David Cameron has said that the UK will look at its security in the aftermath of the horrific attacks in Norway, to make sure there is “adequate scrutiny of the behaviour of far-right extremist individuals and groups”.
Such action is long overdue. The immediate assumption that this attack had been carried out by someone with links to an international jihadist plot shows that the media remains preoccupied with a specific image of a terrorist: dark-skinned and bearded.
This is reflected in the limited coverage given to white extremist attacks in the media, and in the way that far-right extremists are treated legally. My colleague, Mehdi Hasan, wrote a column on this subject back in 2009:
Compared to Islamists, who have been subjected to a battery of punitive measures — from detention without charge to control orders to torture abroad – white supremacists seem to be given preferential treatment by our criminal justice system. Robert Cottage [the former BNP candidate jailed in July 2007 for possessing explosive chemicals — described by police as the largest amount of explosive of its type ever found in the UK] was charged under the Explosive Substances Act 1883, not the panoply of modern anti-terror laws now at the disposal of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. Neil MacGregor [who pleaded guilty to threatening to blow up Glasgow Central Mosque and behead a Muslim every week until every mosque in Scotland was closed] was tried in a sheriff’s court, rather than the high court where such cases normally go, and where he would have faced a much more severe sentence. He was also tried on the ludicrously lenient charge of breaching the peace. It seems that in Britain, a white racist threatening to behead a Muslim a week is taken no more seriously than a man who is drunk and disorderly in public, or who keeps waking his neighbours with loud music.
It is the same double-standard that can be seen in the debate over free speech. Many of the same voices who argued that the BNP’s Nick Griffin should be allowed to speak at the Oxford Union were the same as those who argued that Hizb ut-Tahrir should be prevented from speaking at Queen Mary’s University. Perhaps this difference is unsurprising, given the relentless message from media and politicians that there is one threat and one threat alone we are facing.
Earlier this year, Cameron and Nick Clegg each gave a speech on multiculturalism. On this point — the nature of the threat — they espoused almost directly opposing views. In a controversial speech in Munich, Cameron said:
It’s important to stress that terrorism is not linked exclusively to any one religion or ethnic group…
Nevertheless, we should acknowledge that this threat comes overwhelmingly from young men who follow a completely perverse and warped interpretation of Islam and who are prepared to blow themselves up and kill their fellow citizens.
A month later, however, Clegg countered this:
My point is this. We need a perfect symmetry in our response to crime and violent extremism. Bigots are bigots, whatever the colour of their skin. Criminals are criminals, whatever their political beliefs. Terrorists are terrorists, whatever their religion.
Clegg’s view has been validated: the tragedy in Norway shows the dangers of a non-colour-blind approach. As soon as it became clear that he was a far-right activist and not, in fact, a jihadist, many were quick to write off Anders Behring Breivik as a “madman” or a “lone wolf”. That may be, but it is vital that any links to far-right organisations are explored properly and thoroughly, including to groups in Britain such as the English Defence League. Anyone who commits such an atrocity — regardless of their skin colour, religion, or links to others — is a “madman”, regardless of what twisted ideology they use to justify their actions. If one such ideology is deserving of scrutiny, then others must be too, even if they do not fit a pre-written media narrative.