U.N. Official Sees Anti-Muslim Prejudice in Early Assumptions About Norway Attack

By Patrick Goodenough | July 27, 2011 | 5:05 AM EDT

In this photo taken by Vergard M. Aas, a Norwegian crime reporter who responded to the scene of a mass shooting on Utoya Island, Norway, victims lie near the shoreline approximately one hour after police say a man dressed as a police officer gunned down youths as they ran and even swam for their lives at a camp which was organized by the youth wing of the ruling Labor Party, Friday July 22, 2011. Police say the suspect in this shooting set off a fatal explosion hours earlier in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. (AP Photo/Presse 3.0, Vegard M. Aas)

(CNSNews.com) – A United Nations human rights expert Tuesday waded into the debate over the media’s early response to last week’s Norwegian terrorist attack, saying that the assumption Islamists were responsible exposed anti-Muslim prejudice.

“The way in which some public commentators immediately associated the horrifying mass murder in Norway last Friday with Islamist terrorism is revealing and indeed an embarrassing example of the powerful impact of prejudices and their capacity to enshrine stereotypes,” said Heiner Bielefeldt.

“Proper respect for the victims and their families should have precluded the drawing of conclusions based on pure conjecture,” Bielefeldt added in a brief statement released by the U.N.

Bielefeldt, a German philosopher and theologian, is an expert investigator (“special rapporteur” in U.N. jargon) on freedom of religion, appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council to his unpaid post last August.

From mainstream news organizations to wire services to social media, much of the breaking news and early commentary on last Friday’s bomb blast in Oslo and subsequent mass shooting at a youth summer camp pointed to a strong suspicion that Islamists were behind the attacks.

It then emerged that police had in custody a 32 year-old Nordic Norwegian, Anders Behring Breivik, whose online writings indicate a radical ultra-nationalist ideology. He stands accused of killing eight people in the bombing and another 68, mostly youngsters, at the camp.

Some of the early reporting had thrown caution to the wind. “‘Al-Qaeda’ Massacre,” read a sub-headline on the British tabloid The Sun, above the main headline, “Norway’s 9/11.”

A lot of other reporting was more restrained but still examined the Islamic angle, pointing to an alleged claim of responsibility by jihadists or noting Norway’s involvement in coalition missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Associated Press, in a report released after the bombing but before the shooting, pointed to an al-Qaeda bomb plot uncovered in Norway almost a year ago; and to recent threats by an Iraqi-born Kurdish extremist known as Mullah Krekar, founder of Ansar al-Islam, who faces deportation from Norway and has threatened Norwegian politicians with death if he is expelled.

Once it became apparent that jihadist terrorists were not to blame for the attacks, accusations of “Islamophobia” became the new theme, with op-ed writers, pundits and bloggers across the globe railing about the incorrect assumption of Islamist involvement.

That Islamists were initially thought to be the likeliest perpetrators was a notion not limited to conservative-leaning commentators or organizations.

Interviewed on the Foreign Policy magazine’s site, for instance, the director of Norway’s Peace Research Institute Oslo, Kristian Harpviken, made no reference to extremist right-wingers when asked “who would have been interested in attacking Oslo?”

“The only concrete supposition that would emerge in a Norwegian context would be al Qaeda,” he replied. “There has been specific mention of Norway [in its communications], alongside a number of other countries that have been part of the war on terror [and] part of the war in Afghanistan, including on one occasion fairly recently after the killing of Osama bin Laden. That is the only concrete angle there is to it – but the police have not yet indicated anything in terms of where they are looking, as far as I understand it.”

Andrew McCarthy, senior fellow at the conservative National Review Institute and a former federal terrorism prosecutor, hit back Monday at demands from some quarters that those who pointed to Islamists in the immediate aftermath of the Norway attacks should apologize.

“We all have a duty to exercise caution if we are going to comment before the facts are fully known,” McCarthy wrote on National Review Online. “We have no duty to apologize, however, for well founded suspicions and for recognizing the threat Islamism poses to life and to Western liberalism.”

McCarthy voiced concern that through association with Breivik “legitimate criticism of Islam” and the threat it poses to freedom in the West has been discredited in the eyes of many Norwegians.

“If we are to remain free and secure, that cannot be allowed to happen,” he argued. “And that starts with not apologizing for the entirely rational fear that future terrorist attacks will be fueled by Islamist ideology, just as thousands of past attacks have been.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow