The Perils of Anti-Immigration Politics: Lessons From Oslo

07/25/2011 12:44 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2011

If you are an immigrant in Europe, especially a Muslim one, you are damned if you do and damned if you don't.

"At first, people thought Muslims were behind this," said a Pakistani taxi driver in Oslo when the news of the bomb attack and the murderous shooting rampage initially hit the news. But soon it became clear that the man behind the mayhem was tall and blond. The 32-year-old right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik wanted to spark a revolution against immigration, Muslims, and "multicultural Marxists."

Oklahoma Deja Vu
The Oslo attacks are eerily reminiscent of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people. News organizations quickly reported investigators were looking for several Middle Eastern men. But within 48 hours they arrested the very all-American Timothy McVeigh. A discovery that led to much media mea culpa about a rush to judgment.

What a difference 15 years, a 9/11, a London subway bombing and a Madrid train explosion makes.

No Muslim immigrant bought the fertilizer to make the bombs. No Muslim immigrant pulled the trigger. But the Oslo massacre will still put, not just Breivik, but also immigrants in the dock.

There is already enough hysteria against immigrants in Europe coming all the way from the top down to the man on the street. "Multiculturalism is a failure," French President Nicholas Sarkozy has declared. The right-wing Progress Party in Norway and Pim Fortuyn's LPF in the Netherlands rose to power by bashing immigrants.

Yet no political party, no matter how anti-immigrant, will acknowledge Breivik -- this thing of darkness -- as theirs. They will instead want to steer the conversation back to the "failures of multiculturalism" that have driven an all-Norwegian man to such desperate measures.

Yes, there is a failure of multiculturalism here but it's not the kind Sarkozy is talking about.

And it's revealed in one striking difference. If a Muslim extremist had committed these horrendous acts, the whole community would have had to answer for that act. It would an act of "Islamic terrorism" and would lead to even more strident calls to reform the entire immigrant system.

Breivik wanted to recreate a group like the Knights Templar who protected Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land in medieval times. But his acts will not be called a "Christian terrorism." Breivik will remain an individual, a rotten apple. We will remember his name just as we remember the names of Timothy McVeigh and "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski.

How many remember the name Shahzad Tanweer? He was one of the men behind the 7/7 London subway bombings. Those men were just lumped together as jihadists. Their identity is always defined by their community: Muslim, immigrant, or son of immigrants.

Clash of Civilizations?

This is not to say immigration has not brought with it a clash of values in Europe. The big fear is that multiculturalism has become all about tolerating the intolerant. And there is enough intolerance to go around on all sides. The fights over hijabs, female circumcision, honor killings, same-sex marriage, women's rights are not trivial.

But Europe has to face the fact that it has not opened its doors because of the goodness of its heart. It is a matter of necessity not noblesse oblige. It's let the immigrants in because it needs them to wash its clothes, and vacuum its shop floors. And most of all, it needs them to change the bed pans of its elderly. Stuck between a rock and a hard place -- a falling birthrate and an aging population -- it's holding its nose and looking outside its borders.

At some level Europe's vision of multiculturalism has been this -- that brown people can come to change its soiled sheets and mop its floors but bring with them only their shwarmas and doner kebabs. Yummy 'ethnic' cuisine everyone likes as long as it's not too spicy. The rest of their cultural baggage -- and citizenship rights-- they can leave at the border.

But it does not quite work out that way.

The Other

"We will not let fear paralyze us," asserted Oslo's Lutheran Archbishop Helga Haugland Byfuglien. "We will fight for the values that were attacked."

That's commendable. Tony Blair tried to do just that after the 7/7 subway bombings in London. But in trying to take the moral higher ground, in trying to protect Muslims from any kind of backlash, he unwittingly re-underlined their "Otherness" in the English imagination.

"The vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims, here and abroad, are decent and law abiding people who abhor this act of terrorism every bit as much as WE do," said Blair.

Until the immigrant becomes truly part of Tony Blair's "We," Europe will never be safe from both its Anders Breiviks and its Shahzad Tanweers.

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