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Bjørn Ihler

Bjørn Ihler – A clear stance against violent extremism

Extremely Together’s Young Leader from Norway and survivor of the Anders Breivik terrorist attack, who uses art to counter extreme right wing narratives.

In 2011, as the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and North Africa, I lost 69 friends to violent extremism and was nearly killed myself. I was far from what we believed to be the centre of history in 2011, far from the bombs of Libya, the protests of Tahrir Square and the streets of Damascus.

I was on summer vacation in Norway, on a small, quiet island a bit outside of Oslo, participating at the summer camp of the Norwegian Labour Youth Party. There I would, on the 22nd of July, be forced, along with friends, to run, hide and swim to dodge the bullets of Anders Behring Breivik, a fellow Norwegian, a terrorist who murdered children and youth for the preservation of a perverted vision of what Norwegian society once was.

Breivik’s vision of what Norwegian society once is nothing extraordinary. Across most of the world there are various myths about the past, about the people who occupies a certain territory, who they are, what they believe in, how they have survived and lived through the generations. Central to most of these myths is the construct of identity, of who ‘we’ are as opposed to ‘them’. This is where we find the roots of extremism, of hate and of violence.

In July 2011 Breivik tried to kill me because he was afraid. He believed Norway, its people and its values were under threat of extinction from immigration, from islam and from arabs. He believed the labour party was responsible for immigration policies that in his mind had ruined our country.

He believed Norway once was a mono-cultural society with little influence from the rest of the world, ignoring how Norwegians over the centuries have traveled to the most distant corners of the world, bringing back people, religion and culture from every continent. Breivik believed that his vision of Norway and Norwegian culture needed his protection through the means of violence.

Breivik is thus a classic extremist. Regardless of ideology the myth of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and the fear of extinction is central in most forms of extremism. This in turn feeds myths of supremacy and entitlements. Our job is to take a clear stand, to say no, and to challenge this.

Transforming narratives can be an effective means of deradicalisation as our way of understanding the world is founded in the stories we hear and believe in.

In Norway, and in the rest of Europe we have over the last decades learnt that the violentextremists to be feared are terrorists fighting for the cause of Islam. We learnt this from the attacks on 9/11, from the attacks in London and Madrid and more recently Paris and Brussels. We learnt this through the media, and through the political debates about securing Europe from terrorists. We learnt that ‘we’ are under threat from ‘them’, from terrorists who in many instances are mentioned
in the same sentence as muslims and immigrants – the narrative seems to support the ideas of Breivik.

We learn little to nothing about our own past. How our cultures have been shaped through the centuries by influences from all over the world, and how violent and generally bad we have been in responding to this. We don’t learn that not only nazis from Germany were responsible for the holocaust but that antisemitism was, and is a massive social problem across Europe and has been so for ages, and that also people from other countries supported the genocide on the jews. We don’t learn how travellers and gypsies still suffer under persecution. We don’t learn the history of european scepticism to islam, about how Spain violently persecuted muslims, and how the empires of Europe related to the Ottomans. This is not ancient history, our societies and our cultures are still shaped by it, and it creates the breeding grounds for hate. Our job to say no, and to challenge this.

The events of the 22/7-2011 could have been an eye opener. We could have directed our attentions homeward, to our own societies. We could have asked how our society had been part of creating someone like Breivik? Instead we decided once again to direct our attentions elsewhere, to the perceived threat of extremists fighting in the name of Islam. To export an european notion of peace and democracy through violence. To combat those we call terrorists in lands far away. To further support the ideas of ‘us’ and ‘them’. My goal is to challenge this. I want to bring our attentions back home, to scrutinise and challenge all forms of violent extremism in all societies, including our own. We can only build peace globally by scrutinising, criticising and improving ourselves, by understanding and work against the root causes of hate, bigotry, ignorance and violence everywhere. By breaking down the barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’, by challenging the myths that support ideologies of supremacy and hate, and by taking a clear stance against violent extremism.

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