Race and Violence, the European Way: For every Sanford, Fla., there’s an Amsterdam, Utoya, Zwickau & Toulouse.

April 30, 2012

Defining Ideas:

The shooting of seventeen-year old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida on February 26, a tragic loss of life, rapidly spiraled into a national spectacle involving a toxic mixture of race and violence. NBC added fuel to the flames by broadcasting an edited version of remarks by the alleged shooter, George Zimmerman, distorting his words in a way that seemed to corroborate the narrative of racial-profiling.

The White House also seized the opportunity to leap into the fray, adding a national political dimension to local crime enforcement, presumably to rally the Democratic base in the upcoming presidential election. The responses to the killing, whether in the media, politics, or the general public, have played out against the backdrop of our persistent anxieties about race, a legacy of the American past of slavery.

As American as the Martin shooting was, it is worthwhile to look across the Atlantic and to consider the growing frequency and virulence of parallel events there. Race and violence—and their politicization—are by no means exclusively U.S. phenomena. On the contrary, contemporary European societies display similar troubling tendencies, marked by the fragmentation of ethnically-mixed populations, the spread of extremist ideologies, a growing willingness among radicals to engage in violence, and the propensity of politicians to instrumentalize racial and ethnic anxieties for electoral purposes.

America and Europe have more in common in these areas than is commonly expected. Moreover the exacerbation of ethnic conflict in Europe is not limited to the Eastern fringe, the states formerly part of the Communist world. Nor is the new European violence primarily localized in the zones of economic meltdown, such as Greece and Spain. On the contrary, race and violence are more notorious in the central welfare states of the European Union—Scandinavia, France, and Germany.

On July 22, 2011, Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik took the lives of seventy-seven victims, first detonating a car bomb in Oslo’s government district and then going on a shooting spree on nearby Utoya Island. His internet postings displayed an ideological extremism full of hostility toward Muslim immigrants and driven by a vision of mortal combat between Islam and the West.

In the wake of the slaughter, some public figures tried to use Breivik’s crimes to score political points by blaming the violence on anyone who had raised questions about Europe’s failed integration policies. The tragedy of Utoya sadly became a convenient tool for the left to attack conservative political opponents. Breivik’s trial is now underway. If he is found guilt, he faces a maximum sentence of twenty-one years; there is no death penalty in Norway. In the meantime, he has begun to use the trial as an opportunity to broadcast his extremist message. It is likely that the court will eventually declare him insane in order to defuse the explosive politics of the case.

Europe’s simmering ethnic conflicts are most pronounced in the central welfare states.

Breivik’s crimes and extraordinary brutality represent, in an extreme version, the simmering ethnic and racial conflicts in Europe—perhaps especially in Northern Europe. Once renowned for tolerance and liberalism, the North has witnessed acts of gross intolerance, especially around issues of immigration, both on the part of immigrants as well as locals.

The assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on November 2, 2004 by Mohammed Bouyeri took place by day in the streets of Amsterdam. Born in Holland of Moroccan parents, Bouyeri left a note, pinned to van Gogh’s corpse with a knife, attacking him for a film critical of Islam’s treatment of women. The note included threats to Jews, the West, and individual politicians, including the then-Interior Minister of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, who became the President of France in 2007.

Less than a year after the van Gogh killing, in September 2005, the Danish magazine Jyllands-Posten published a set of Mohammed caricatures, which set off violent protests worldwide. An extensive debate ensued over freedom of the press and its relation to religion, in some ways a reprise of the controversy around Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses (1988). Yet in these more recent conflicts—the van Gogh assassination, the Mohammed cartoons, and the Breivik killings—something very ugly and ominous is coming to the fore: the breakdown of contemporary societies along racial lines, undermining democratic norms.

Two Danish writers provide a compelling explanation of this worrisome development in their book that has recently appeared in English translation, The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism. Authors Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt take a hard look at the consequences of defining people in terms of cultural communities and then giving those cultural identities priority over the expectations of equality before the law. Multiculturalism in Europe emphasizes group rights over individual rights, thereby undermining the tradition of political liberalism in the name of protecting collective cultural traditions.

European policies facilitate the segregation of immigrant populations.

Eriksen and Stjernfelt trace the history of the idea of “culturalism.” It began with particular schools of anthropology, eventually influenced policies by the United Nations, and led to divisive consequences for contemporary Europe. They suggest that current policies facilitate the segregation of immigrant populations. As a result, immigrant ghettos can incubate radicalism among disaffected youth, like Bouyeri, while the structural separation of majority and minority populations feeds the potential for populist resentment or even violent extremism, such as Breivik’s. Consider two recent cases in Germany and France…

Read it all.

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