Nick Cohen has a piece in today’s Observer in which he points out that, while Anders Breivik was an admirer of the English Defence League, the Norwegian killer “did not only listen to British far rightists screaming out their hatreds in the madhouses of the blogosphere, but peppered his manifesto with citations of articles in the Daily Telegraph and other respectable conservative newspapers”.
Strictly speaking, most of the references to Telegraph reports in Breivik’s 2083 manifesto are by Fjordman and other “counter-jihadist” bloggers whose articles Breivik reproduces in his document. I can identify only two reports from the Telegraph cited by Breivik himself (this and this). His thinking was in fact influenced much more by the Mail, whose articles he cites on numerous occasions throughout his manifesto (the links can be found here).
But the point Cohen is making is basically correct – the mainstream right-wing press in the UK does provide both an inspiration and a cover of legitimacy for the anti-migrant, anti-Muslim ravings of the far right, including murderous fringe elements like Breivik. He is also correct in pointing out that the liberal media contribute to this Islamophobic narrative by giving disproportionate coverage to tiny extremist groups like Muslims Against Crusades
What is missing from Cohen’s analysis, however, is an assessment of his own role in all this. Because the truth is that his journalism has itself played a not inconsiderable part in stoking the baseless but widespread fears of an Islamic takeover of the west that motivated Breivik’s killing spree.
Admittedly, this has been a relatively recent development in Cohen’s journalistic career. Up until the Iraq war, which he enthusiastically supported, Cohen hadn’t shown the slightest interest in anything remotely connected with Islam or Islamism. But the role played by the Muslim Association of Britain in organising the mass opposition movement to that war suddenly awoke Cohen to the realisation that political Islam not only poses an existential threat to western civilisation but is also assisted by those non-Muslims who refuse to accept Cohen’s paranoid delusions on that score.
So, according to Cohen, a large part of liberal opinion has capitulated to “a movement of contemporary imperialism – Islamism” which “wants an empire from the Philippines to Gibraltar – and which is tyrannical, homophobic, misogynist, racist and homicidal to boot”. And it’s not just liberals who are aiding the Islamists in their plot to take over the world. Cohen has denounced “appeasers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who sponsored Islamists working to create a sexist, racist, homophobic and totalitarian empire”. Anders Breivik would undoubtedly endorse every word of this.
Now, Cohen would argue that his denunciations are directed against Islamism rather than Islam. But the Islamists he condemns include Yusuf al-Qaradawi, whose Al Jazeera broadcasts attract an audience of tens of millions and who is widely regarded as a leading reformist influence within Islam. In Cohen’s world-view even Tariq Ramadan represents a threat – when Ramadan received a friendly reception on his speaking tour of the US last year, Cohen wrote that it “showed that today a type of fellow-travelling with radical Islam has spread from Europe to America”. And in the UK itself, Cohen would have us believe, such mainstream organisations and institutions as the Muslim Council of Britain and the East London Mosque are headed by those evil Islamists who are bent on world conquest.
This is where Cohen’s distinction between Islamism and Islam breaks down. For, if a major figure like Qaradawi is, as Cohen claims, a barbarian intent on killing homosexuals and genitally mutilating young girls, if a liberal Muslim intellectual like Ramadan embodies the threat from “radical Islam”, if the MCB and the East London Mosque are led by dangerous extremists whose objective is to establish an Islamic empire – then you can only conclude that the Muslim communities in which these individuals and organisations are rooted must surely be suspect too.
This is certainly the conclusion drawn by Breivik’s former friends in the English Defence League. It is the long campaign of demonisation waged against the East London Mosque by mainstream journalists like Cohen, along with his co-thinkers Andrew Gilligan and Martin Bright, that has inspired the EDL to mount an intimidatory demonstration in Tower Hamlets on 3 September. If the ELM is indeed a nest of “Islamic fundamentalists”, the EDL reasons, then the tens of thousands of local Muslims who support it must represent no less of a threat.
If a British Breivik emerges from the “counter-jihad” movement in the UK and commits similar atrocities here, it won’t just be the right-wing press that is to blame for stoking hysteria about “Islamisation” and its “appeasers”. Liberal journalists like Nick Cohen will have to take their share of the responsibility too.