After narrowly escaping the gun rampage that slaughtered 69 of his campmates at a youth retreat in 2011, Bjørn Ihler began poring through the manifesto of the man responsible for Norway’s deadliest terrorist attack.
What he found was not a monster, but something worse: the attacker, Anders Behring Breivik, was not so different from him. He was a creation of the same country Ihler called home.
“We can’t just say that this is the act of a monster or a madman — someone who is not like us,” Ihler said in a recent interview. “Because the reality is ... he is a human being like us and so, for me, it was really important to recognize that and recognize his humanity. To say his name and not give him any mythical power.”
Ihler’s insight, shared on a tour of the Twin Cities this month, was meant to help communities around the state and country come to terms with a wave of recent deadly attacks on places of worship. It also comes as state and federal officials are scrambling to respond to a sustained rise in hate crimes and attempting to curb all types of extremist violence. Minnesota law enforcement agencies recorded 146 hate crime incidents in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available. That was a 22% increase over the 119 reported in 2016.
The 27-year-old peace activist was featured in Twin Cities forums on the intersection of intolerance and violence and the fear so often behind decisions to take deadly action.
Ihler’s visit came at the invitation of Heartland Democracy Executive Director Mary McKinley, who met the shooting survivor last year at the United Nations General Assembly. There, during a panel discussion on youth and violent extremism, Ihler asked why only speakers from the Muslim world were called on to attend.
“Why is this something that we should only engage Muslim youth when the reality is it comes not just from the Muslim community but from my community?” Ihler recalled asking as he spoke Monday at a gathering at Macalester College in St. Paul.
McKinley and her Minneapolis nonprofit have sought to broaden community conversations in Minnesota on violent extremism beyond Islamist-inspired terrorism, which has dominated public discourse in response to waves of young Somali men charged over the past decade with supporting al-Shabab and ISIS.
“We really saw after the ISIS trials [in 2016], like with many things that happen in communities, there is kind of a crisis response in the moment and not much that happens afterward,” McKinley said.
The latest example of hate-inspired violence in Minnesota — the 2017 bombing of Bloomington’s Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center — was carried out by a trio of Illinois militia members who sought to strike fear in the local Muslim community.
“We see it as a call to action,” McKinley said, pointing to more recent attacks like the massacre of 51 Muslims in New Zealand and a series of synagogue shootings in the U.S. since last fall. “We see that this does live in our communities. We’ve seen it recently in Minnesota. But we don’t need to just be fearful about it and angry about it. There are actions we can take to build better relationships and have honest conversations about change.”
Ihler has traveled the world meeting with former extremists and the victims of their terror. Since the 2011 attack in Norway, he said, Western countries are still failing to understand that violent extremism is not something foreign to their societies, but instead part of them.
The day he arrived in Minneapolis, Ihler noted, the New York Times published a report on intolerance toward Somali Muslims in St. Cloud. The irony did not escape him that the story included a quote from a conservative policy group leader that the influx of refugees “aren’t people coming from Norway.”
Fear of the unknown, Ihler said, also proves to be a common catalyst for extremist movements ranging from white supremacists to Islamic jihadists. And all violent extremism, he said, “is tied to ... a violent denial of diversity.”
“Most extremists have a narrative of, our tribe is under threat of extermination and our only option is to fight back through violence,” Ihler said. “Really the only way to deal with that is to build societies where diversity is not only accepted but celebrated — in which we see the inherent value of having different persons and having difference experiences come together to create societies that thrive.”
Heartland Democracy, which sponsored Ihler’s visit, attracted global attention for its counseling of Abdullahi Yusuf while he was in federal custody after admitting trying to join ISIS alongside eight other young Twin Cities men in 2014. Ahmed Amin, an assistant principal at Sanford Middle School in Minneapolis, described his two years of working with Yusuf during a forum with Ihler last week at Hamline University.
Amin recalled a young man experiencing an identity crisis and who saw his family encountering bigotry as he grew up. “He was seeking a narrative in the world that in many ways helped him make sense of what was happening,” Amin said.
Yusuf bought into an ideology that was “dangerous and reckless,” Amin said. Yusuf has since emerged from a federal halfway house to become a productive member of society, according to Amin. Amin asked the Hamline audience to envision building communities where a sense of belonging prevails: “Does anyone think someone will want to hurt a community that they feel like they belong in?”
‘He was ... one of us’
James Denley, a sociologist studying mass violence and co-founder of the Violence Project, corroborates Ihler’s assessment of fear as a leading driver of hate crimes. Denley casts some of the blame for a three-year nationwide surge in hate crimes on rhetoric by President Donald Trump and his response to 2017 white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va. But while it’s tempting to assign blame to one person, Denley added, the rise in hate is “a broader systemic problem and we should look at it as such.”
On Monday, Ihler was asked how he deals with anger in the years since the 2011 attack in Norway. He described the car ride home with his father in the hours after being rescued from the island in the camp, and how the two discussed where to go from there. He could choose to fill himself with anger and act out destructively, Ihler recalled, or turn it into something positive.
Ihler also recalled seeing Breivik in shackles and without a weapon at the first public court hearing in the months after the attack — his first look at the man since he pointed and fired at him on the island. In an interview, Ihler said he eventually decided to speak out, rejecting the popular tendency to speak of Breivik only in hushed tones or not at all. He also welcomed a court ruling that Breivik was mentally competent to stand trial.
“He was ruled to be one of us, and for me that was important,” Ihler said. “If we say Anders Breivik is mentally ill, we say everyone with that belief system is mentally ill. We rule out that entire side of the dialogue at the same time and lose the ability to bring people back into society to show them that their belief system is wrong: that people should be able to live together with backgrounds of a diverse nature.”