23 Apr 2012

Inside the mind of Anders Behring Breivik

After a week of testimony by the man accused of killing 77 people, political scientist Matthew Goodwin looks at what his words reveal about his ideology and the wider far right movement in Europe.

The atrocities that were committed in Norway in July 2011 were a chilling reminder that not all forms of violent extremism are inspired by religious-based ideologies. For western democracies that had become accustomed to identifying violent Islamism as their primary threat, the actions of Anders Behring Breivik underscored the ability of a quite different set of ideas to inspire mass violence.

Unlike al-Qaeda or AQ-inspired groups, Breivik claims he was pushed to violence by an overwhelming concern about the perceived threat from Islam, growing Muslim communities and the accelerating pace of rising ethnic and cultural diversity in Norway and Europe more widely. Far from being unique to Breivik, this cluster of issues is also the most important driver of support for far right political parties at elections.

Those who turn out to vote for figures like Marine Le Pen, who yesterday garnered a record 20 per cent of the vote in the French presidential elections, do so in order to express their anxiety about immigration and its effects, and their profound hostility to this process.

But clearly, not all supporters of far-right parties advocate violence. Nor would most endorse the actions of Breivik. It is for this reason – the need to understand what might “push and pull” some citizens from voting for the far right into violence – that the testimony of Breivik has proven so fascinating (but also extremely difficult to listen to).

A ‘survivalist narrative’

If we take this at face value, then it paints a picture of a young man driven to violence by a distinct set of beliefs concerning the direction of Norwegian society, and Europe more widely. Breivik is not simply concerned about the issue of immigration: he appears absolutely convinced that this process and specifically the presence of Islam threatens the survival of his ethnic group, and future generations.

The crucial importance of this “survivalist narrative” to making sense of Breivik’s motive was perhaps best revealed in his response when asked why he had become suddenly emotional while watching his own propaganda video: “Because I realised my ethnic group is dying.” His profound concern is coupled with a strong sense of urgency that unless someone takes radical and urgent action, the battle will be lost. To underscore the point, Breivik pointed to the way in which even mainstream party leaders such as David Cameron and Angela Merkel had seemingly also given up on multicultural society.

This is a familiar narrative inside the world of the far right: it claims the native group faces extinction and has been thrust into an apocalyptic-style battle for its racial and cultural survival because of multiculturalism, which has either been orchestrated by shadowy conspiratorial groups (such as Jews), or in Breivik’s mind extreme left-wing ‘cultural Marxists’.

Breivik as ‘role-model’

In this sense Breivik is less an isolated case than a reflection of broader ideological currents within the modern far right. For the 32-year-old, it was this focus on the actions of the centre-left that led him to target the next generation of political elites, and draw attention to the “Knights Templar”, a network that the prosecution appears convinced does not exist (while Breivik claims there are two other members residing in Norway, and over a dozen members across Europe).

Irrespective of who is right, what appears increasingly clear from Breivik’s own testimony is his desire to become a role model to would-be successors. In this sense Breivik is not wholly at odds with those inside al-Qaeda, who in a similar way have sought to provide a brand to which individuals or small cells can affiliate. By leaving a detailed blueprint of his actions, a lengthy discussion of his ideological sources, a documented elaboration of his motives during the trial and a brand – the Knights Templar – Breivik looks set to cast a long shadow over both the far right and Norway itself.

Matthew Goodwin is a political scientist and lecturer at Nottingham University