Hands up if, when you first heard about the atrocity unfolding in Oslo last week, your immediate suspicions fell on Islamic extremists.
Honestly, mine did. Not only were my suspicions wrong, they were baseless. In the couple of hours immediately after the blast, just as news of a shooting at a youth Labour party camp began to trickle out, there was absolutely no information whatsoever to lead me to believe Islamic terrorists were behind the events. A colleague mused it might be the work of far-right extremists but if, at that time, I had to bet my life on who the perpetrators were, I would have said this was an act of Islamic jihad. Trying to cover the breaking story from a newsroom thousands of kilometres away, I did not print or broadcast these suspicions, but I had them all the same.
Then a report came through suggesting that an Islamic group named Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or the Helpers of the Global Jihad, had claimed responsibility for the attack. In my mind, the report naturally reinforced my suspicions and I felt comfortable enough to state on-line and on-air that an unconfirmed report of a claim had been made. Although not factually incorrect, I regret publishing that statement; it is one of the dangers of an industry obsessed with breaking news.
But some other media outlets went much further. UK tabloid The Sun prepared a front page that evoked an ‘Al-Qaeda’ massacre. In the US Jennifer Rubin for the Wall Street Journal stated that “in all likelihood the attack was launched by part of the jihadist hydra.”
The media has, rightly, taken a kicking for jumping to conclusions, from the United Nations and from the media itself in the form of outrage (The Atlantic) and exasperation (the Guardian’s Charlie Brooker).
But there’s more to it than simply an overzealous media that’s prepared to hedge its bets. Since 9/11 Western governments have gone to great lengths to warn their people of the dangers of Islamic extremism. Devastating bombings in Madrid and London have amplified these warnings. The focus has been on jihadism to the point where people forgot that terrorism wasn’t invented by Osama Bin Laden. What happened in Oslo should remind us that there is more to ideological terrorism than just Islamic extremism. Far-right extremism, nationalist extremism, Christian extremism are just as odious.
This sudden, shocking reminder of that fact presents people in the West with a chance to take a look at themselves and their prejudices.
It is a point taken up succinctly in the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday.
A Breivik is like a Bin Laden, an extremist ready to commit acts of terrorism. But for every Breivik, there are millions of conservatives with similar anti-immigration opinions across Europe who would never condone what Breivik did. Just like there are millions of Muslims across Europe who believe that the West should have kept its nose out of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East but who would never condone Bin Laden’s terrorist acts.
A crazed few on the extremes should not be mistaken for the tolerant multitude in the middle.
POTC: Breivik and Bin Laden, extreme at both ends