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Torbjørn Jagland, Council of Europe Secretary-General: "If We Don't Act Now, Dark Forces Will Take Over"

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Previously published in Metro www.metro.lu

Torbjørn Jagland is Chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee -- but most of his work is spent combating radicalism. As Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, Jagland is charged with promoting "greater unity" in Europe. In an interview with Metro, he explained why radicalization is such a dangerous threat.

Why is Europe becoming radicalized?
There are multiple factors at work: the economic crisis, social conditions, unemployment and general dissatisfaction. There's also immigration, which creates a feeling of growing competition in the labor market and growing demand for social benefits. That's why hostility towards immigrants is growing. Then there's another factor: the fear of terrorism. It influences people's attitudes towards Islam because at least in some cases the terrorists claim they're carrying out their attacks in the name of Islam.

Where's the connection between right-wing and Islamist radicalization? Are they expressions of the same attitude, a sense of alienation perhaps? Or is one a result of the other?
We have to be careful because there are many radical tendencies. For instance, our Progress Party here in Norway is not the same thing as the Front National in France. And it's unfair to say that those who express skepticism towards Muslims are in the same box as Anders Behring Breivik. But the sentiments come from the same source -- a feeling that the country is on the defensive. As a result, a growing number of people are defining themselves as against these new influences. They're afraid of being overrun by other cultures.

Politicians are trying to address this problem, if only because it destabilizes society. But can they really solve it, and should they? Isn't radical thinking just an expression of freedom of speech in a democracy?
It's very important to safeguard the freedom of expression. European countries have regulations; for example, it's illegal to post racist messages online. But we can't oppress views that we dislike. But mainstream politicians have to take their responsibility. What worries me a lot is that is that they use the situation irresponsibly, to score political points. Right now mainstream politics is becoming more and more extreme. What we called extreme attitudes 10 years ago is becoming more mainstream. The leaders of major parties need to find a way to express themselves clearly to the voters on matters like integration. Part of the problem is that there's too much exaggeration on issues like integration -- on both sides. Very few people present the facts. One basic fact is that Europe today is totally dependent on immigrants. If all the immigrants disappeared tomorrow, we'd have total chaos. Immigrants are doing many jobs that Europeans normally don't do.

Why should society protect itself against extremism?
The danger is what we've seen in the past: when you make one group a scapegoat for problems in society, soon you'll be killing these people. That's a dynamic that we've seen before, and that's we have to be so cautious. What happened in my own country, with Breivik killing 77 people -- he couldn't have done it without first dehumanizing Muslims and those who support multiculturalism. Dehumanizing ethnic groups is a very dangerous process, because when you reach a certain point you can't stop it.

So we have to erect the barrier that wasn't there in the 1930s Germany?
That's right. Otherwise at some point the development is irreversible and the dark forces take over. That's what happened in Germany.

Whose job is it to erect that barrier?
The media. The education system. NGOs. Political leaders: if they double-speak many of us will do the same.

So politicians are playing with fire by pandering to extremist groups?
Absolutely. It's very difficult to compete with extreme forces because if you use their words, the next day they'll use even stronger words. People don't like to copy -- they want to be original.

Which role does the internet play in promoting radicalization?
Of course the internet plays a very positive role, as we've seen in the Arab Spring and many other situations. But it does have a side effect. People are in essence forming parallel societies in cyberspace. When you're not sitting around a table, discussing with people, but instead just meeting like-minded people on the internet, the discussion becomes more and more extreme. There's nobody who can adjust you. And the people who engage in these parallel societies tend to be lonely people who only meet others on the internet. Many crazy ideas can get into their heads.

Perhaps the root of the problem is loneliness in our modern societies...
Several years ago in Norway we had a number of neo-Nazi groups. What we did then was to knock at the members' doors and simply have conversations with them. It went very well and the problem faded away. I think that's something that could be tried elsewhere. And I think this is something that mainstream European parties should pay attention to: many people feel lonely, forgotten, not cared for. But most political parties just speak to the middle class. Then it's much easier for radical parties to appeal to the people who feel left out, just like Marine Le Pen does. And there are many, many such people in Europe today.