Today's contrasting opinion pieces on the terror in Norway in Melbourne's Age and Sydney's Herald reveal both the heights and the depths to which the Fairfax press can rise or sink (unlike the Murdoch press, of course, which only ever plumbs new depths).
The Age appropriately chose a Norwegian voice to best reflect on this week's terrorist outrage in Oslo. It chose well. Aslak Sira Myhre's lucid and intelligent analysis, Home-grown terror forces us to face ugly truths, is especially strong on essential historical context and insight into the Islamophobic mindset cultivated over the past decade in Norway, and, by extension, the rest of Europe. For Myhre, Anders Behring Breivik, the Christianist terrorist, is very much a case, to adapt Philip Roth's expression, of the indigenous European Islamophobic beserk:
"The terror of Norway has not come from Islamic extremists. Nor has it come from the far left, even though both these groups have been accused time after time of being the inner threat to our 'way of living'. Up to and including the terrifying hours in the afternoon of July 22, the little terror my country has experienced has come from the far right. For decades, political violence in this country has been almost the sole preserve of neo-Nazis and other racist groups. During the 1970s they bombed left-wing bookstores and a May Day demonstration. In the 80s, two neo-Nazis were executed because they were suspected of betraying the group. In the past 2 decades, two non-white Norwegian boys have died as a result of racist attacks. No foreign group has killed or hurt people on Norwegian territory since WW II except for the Israeli security force Mossad, which targeted and killed an innocent man by mistake in Lillehammer in 1973.
"Even with this history, when the devastating terror hit us we instantly suspected the Islamic world. It was the jihadis. It had to be. It was denounced as an attack on Norway, on our way of life. In Oslo, young women wearing hijabs and Arab-looking men were harassed as soon as the news broke. Small wonder. For at least 10 years we have been told that terror comes from the east. That an Arab is suspicious, that all Muslims are tainted. We regularly see people of colour being examined in private rooms in airport security; we have endless debates on the limits of 'our' tolerance. As the Islamic world has become the Other, we have begun to think that what differentiates 'us' from 'them' is the ability to slaughter civilians in cold blood.
"There is, of course, another reason why everybody looked for al-Qaeda. Norway has been part of the war in Afghanistan for 10 years, we took part in the Iraq war for some time, and we are eager bombers of Tripoli. There is a limit to how long you can partake in war before war reaches you. But although we all knew it, the war was rarely mentioned when the terrorist hit us. Our first response was rooted in irrationality: it had to be 'them'. I felt it myself. I feared that the war we took abroad had come to Norway. And what then? What would happen to our society? To tolerance, public debate and, most of all, to our settled immigrants and their Norwegian-born children? It was not thus. Once again, the heart of darkness lies buried deep within ourselves. The terrorist was a white Nordic male; not a Muslim but a Muslim hater.
"As soon as this was established, the slaughter was discussed as the deed of a mad man; it was no longer seen as primarily an attack on our society. The rhetoric changed, the headlines of the newspapers shifted their focus. Nobody talks about war anymore. When 'terrorist' is used, it is most certainly singular, not plural - an individual rather than an undefined group which is easily generalised to include sympathisers and anyone else you fancy. The terrible act is officially a national tragedy. The question is, would it have been thus if the killer was a mentally ill man with an Islamic background? I also believe the killer was mentally ill. To hunt down and execute teenagers on an island for an hour, you surely must have taken leave of your senses. But just as with 9/11 or the bombing of the London Underground, this is madness with both a clinical and a political cause. Anyone who has glanced at the web pages of racist groups or followed the online debates of Norwegian newspapers will have seen the rage with which Islamophobia is being spread; the poisonous hatred with which anonymous writers sting anti-racist liberals and the left is only too visible. The July 22 terrorist has participated in many such debates. He was an active member of one of the biggest Norwegian political parties, the populist right party, until 2006. He left it and sought his ideology instead among the community of anti-Islamist groups on the internet.
"When the world believed this to be an act of internationalist Islamist terrorism, state leaders from Obama to Cameron all stated that they would stand by Norway in our struggle. Which struggle will that be now? All Western leaders have the same problem within their own borders. Will they now wage war on home-grown right-wing extremism? On Islamophobia and racism?"
The Sydney Morning Herald, however, was having none of this, running instead with what can only be construed as an apology for the right wing Islamophobic poison condemned by Myhre. Incredibly, Norwegian massacre is wrong, not far right was penned by its international editor, Peter Hartcher:
"Much media reaction to the tragedy has conflated the incident with the rise of far-right paties in Europe. The coverage implies that Breivik's attack is an extension of the trend and a frightening portent. This is exactly wrong. His use of violence to pursue a 'crusade' to halt the 'Islamicisation [sic] of Europe' has discredited his cause, not advanced it. This is the worst thing that has happened to the far right in western Europe in years. Breivik wrote in his rantings, which, for some reason, most media are dignifying with the title 'manifesto', that he admired Europe's standout Muslim-baiting politician Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party in the Netherlands. Wilders opposes Muslim immigrants and wants the Koran and face-covering banned. His party won 15% of the vote in last year's election, making it the third biggest in the Dutch parliament. But Wilders knows that any association with the mad butcher of Oslo is poison. He issued a statement on Breivik on Saturday: 'I despise everything he stands for and everything he did'."
Such concern for the far-right! Just why Hartcher should portray "Muslim-baiting" Wilders as somehow innocent of the the racist Islamophobic culture that spawned Breivik is a mystery. For some reason best known to Hartcher, the man who has spewed forth such gems as "Islam is the ideology of a retarded culture," "The Koran is a fascist book," and "I've had enough of Islam in the Netherlands; let not one more Muslim immigrate," escapes being labelled a ranter like his admirer, Breivik. Nor does Hartcher question the rank absurdity inherent in Wilders' statement, "I despise everything [Breivik] stands for."
"There has been a rising tide of anti-immigrant, pro-nationalist sentiment in Western Europe in recent years [which has] mobilised in opposition to Islam and Islamic immigrants and Islamic emblems but this is part of a wider theme about identity," writes Hartcher, without any suggestion that this phenomenon is in any way disturbing or sinister.
According to Hartcher, Europe simply "has to work out its problems but not Breivik's way. He might have known that 'once you decide to strike', you damage the cause you are supposedly advancing. But then again, how do you explain common sense to the criminally deranged?"
One can only assume that, for Hartcher, these "problems" are perfectly understandable, and that as long as Europeans vent their racism and bigotry at the ballot box, rather than follow Breivik's example, everything's OK. And notice how, in Hartcher's analysis, Breivik is merely "criminally deranged," not one who is merely putting the Islamophobic rantings of the likes of Wilders, Geller, and Pipes, who all get the thumbs up from Breivik, into practice.
Add Hartcher's worrisome take on Breivik to the occasional Islamophobic ventings of Paul Sheehan, and the Sydney Morning Herald seems increasingly indistinguishable from the Murdoch press.
The Herald's editorial of the previous day likewise gives little cause for optimism: "If [!] right-wing rage against migrants, refugees and Islam does turn out to have driven this rampage it will inevitably raise calls to tone down the strident political rhetoric and conspiracy theories in vogue when debating even petty [!] issues. However, a considered assessment will require more time and investigation, and it would be premature to rush to judgment until more of the facts are known." (The shockwaves from Norway)
How lame is that?