Muslim leaders in Norway say they are concerned that the anti-Islamic ideology of Anders Behring Breivik, the far-right fanatic now on trial for killing 77 people, is being overshadowed by questions about his mental state.
The self-described anti-Muslim militant shocked Norway on July 22 with a bombing and shooting rampage targeting the government headquarters and the Labor Party’s annual youth camp. Since he has admitted to the attacks, the key issue for the trial is to determine whether Breivik is sane enough to be held criminally responsible.
“I’m not a psychiatrist, but what is important is what he has done. That should be the focus, not how crazy he is,” said Mehtab Afsar, head of the Islamic Council in Norway, an umbrella organisation of Muslim groups in the country.
“He wants to get rid of Muslims and Islam from Europe. That is his main message. So I don’t see the point of using so much energy on is he normal, is he insane?” Mr. Afsar told The Associated Press.
Breivik has told the court his victims had betrayed Norway by opening the country to immigration. He called for a “patriotic” revolution aimed at deporting Muslims from Europe.
In a 1,500-page manifesto he posted online before the attacks, Breivik frequently cited anti-Islamic bloggers who say Muslims are gradually colonising Europe. But so far, much of the trial has focussed on his mental health, rather than his ideology.
Some Muslims question the validity of pathologising Breivik, saying the Norwegian is easily comparable to Islamic terrorists.
“Nobody questioned Osama bin Laden’s sanity,” said Usman Rana, a doctor and newspaper columnist, following Friday prayers at one of Oslo’s largest mosques, the Sufi-inspired World Islamic Mission.
The mosque, richly decorated inside and out with blue and white tiles and Arabic calligraphy, is open to passers-by, and a reporter was allowed free access as long as shoes were removed.
A few hundred men and boys of all ages attended prayers, many arriving in a rush to make it in time for the call to prayer. Switching easily between greeting friends in Urdu and in Oslo-dialect Norwegian, Rana questioned the excessive focus on Breivik’s mental state.
“I believe he is sane, definitely. Those who think he is insane don’t know anything about terrorism,” Rana said.
The first of two psychiatric reports concluded that Breivik is psychotic and suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, the second report deemed him sane enough to go to prison for his crimes, which he has admitted.
The 33-year-old Norwegian has admitted to all his actions and freely explained to prosecutors the planning and execution of his terror attack, only refusing to explain anything concerning other members of Knights Templar, his alleged anti-Islamic militant network. Prosecutors believe the network does not exist.
Breivik’s emotionless appearance in court as witnesses give gruesome testimony and bereaved families sob audibly has left many baffled at his state of mind, wondering if he is exercising superhuman self-control or simply feels no emotions.
“The reason we are focussing on him as a crazy person is because we have difficulties accepting that ‘one of us’ could do such a thing. In many ways a natural reaction, but still wrong,” said Shoaib Sultan, an adviser on extremism at the Norwegian Centre against Racism.
Norway is becoming increasingly diverse. According to official statistics, 13 per cent of the 5 million population are either born abroad or children of immigrants. Most of them have European backgrounds, but large groups have also come from Asia and Africa. The government does not register people by faith, but just over 100,000 people, or 2 per cent of the population, are members of Islamic communities in Norway.
A report by the government-run Central Statistics Bureau showed attitudes toward immigrants became more positive following the July 22 attacks. Those disagreeing with the statement that “immigrants are a source of insecurity in society” jumped from 48 per cent to 70 per cent, the agency said.
But just after the bombing, before the perpetrator was known, many Muslims say they were harassed by Norwegians who thought Islamist terrorists were behind the attack.
When it became clear that an ethnic Norwegian was to blame, questions were raised about whether the threat of right-wing extremist violence had been underestimated.
“There’s nothing new in the hatred of Behring Breivik, except for his gruesome actions,” Sultan said.