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22 July 2011


It was only a matter of hours between the blast in central Oslo and the outset of my most extensive and exhausting engagement with international media since I started out as an anthropologist in the 1980s. Between Friday night and Wednesday, I spoke on radio, on television (via a mobile phone), to newspapers and magazines from China to Chile, and wrote articles for nearly a dozen publications in five countries. Priorities shifted in a matter of hours, our holiday house was turned into a makeshift media centre, and the computer was online almost 24/7.

My personal and professional engagement with the terrorist attack on Norway is easy to explain. First, although rightwing extremism is not my field of research, cultural diversity in Europe and Norway is, as well as nationalism and ethnicity. Secondly, I have first-hand experience of the new, Islamophobic kind of nationalism, having found myself on the receiving end of relatively unpleasant attacks from these quarters for several years.



A few words about the articles: The earliest piece, for OpenDemocracy, was an initial attempt to make sense of the catastrophe and to begin reflecting on the consequences for Norwegian society. It overlaps substantially with articles in Sydsvenska Dagbladet and Information, which, respectively, cover southern Sweden including Lund and Malmö, and a smallish, but select left-leaning audience in Denmark. The title of these Scandinavian-published articles, ‘Men who hate social democrats’, plays on the Scandinavian title of the first novel in Stieg Larsson's trilogy (‘Men who hate women’). I then focused on some unpalatable aspects of Internet networks; the new, Islamophobic right does not march or create organisations, but consists largely in loosely connected networks on the Web and Facebook. A long version of this article was published in the social democratic Dagsavisen (Oslo), a shorter version in the liberal/conservative Svenska Dagbladet (Stockholm). At the suggestion of Sean Carey, I also wrote an even shorter article for The Guardian, choosing to focus on the same topic.

Aftonbladet, Sweden's largest evening newspaper, asked me to reflect on the consequences of the shock for the Norwegian self-understanding. (Many foreign journalists have been interested in the same topic, seeing Norway as a peaceful, almost empty place of great natural beauty.) I first contrasted the serene scenery of Utøya with the brutal atrocities that took place there, ending the analysis with a brief critique of Norwegian nationalism, pointing out that Mr Breivik was 100 % Made in Norway, a perverse end-product of some of the murkier currents of Norwegian nationalism and contemporary Islamophobia. The quest for purity in his mind is, provocatively, mirrored in the purity of the lovely landscape around Utøya.

As someone who has been the victim of vitriolic attacks from the new right for years – I have been labelled cultural marxist, spineless multiculturalist, nihilistic cultural relativist and so on (add invectives as you like) – and who figures prominently in Mr Breivik's pantheon of evil ideologues, I finally felt a need to clarify my own position on these issues. I therefore wrote an op-ed for the liberal/conservative Aftenposten (Oslo) where I explained the difference between multiculturalism and diversity, outlining my own position, which was somewhat different from the posititions attributed to me by rightwing nationalists (who often accuse me of trying to deconstruct and destroy the entire country – would have been quite an achievement, by the way).

Finally, I co-wrote, with the author Jostein Gaarder (Sophie's World), an op-ed article for the International Herald Tribune (also published on the New York Times website) where we emphasise the need to take right-wing thought seriously, especially when it masquerades as a defence of democracy and liberal values.

Therapeutic writing? Doubtless. An attempt to come to terms with the unthinkable? Definitely. Anthropology? I hope so – among other things.


Oslo, 1 August 2011


(This text was first published on Anthropology Works).

20 August: I have subsequently begun to elaborate on some of the implications of 22 July for national identity in Norway, arguing the possibility of a strong collective identity based on citizenship and demos rather than ethnos and history. In my regular column in Dagbladet's Magasinet, I wrote about the flag as a multivocal symbol, and in Klassekampen, I contributed an article about what the people of Norway have in common, to do with the small scale, the high level of trust and a form of cultural intimacy based on shared experiences rather than ethnic origins.

8 September: There is still more. A debate about the freedom of expression and its limits is currently taking place in Norway, with some repercussions elsewhere. I sent some of my thoughts to Open Democracy last week. A guest editorial in Anthropology Today is also under way, with a very different focus, namely the displays of community and cohesion typical of the Norwegian reactions to the terrorist attacks. This editorial was to some degree inspired by the memorial service for one of the Utøya victims, Diderik Aamodt Olsen (19), whose family had asked me to speak at the service. It all suddenly became tangible in a new way.

1 April 2012: That guest editorial was published last year. More recently, I published an essay in Norwegian, in Nordisk Tidskrift, about the post-Utøya political climate in the country.

Late April 2012: The trial is on, and I've made a few contributions to the ongoing reflection concerning what this is and what it means. An article on the political implications of the trial and the principles of democracy was published in Open Democracy, and another, on the contexts that produced Breivik on Maribor's cultural capital website (where I am a regular contributor). A third article, in Danish, was printed in Information, describing four approaches to Breivik.