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How Organized Are Europe’s Political and Violent Extremists?

July 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Anders Behring Breivik, whose manifesto stated that Islam poses an existential threat to European culture, admitted to carrying out attacks Friday in Norway that killed dozens. Jeffrey Brown discusses political and violent extremism in Europe with Tufts University's David Art and Jonathan Birdwell of Demos, a British think tank.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Hours before he carried out his attacks, Anders Breivik published an extended manifesto on the Internet. It detailed his belief, among other things, that Islam poses an existential threat to European culture, and that many politicians are complicit in allowing that to happen.

We talk about Breivik and the broader issue of extremism now with Jonathan Birdwell, a researcher at Demos, a British think tank. His latest book, “The Edge of Violence,” looks at the relationship between violent and nonviolent radicals in Europe and Canada. And David Art, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University, his new book is “Inside the Radical Right: The Development of Anti-Immigrant Parties in the Western — in Western Europe.”

Jonathan Birdwell, I will start with you. You have had a chance to look at this so-called manifesto posted by Anders Breivik. Broadly speaking, what do you find there?

JONATHAN BIRDWELL, Demos: Wow.

Well, it’s quite a comprehensive document. He outlines what he sees as the two main enemies, as we have heard, mainly the growth of Islam in Europe and the culture of Islam, which he sees as a political ideology, and then also what he calls cultural Marxism or multiculturalism, which he sees as the kind of left-wing establishment that has allowed this immigration in Europe and basically is why — they are the reason why Europe is suffering what he thinks a crisis of cultural self-confidence.

So this document outlines his ideology, but it also outlines what he thinks the so-called European resistant movements need to do in the next 50 years to fight this threat that he perceives.

JEFFREY BROWN: And are there commonalities of ideas, of themes? You look at a lot of other extremist groups and their writings on the Web and elsewhere. Are there commonalities that you see?

JONATHAN BIRDWELL: Well, there’s certainly commonalities with other far-right groups in terms of the threat of Islam, the kind of shift from race-based arguments to a kind of emphasis on culture and the incompatibility with Islam and European culture.

But I think what’s quite interesting about Breivik and unique is the idea that he sees himself as a kind of Christian martyr. He believes that he is a member of the Knights Templar, which is a medieval organization back in the Crusades. So far as I know, that organization isn’t currently in existence.

So I think that’s an interesting, unique aspect to Breivik compared to other extremist far-right groups at the moment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, David Art, let me bring you in here. Of course we want to be careful to distinguish between one horrific violent act and nonviolent political actions around Europe.

But for context here, the kind of issues we’re talking about, to what extent have they become part of the mainstream debate in areas that you study and part of — part of today’s politics in Europe?

DAVID ART, Tufts University: Well, they very much have. If — you talked about mainstream parties. It was Angela Merkel about a year ago who talked about multiculturalism has failed. You see similar discourse from Nicolas Sarkozy. And these are obviously mainstream European politicians.

Within radical right political parties — and I would distinguish — you are quite right to distinguish among the far right from radical right political parties with a more extra-parliamentary right-wing subculture — among the former, these ideas are really their signature issue, anti-immigration, which has — and particularly anti-Islam.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how much power do these parties have in Norway and in Scandinavia in particular?

DAVID ART: Well, in Norway, they are not currently a member of the government, but they won mid-20 percent of the vote in the last election. They tolerated a minority government between 2001 and 2005.

In Denmark, they are essentially part of the governing coalition there. Recently, in Finland, the True Finns, a party that came from really nowhere, has — did quite well. They’re a little smaller in Sweden. They are represented in the — in Parliament, but they don’t have the same influence in Sweden as they do in Norway and Denmark.

But in all three — all four countries that I have mentioned they are major players.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Jonathan Birdwell, coming back to the more extreme and violent expressions of this, what is known about the makeup and size of those expressions throughout Europe, and in Scandinavia in particular?

JONATHAN BIRDWELL: Right.

Well, the past three or four years we have seen a kind of growth in these kind of street-based movements. Now, the main one is the U.K. called the English Defence League. Now, these groups mainly organize demonstrations. They’re very kind of loosely organized.

And we have seen a growth in these movements across Europe and across Scandinavia, to varying degrees of success. Now, we’re actually currently in the middle of doing research into street-based movements across Europe. And as I said, it varies significantly. On the one hand you have the very far extreme, kind of neo-Nazi-type groups and then you have the broader groups that are more populist and more focused on anti-immigration.

So it’s — you definitely have seen a broader mobilization in the past three or four years of these groups. Now, the violent side of it is still quite small. But the risk is that the rhetoric of these broader groups, these street-based groups can feed into the individuals like Breivik who are more motivated towards violence.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is it known, is much known about how well-organized these groups are, either within countries or in different countries?

JONATHAN BIRDWELL: Well, they — it’s difficult to determine. Like I said, the organizations are quite loosely based. They make use of the Internet. They focus on demonstrations.

So for example, the English Defence League is by far the largest. They have 72,000 members on Facebook and they attract on average 2,000 to 3,000 members to their demonstrations. But that is significantly larger than other groups in other European countries. So I was just in Denmark doing research and the fringe groups there are more in terms of 20 to 30 active members, but with a broader membership of around 300 to 400. So that was in Denmark. So there is quite a large degree of variation.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, David Art, you know, right after this latest incident, of course, political parties everywhere, right-wing or otherwise, denounced the act and tried to separate — wanted to separate themselves.

Now, how did that jibe with the normal process there between some of the right-wing political parties and the more extremist groups? Do they try to separate themselves normally?

DAVID ART: Normally, yes.

And, I mean, one — the issue — or one of the issues with Breivik, of course, is that he was a member both of this — of the Progress Party. He was a member of the youth wing before leaving the party and of the extra-parliamentary right. So the question is, how do these two spheres interact?

And you’re quite right that most radical right parties have denounced Breivik and distanced themselves from it. Looking at the Internet reaction, you see only the most extremist fringes celebrating or at least not denouncing, at least not denouncing Breivik.

I think that obviously people have said, well, maybe the left sees an opportunity here to, in some sort of morbid way, make political play of this. So that — the debate that we’re having right now and obviously are going to have for several months is similar to the one that we had I think in the United States after Loughner. What is the relationship between these ideas and the discourse and actual violence?

JEFFREY BROWN: And…

DAVID ART: I tend to see Breivik — just to differ with Jonathan a bit on the organization of the violent extremist milieu, they relatively, historically, have been quite poorly organized and fragmented.

And the state interior ministries in various countries have really been able to penetrate what organization there is, particularly in Germany and to a lesser extent in Sweden, too. So I see the movement probably as less organized as Jonathan does, but it certainly does have the potential for mobilization.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We will leave it there.

Thank you very much, David Art and Jonathan Birdwell in London. Thanks a lot.

DAVID ART: Thank you.

JONATHAN BIRDWELL: Thank you.