more.”

He specifically suggested that politicians such as British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel avoid future attacks on multiculturalism – something both leaders have expressed this year, apparently in order to cement the support of their parties’ right-wing members.

Mr. Jagland’s remarks were quickly rejected by free-speech advocates and conservatives in Britain, Norway and elsewhere (and Mr. Stoltenberg’s remarks in parliament appear to have been a response to them).

But they do echo the stance taken by many leaders in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, in which fundamentalist preachers without terrorist connections were told to tone down their messages and avoid certain inflammatory concepts. Some called for the banishment of fundamentalists while free-speech advocates fought a campaign to allow them to speak.

The argument this time appears equally heated.

A survey in the Netherlands found on Friday that 52 per cent of Dutch voters felt that the anti-Muslim radical Geert Wilders, whose Party for Freedom is the third largest in the Dutch parliament, should not moderate his fiery statements in the wake of the attacks, even though Mr. Breivik’s 1,500-page manifesto draws heavily on Mr. Wilders’ arguments to justify the killings, quoting him or citing him dozens of times.

Still, it was not clear whether Dutch citizens said this because they agree with Mr. Wilders’ views, or because they want to maintain their own country’s highly prized freedom of expression.

Many of the anti-Muslim activists and writers who influenced Mr. Breivik have responded defensively. While Mr. Wilders distanced himself from the attacks and denounced Mr. Breivik, others lashed out at those who criticized them for giving him his ideas.

“To my stupefaction, I have become a principal target of this incendiary witch-hunt, being smeared for having helped provoke the Norway massacre,” the British writer Melanie Phillips, whose articles and books were an influence on Mr. Breivik, wrote in her Daily Mail column on Monday.

She said she feared that she and other anti-Muslim conservatives could become targets of violence themselves.

“The claim that ‘blood is on my hands’ can so easily translate into someone seeking my own blood,” she wrote. “Heaven forbid that should happen – but if it did, there would be a direct causal link with those who have whipped up this wicked firestorm.”