‘We want to create a European version of al-Qaeda’, the ‘most successful revolutionary movement in the world’.  So claimed Anders Behring Breivik at his trial in Oslo last week.  In his sick, twisted, paranoid fantasy world, Breivik sees himself as warrior defending Christian Europe against a Muslim invasion.  Yet, nothing so resembles Breivik’s mindset as that of an Islamist jihadist. Not just because Breivik admires the organizational ability of al-Qaeda, but because both Breivik and jihadists draw upon the same deluded notions of culture, identity and belongingness.

In his book, The Fear of Barbarians, the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov observes that whereas during the Cold War the faultlines that divided the world were broadly ideological, today the world is structured not so much by ideology as by emotion, and in particular the emotions of fear and resentment. There is today, he suggests, a  deep-rooted fear of the ‘Other’ driven by a sense of ‘humiliation, real and imaginary’ that has bred resentments against those ‘held responsible for private misery and public powerlessness’. So it is for both jihadists and for figures like Breivik.

At the heart of the worldview of both jihadists and Breivik is the vision of a world torn apart by a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Islam and the West. An idea first popularized by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington a decade before 9/11, it has, for many, come to define the decade after. It has become a means through which to express the sense of fear and resentment of which Todorov writes, a way of understanding notions of belongingness and enmity in emotional rather than ideological terms.

This sense of fear and resentment runs much wider and deeper than simply among jihadis or far-right terrorists. The idea that ‘Christian Europe’ is under threat, for instance, that Muslim immigration amounts to an invasion, that Europe is about to be transformed into ‘Eurabia’ and that Western civilization is facing collapse finds a widespread hearing. In his much-lauded book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe Christopher Caldwell, a columnist for the Financial Times and an editor of the conservative American magazine the Weekly Standard, suggests that immigration is akin to colonization and that ‘Islam has broken’ the fundamentals of the European tradition, ‘not enhancing or validating European culture’, but ‘supplanting it.’ Christianity, the British writer Melanie Phillips claims in her book The World Turned Upside Down, ‘is under direct and unremitting cultural assault from those who want to destroy the bedrock values of Western civilization’. It is not possible, the American philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris suggests in his book The End of Faith, ‘to be a good Muslim, to have military and economic power, and to not pose an unconscionable threat to the civil societies of others’; Harris has suggested, too, that ‘the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists‘. In his polemical screed America Alone, the Canadian journalist talks of the Madrid train bombings and of 7/7 as the ‘opening shots of a European civil war’ that will lead to ‘societal collapse’, ‘fascist revivalism’ and a never-to-return journey into ‘the long Eurabian night’.

These are not marginal figures, nor simply conservative ones – Harris, for instance, is a card-carrying liberal, as are many others with similar views. I am not suggesting that they are responsible for Breivik’s deluded fantasies, still less for his homicidal frenzy. What I am suggesting is that the culture of delusion, upon which both Breivik and jihadists feed, runs deep.

But while Breivik draws upon this culture of delusion, his actions are not ‘political’ in any traditional sense. What unites Breivik and the jihadists is the arbitrary, nihilistic character of their violence that, for all their rhetoric, is disengaged from any political cause.

When in 2010 Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly attempted to bring carnage to the streets of Stockholm by trying to blow himself up amongst a crowd of Christmas shoppers, I wrote in the Swedish newspaper Expressen that ‘The first lesson is the need flatly to reject the fiction that the bombing was a response, however perverted, to some sense of political grievance.’ Al-Abdaly, I observed,  ‘seems to have been driven not so much by political fury as by a hatred for the world around him and a deep indifference to the consequences of his actions. However far you stretch the concept of ‘political’, it is nevertheless still impossible to imagine how setting out to murder dozens of Christmas shoppers could be any kind of political response.’ This is true, too, of Breivik’s homicidal frenzy. He, like jihadists, is driven less by political ideology than by a desperate and perverted search for identity, a search shaped by a sense of cultural paranoia, a cloying self-pity and a claustrophobic victimhood.

All this makes ironic Breivic’s assault on multiculturalism. There has been much discussion over the past week about Breivik’s venomous hatred for multiculturalism, and about how we should respond. Many feel that faced with a monster like Breivik, we must close ranks and defend that which he wishes to destroy. It is a version of an argument that has gained ground  as rightwing leaders, from Angela Merkel down, have in recent years become more fierce in their criticism of multiculturalism. This is to misunderstand both multiculturalism and Breivik’s hatred. The real target of Breivik’s assault is not so much on multiculturalism as immigrants, immigration and diversity.

Multiculturalism has in recent years come to have two meanings that are all too rarely distinguished. The first is the lived experience of diversity. The second is multiculturalism as a political process, the aim of which is to manage that diversity. The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and celebrate.  It is a case for cultural diversity, mass immigration, open borders and open minds. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.

I have long been a critic of multiculturalism precisely because I am a defender of diversity. The irony of multiculturalism as a political process is that it undermines much of what is valuable about diversity as lived experience. Diversity is important because that it allows us to expand our horizons, to engage in a much wider political and culture dialogue that can, ironically, help create a more universal language of citizenship. The more the authorities put people into ethnic boxes, however, the more we think of cultures as homogenous groups, the less we are able to engage in such dialogue.

Breivik does not oppose multiculturalism because he wants to defend diversity. Rather, he opposes diversity precisely because he wants to put people into cultural boxes, in his case primarily labelled ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslim’. In his twisted, fantasy world the presence of Muslims in the Christian box pollutes and defiles it and needs to be eliminated.

For all his hatred of multiculturalism, Breivik’s belief in the ‘clash of civilizations’ draws upon ideas that, in a different way, underlie multicultural thinking, too. In court and in his online manifesto, Breivik describes multiculturalism as a ‘hate ideology’, laments its ‘deconstruction of European cultures and traditions’, and sees himself as acting ‘in defence of my culture and of my people’.  This is the language of culture and identity – and of victimhood – that multiculturalism has done so much to foster in recent years.  Multicultural policies have fed the culture of delusion as much as ‘clash of civilizations’ ideas have done.

For the left, Breivik’s warped mind reveals the dangers of rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry and of the conservative challenge to multiculturalism. For the right, his murderous rampage exposes the perils of mainstream politicians refusing to take a stand against immigration and multiculturalism.  The  problem that neither side seems willing to address is the way that both right and left, both multiculturalists and clash of civilization warriors, continue to feed the culture of delusion.

A shortened version of this post will appear in the Swedish newspaper Expressen. The ‘clash of civilisations’ image comes from the Muslim Times.


  1. Ed

    While I think that you’re basically correct in saying that multiculturalism is a reactionary turn away from progressive politics, for me the enigma that still needs to be properly explained by its critics is why/how has it been so successful as an ideology? The answer that another critic, Brian Barry, gives is for me a weak part of his book, Culture and Equality – he suggests it’s the result of a kind of conspiracy among elites without any popular appeal. While there is undoubtedly a lot of people who don’t like it, there are also been plenty of people who do (although, to be fair, not so many now). To suggest that people have been simply hoodwinked seems quite a weak argument – this is not to defend it, but to ask how it has managed to gain the consent of so many people, especially on the left.

    Other critics such as Zizek and Walter Benn Michaels have linked its success to the rise of neoliberalism and global capitalism. Certainly it is not hard to see how the New Labour/corporate take-up of diversity policies may be linked to the fact that it helps to obscure and distract attention from the huge socio-economic inequalities that exist (a point Barry makes as well). However, apart from the fact that this can lapse into a kind of functionalist explanation – i.e. the success of multicultural ideology is explained solely through the role it plays in propping up the system without understanding its specific appeal – it doesn’t explain how it has appealed to those far removed from the New Labour/corporate neoliberals. I’m thinking particularly of the SWP here – the most prominent Marxist party in Britain – also, as another exampe, David Harvey, a prominent Marxist intellectual. Also, perhaps most interesting of all given that he was a critic of the 1980s local council policies that were the origin of multiculturalism, A. Sivanandan (

    I don’t have an answer to this, but, as I say, I don’t think it’s a question that’s really been successfully answered yet.

    • I agree that neither ‘elite policy’ nor the rise of neoliberalism are adequate explanations. Underlying the rise of multiculturalist policies, it seems to me, are a complex series of social, political and economic changes over the past half century. You can only understand it in the broader context, on the one side, of the collapse of the left, the demise of class politics and the erosion of more universalist visions of social change, and, on the other, of the need for new forms of social regulation. I have, in part, dealt with its emergence in the British context in my book From Fatwa to jihad (in particular chapter 2). I have also touched on it here, very briefly towards the end of this paper and, in a more historical context, here.

      • Ed

        Thanks for the links – it is like you say a complex history with a lot going on. The decline of the Left and along with it universalist ideas are obviously very important factors, but even so this still only covers the newer Left. It still doesn’t explain why multicultural ideas have caught on with Marxists from the old Left – i.e. those who still believe in class struggle, the proletariat/working-class as the vehicle of universal emancipation etc.

        It seems to me that one possibility for explaining the appeal of multiculturalism is that there is an element of redistribution tied up with the operation of multicultural policies – moreover it is redistribution in the name of social equality. In other words, part of the aim and effect of multicultural policies is to redistribute funds, job opportunities, educational chances etc from a privileged group to a disadvantaged group. Even if this attempted redistribution is obviously very limited and does nothing about the huge class inequalities that cut across majority and minority groups, it may perhaps go some way to explaining why radicals have been either supportive of multiculturalism, or at least, reluctant to openly criticise it.

        There is also an interesting section in a recent critique of multiculturalism by Rumy Hasan (‘Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths’, 2010) where he talks about the psychology of, what he calls, ‘White Liberal Post-colonial Guilt’. His argument being that guilt about colonialism and past racism towards minorities has helped to prevent white liberals from criticising minority practices. As Hasan argues, the irony is that this actually ends up contributing to harm within those groups when oppressive practices (especially towards minorities within minorities e.g. women) become shielded from criticism.

  2. What I find uncomfortably compelling about this whole mess is that Breivik is giving us a reality check where common reality dissociation is concerned. The kind of reasoning he uses to justify his actions is no different from the kind of reasoning other people use to justify everything from beliefs that Obama is a “secret muslim” to that there was never a moon landing. By divorcing themselves from fact and picking and choosing small morsels of information they create logically sound arguments to support their ideas and then use these arguments as reasons for actions.

    A Norwegian living in Canada I often come into contact with people from the “Truther” movement and I am regularly presented with their attribution of any counter-argument or dissonant fact as the product of one conspiracy or another. Breivik and his ilk use this same rationale: Pick and choose facts and figures that work with the theory, discard everything else as part of an evil campaign to hide the truth from the people. In science this is called “theory dependence”. In the real world it borders on a reality dysfunction.

    When it comes to multiculturalism, I would like to make a few short observations. As I said previously, I live in Vancouver, Canada, but I grew up in Norway. The transition from the relatively culturally homogenous Norway to the extremely diverse Vancouver was a great awakening for me: In Greater Vancouver over 50% of the population is of some form of Asian descent, and in a suburb like Richmond the vast majority are south east Asians, mostly from Hong Kong and the surrounding provinces. Vancouver has large enclaves of different cultures – you can go to places that are almost exclusively Sikh, mandarin Chinese, Iranian, Russian, Italian and so on. But none of these areas can be considered ghettos or “strongholds” of cultural seclusion.

    I’ve done a lot of thinking about what makes multiculturalism – or rather the cohabitation of multiple different cultures – work so well here in Vancouver and so poorly in my own homeland and in countries like England, Germany and France. What I’ve concluded with is that whereas the “old” countries have a strongly defined cultural base, “new” countries like Canada and the USA do not. As a result, those that flock to these countries are allowed to let their cultural practices merge with existing norms to create new norms. Of course this is not always unproblematic, but you don’t see the same kind of large scale blatant hatred for those that look or act differently here in Canada that you do in Europe.

    I wish I had some answers as to how to solve these kinds of situations, and how to help people of all cultures learn to respect other cultures and live along side them instead of trying to impose their own norms and ideals on them. The only thing I can say is that the solution lies not in exclusion, indoctrination or mandated inclusion but rather in cooperation and openness to establishing shared norms and ideas. It’s not easy, but I think that’s the only way forward.

    • I agree with you about the prevalence of conspiracy theories and of other delusional ideas. I think a number of factors feed into this –fragmentation of society, disbelief in authority, relativization of notions of truth, etc. On Canada and multiculturalism, I don’t share your optimism. I briefly try to explain why here. I am actually coming to Vancouver in June to deliver the Milton K Wong lecture on multiculturalism. Look me up.

      • I agree that Canada by no means has the perfect solution, but there are distinct differences in how the population reacts to multiculturalism here and in Europe. At least in parts of Canada. Here in Vancouver multiculturalism seems to work quite well. But on the east coast there are tendencies that seem to lean more in the same direction as Europe. Canada is a very large country so it’s hard to put it into one small box.

        In my discussions with friends on the topic I’ve realized the problem surrounding multiculturalism is actually three problems, or at least concerns three different and somewhat incommensurable issues:

        – Ethnic identity
        – Locational identity
        – Religious identity

        I usually frame it as a simple thought experiment:

        Person A lives in a country that is under fundamentalist religious control. Though person A adheres to the same religion, he does not share the fundamentalist views of the government so he moves to a country with a more secular government that also has freedom of religion. One in this country, he then chooses to adhere strictly to his own religious views, even when these conflict with the laws of the new country. When his actions are questioned, he claims religious freedom or claims his actions are customary to his ethnic group. This poses the impossible question: What trumps what? Do the laws of the country override religious rights? This becomes especially hard if those laws were originally written based on the views of a different religion. Can a person claim laws to be either onerous on certain ethnic groups or even racist if they do not condone certain traditions? And can the country you move to demand that you change your own religious or normative beliefs because you move there – i.e. “adopt” the norms and behaviours of your new country.

        When I watch these types of debates they always end up in a circle between these three points. Once one is defeated, the next one pops up and is used to quash the first counter argument.

        I will definitely try to get a ticket to your lecture. I find this debate immensely interesting and would love to hear your thoughts. I’ve listened to past Milton K Wong lectures and they are always noteworthy.

  3. Thanks for the article. It’s always interesting to read what you think about such things Mr Malik. I very much agree with you in the first part of the article, however I think that the issue that remains is – what actually IS happening in Europe regarding immigration and the growth of Muslim communities? Is the clash of European and islamic ‘civilisations’ a myth, or is it a just the current ‘political’ prism to look at the worlds problems through and provoke angry debate?

    Regarding the creation of political stances through resentment: from conversations with people involved in conspiracy theories, also right wingers and kind of neo-leftist egalitarian types I am inclined to think that the resentment and paranoia that is fuel for conspiracist theorists is religious in it’s structure. However I do think it is also political, i.e. that the world has moved on beyond ideological politics.

    However for those of us who are interested these issues it is imperative to articulate alternative views to the ‘clash of culture’ vision and the ‘neo-capitalist multi-cultural’ vision. I think that we are at the mercy of a very limited number of ethno-cultural/economic critiques that are just accepted as common currency now. They are interpretations masquerading as fact, strong enough to build ideologies on and for people to subscribe to. This is the danger.

  4. I’d just like to thank you for your article, which was published in Expressen today. You inspired me to take a closer look at Todorov. I think he’s right about a sense of humiliation being the major driving force for many people today, not only for violent people like Breivik.

    You do an important job when you try to clarify the misunderstood and hotly debated concept of multiculturalism. Do we mean a society where every individual could belong to several chosen identities or a society where people are born into a fixed number of homogenous groups? Despite your efforts, I believe this misunderstanding will continue.

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