Europe: the time has come to reflect
Stefano Allievi, University of Padua 5 August 2011

The massacres in Oslo and on the island of Utoya, carried out on July 22nd by lone killer Anders Behring Breivik, provide us with food for thought, while we wait for further facts to emerge on the case. 

At the initial unfolding of the events, many Europeans believed the attack was of Islamic origin. This automatic reaction warrants reflection. As Europol data confirms every year, the attacks carried out and the acts of violence perpetrated by Islamic fanatics in Europe are a tiny percentage of the total attacks, bombs, massacres and murders that occur each year. For example, according to the 2010 report, there were 294 terrorist attacks in Europe (significantly fewer than in 2008 when in turn there were fewer than in 2007), of which 237 were carried out by separatists, 40 by the extreme left, 4 by the extreme right and 2 single issue attacks (linked to a specific local cause), 10 non-specific and only 1 (in Italy) of Islamic origin. In spite of this there were 587 arrests on terrorism charges during that same year, of which 413 were separatists, 29 were extreme left militants, 22 extreme right wing militants and 2 were single issue terrorists, 11 unspecified and 110 Islamists. There were 408 people sentenced for terrorist crimes , of which 268 were separatists, 39 extreme left militants, 1 extreme right militant, 11 unspecified and 89 Islamists [1]. This data can be interpreted in various ways. One could consider the discrepancy between the number of arrests and imprisonments of Islamists and the number of attacks carried out by Islamists, as a sign of effective prevention. This greater vigilance concerning this kind of terrorism has had a real effect, with a number of attacks in various countries prevented in locations where there would have been high numbers of victims, such as airports and other public places. One the other hand, one could see this data as the mark of selective attention and greater nervousness regarding Islamist terrorism, and perhaps an underestimation of other kinds of terrorism, such as from the extreme right.

This data cannot be blamed exclusively on the media, although the media is a phenomenal amplifier and sound box for the European fear of Islamism. These numbers should also make us seriously reflect, not only on the presence of Islam in Europe, but also on what it means to be European, and on our attitude toward Islam and Muslims [2]. Biases against Muslims in Europe can be traced back to a long campaign that precedes 9/11 and that has proved to be very effective and pervasive. The Northern League’s campaign against mosques in Italy began in 2000 [3], and even before that, Islamophobia was constructed by the Front National in France and by other political players in various countries [4]. Therefore, some prejudices are not so much a reaction to Islamic violence in the West, but rather something far more profound and ancient.

We seem unable to abandon this Pavlovian reflex in spite of frequently being proved wrong. In fact the news all too often reports on the risk of Islamic attacks that then never take place during great events, such as the Olympic Games, the G8, the Jubilee, and so on. There are occasional confirmations, but our automatic reaction never results in a debate, reflection or demands for a self-critical analysis. Shouting ‘Islamic wolf’ has enabled successful careers in journalism, the security forces, the judicial sector and, of course, in politics. Private, let alone public, apologies to Muslims for mistakes are very rare. And yet, this phenomenon has damaged the lives of thousands of Muslims, who then become the occasional victims, if not of violence, certainly of rejection, controversy and ordinary daily harassment at school, at work and on the streets.

Muslim communities all over Europe sighed with relief when they heard that the Norwegian massacre had not been carried out by one of their own. If that had been the case, the price to pay would have been a terrible one. Many non-Muslims also breathed their own sigh at not having to confirm their prejudice against Muslims. This reaction is disquieting in its triviality and automatism. The press in Muslim-majority countries is pointing out these inconsistancies, asking “Why is this not called Christian terrorism?” “Why are we not creating a plot theory?” These are questions that should be asked throughout the West as well. 

We must also reflect upon Europe’s internal violence, which has been emerging in recent years. Fear of an Islamic danger has produced a crowded web of large and small political parties, groups, websites, newspapers, writers and intellectuals, competing in the easy and productive Islamophobia market at so much per kilo. This is the hornet’s nest in which the Oslo assassin dipped his hands and then drafted his extremely personal opinions and his tragic conclusions. It is no coincidence that many of these references are quoted in his memorial, and it is significant that the xenophobic and islamophobic ravings he published are filled with recurrent themes that are actually widespread among the mainstream media and extremist viewpoints in Europe. These references consist of buzzwords, quotes and even specific linguistic similarities, such as calling Europe ‘Eurabia’, a neologism invented by Bat Ye’or but brought to success by Oriana Fallaci, who was also quoted by Breivik[5].

It is obvious that it would be neither correct nor intelligent to blame on his intellectual references the responsibility and consequences of Breivik’s actions. This, as always, would be a very slippery slope. One cannot, however, ignore that on this subject there have been bad teachers (yes, precisely in the sense used in other times and other political circles for Toni Negri and others) and terrible practitioners. Some of these voices have been provided with disproportionate and uncontested space in the public debate and the media, permitted to use language that other cases would not be allowed[6]. In many political speeches, in too many newspaper articles and even in statements from religious leaders, if one replaced the word ‘Muslim’ with the word ‘Jew’, these same statements would be considered simply unutterable. The rise in xenophobic and Islamophobic political parties all over Europe proves that this is not just a question of style. There are too many misunderstandings, too many shortcuts, too much superficiality and too many mistakes. There is too little internal debate and, of course, a number of unacceptable acts of violence. But the time has come for everyone to seriously reflect on where all this is leading us.


[1] For those wishing to research the matter personally, the link so little used by journalists and self-appointed experts on Islam, is: (see in particular pages 10 and 11 as the in-depth analyses on Islamic terrorism, especially the one mentioned above from page 18 onwards).

[2] See S. Allievi, Le trappole dell’immaginario. Islam e occidente, Forum, 2007.

[3] Italian Islam’s ‘Black September’ was in 2000, when the anti-Muslim kulturkampf became apparent in various circles, such as with the publication and favourable reception and disseminating of an essay by political analyst Giovanni Sartori, entitled Pluralism, multiculturalism and foreigners, filled with inaccuracies, inconsistencies and blunders, but extremely successful. Then there was the pastoral letter from the then Cardinal of Bologna Giacomo Biffi, equally widely broadcast and debated in Catholic circles, resulting in a peculiar Catholic form of Islamophobia until then silent. And of course there was the Northern League’s political campaign, which started with the case involving the mosque in Lodi and that has never ended. On the contrary, it is in constant evolution (on the Italian case see my books Islam italiano, Einaudi, 2003, and I musulmani e la società italiana, Franco Angeli, 2009).

[4] V. Geisser, La nouvelle islamophobie, La Découverte, 2003; M. Massari, Islamofobia. La paura e l’islam, Laterza, 2006; C. Allen, Islamophobia, Ashgate, 2010.

[5] See G. Bosetti, Cattiva maestra. La rabbia di Oriana Fallaci e il suo contagio, Marsilio, 2005, and S. Allievi, Ragioni senza forza, forze senza ragione, Emi, 2004, and also Niente di personale signora Fallaci. Una trilogia alternativa, Aliberti, 2006.

[6] The case involving the Northern League’s MEP Borghezio, is paradigmatic but anything but unique. Only on this one occasion was he good-naturedly suspended by the party for three months for having made the unutterable statement that he agreed totally with the reasons and motivations, albeit not the methods, that inspired the Oslo assassin. The aforementioned Member of the European Parliament is a professional statement-maker on this subject (he effectively does practically nothing else), and is elected on the basis of these reasons. He is hero of the Northern League’s base, celebrated in Pontida, and has never been invited to use more moderate language, let alone more serious arguments.



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)