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Contemporary Challenges: Questions of Nationalism and Multicultural Acceptance in Europe

By: Mia Schatz In Oslo, Norway on July 22, 2011, Anders Breivik detonated a car bomb near a cluster of government buildings, killing 8 people and wounding 209. He then continued on to a Labour Party youth camp, dressed as a police officer, where he shot and murdered 69 people and wounded another 33, all in the name of Norwegian nationalism. Breivik took responsibility for the atrocities the next day saying, “the Labour Party has failed the country and the people, and the price of their treason is what they had to pay.”[1]

The “treason” Breivik is referring to is the Norwegian Labour Party’s embrace of multiculturalism. Monday, April 16 marked the first day of Breivik’s trial, at which he offered a plea of “not guilty.” Although he does not deny his responsibility for the killings, he argues that he was acting in self-defense against the “ethnic cleansing” of Norwegian culture that he considers to be fueled by the promotion of a multicultural society.[2]

Although Breivik’s barbarous massacre is an extreme demonstration by any measure, his strong opposition to multiculturalism is not a unique sentiment in Europe. Breivik’s argument that the acceptance and incorporation of “foreign” cultures threatens national identity raises the complicated topic of nationalism. On February 5, 2011, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference suggesting that state multiculturalism unintentionally effected a deleterious outcome on “Britishness” in that it

“…encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.  We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.”[3]

PM Cameron’s assertion is that multiculturalism facilitated, in a sense, the weakening and the peripheralization of the UK’s national identity by encouraging tolerant yet separate communities throughout the country. His claim implies that multiculturalism would succeed were these different cultures to find equal footing, as it were, through a sense of national commonality. Discussions of nationalism face complications, however, in that nationalism itself isn’t a tangible reality, but a psychological construct. The core principle of multiculturalism insinuates that people with varying value structures inhabit the actual physical geographic entities of all nations—not least, the UK and Norway. So, when Cameron offers up loaded phrases like “our values” in discussions of nationalism, it begs the question: can a homogeneous nationalism exist alongside a multicultural society based not on tolerance, but acceptance? The violent endeavors of Anders Breivik suggest the answer is an unequivocal no and, therefore, derails Cameron’s theory.

The trouble with Cameron’s contention is a contradiction in terms. Herein lies the problem: if, as Cameron proposes, the state advocates a strong nationalism, one must ask, “who makes up the ‘nation’?” For someone like Anders Breivik, his national identity is derived from “pure” Norwegians whom were born in Norway and adhere to Norwegian norms—for example, Christian religion. Breivik blames the Norwegian Labour Party for the acceptance of multiculturalism. His national extremism leads him to believe that the Labour Party promotion of multiculturalism facilitates the deterioration of Norwegian culture. He further expressed his disgust with the party’s treasonous “mass importing of Muslims” saying, “Any person with a conscience cannot allow its country to be colonized by Muslims.”[4] Clearly, Breivik’s perception of nationalism creates a very narrow construct that would exclude a significant portion of the Norwegian population.

Due to today’s technological advances, the distribution of information is far more efficient than had hitherto been possible, amplifying the chance to engage in cross-cultural exchange. Although Breivik carried out the attacks alone, he found support on the Internet through the ideals professed by other far-right parties—particularly those in Britain.[5] The Internet occasions wonderful opportunities for cultural growth and understanding, but it also ensures that issues of multiculturalism and nationalism will not subside anytime in the near future.


[1] "Judge: Accused Claims Attacks Done 'to save Norway'" BBC News. BBC, 25 July 2011. Web. 14 Apr. 2012. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14278231>.

[2] Bevanger, Lars. "Anders Breivik Pleads Not Guilty at Norway Murder Trial." BBC News. BBC, 16 Apr. 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17724535>.

[3] "Number 10 Downing Street." PM’s Speech at Munich Security Conference. Web. 20 Apr. 2012. <http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/pms-speech-at-munich-security-conference/>.

[4] "Judge: Accused Claims Attacks Done 'to save Norway'" BBC News. BBC, 25 July 2011. Web. 14 Apr. 2012. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14278231>.

[5] BBC News. BBC, 25 July 2011. Web. 21 Apr. 2012. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9547000/9547585.stm>.

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