Women at international WILPF conference compared responses to terrorist actions in their own countries
August 8, 2011
By Margaret Thompson, ESCRIBANA
The women came from several different countries that had experienced terrorist attacks, to listen to Liss Schanke of Norway talk about the call for unity and compassion following the bombing and shooting rampage that killed 77 mostly young people in her country on July 22, 2011.
The strong message from Norwegian leaders was that “violence must be met with greater openness, terror must be met with more democracy. We must take care of each other,” noted Schanke. This call for greater tolerance and humanity in that tiny country provides a far different model from the vengeful militaristic response to terrorist attacks in other places.
And for delegates to the WILPF (Women’s International League of Peace & Freedom) international conference entitled, “Women, peace and security – Transforming the agenda,” the topic was highly relevant. The conference was held August 1-5, 2011 in San José, Costa Rica, with 175 women from around the world.
One of the objectives of the alleged Norwegian terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, a “lone wolf” from the extreme right wing, was to create a war against multiculturalism, and “what we see in this response is that he definitely failed,” said Schanke. She noted that there had likely even been an increase of support for multiculturalism since the attack.
Vastly different reactions to terrorist attacks around the world
Charlotte Dennett of WILPF USA was particularly wide-eyed during the presentation, as were others from her country. “It will take awhile for (U.S.) Americans to absorb what we saw there in Norway,” she noted. The attacks on 9-11 brought a totally opposite response, of absolute fear, escalated by the Bush Administration. Dennett noted that tens of thousands of Muslims – both US citizens and immigrants — were rounded up after the terrorist attacks in 2001 and thrown into detention. “The whole point – depending upon your beliefs – was to whip Americans into hysteria so they would be more inclined to go to war, which of course we did.”
In contrast, many Muslim leaders in Norway joined with other religious leaders to hold ecumenical funerals for some of the young people murdered in the attack. Likewise, political party leaders ranging from the left to ultra-right, and also youth groups for these parties have commended and supported this strong peaceful reaction, determined to use it as a means to unite the country in the face of such hateful violence.
Manuela Mesa, of WILPF Spain, said she saw many similarities to the reactions in Norway to the terrorist bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004, which killed 191 people and wounded another 1,800. “People didn’t feel afraid, they went out into the streets to show solidarity, they gave blood, and went to places to support the families, to feel close to the pain of the survivors,” said Mesa. Carmen Magallón, also of WILPF Spain noted that the Spanish government reached out in solidarity to Muslims, including the imams or religious leaders. “Muslims were respected, and that was very important,” noted Magallón.
In Norway, 150,000 people poured into the streets in solidarity in the capital city of Oslo, which has a total population of 500,000, said Schanke. Hundreds of thousands of flowers covered the central plaza, the gates of the government buildings and other areas.
“Everybody raised their roses high” as the prime minister spoke, with the royal family and politicians all present, noted Bhanumathi Natarajan of WILPF Norway. Demonstrations also took place in several other Norwegian cities supporting a peaceful response. Public compassion for the family of the shooter was evident with a Facebook page set up for “Mama Behring” (mother of the shooter) which had 70,000 signatures by the first week.
Aliyah Strauss of WILPF Israel noted that given the long history of terrorist attacks in her country, including suicide bombings, “The reaction was never ever what it was in Norway, but always a reaction of fear. The government has always used the attacks on Israelis for political purposes.” Strauss noted that there was no coverage by Israeli media of the strong pacifist response in Norway. Discussion of these issues in Israel is very difficult, given the strongly divided opinions “between those who try to see the reasons for such attacks and those who can only condemn them, claiming it is the ‘Muslim way of thinking.’”
Mary Alys of WILPF UK was also quite moved when she learned of the reactions in Norway to the attack, particularly regarding Muslims, which were different from those in her own country. Alys said that after terrorist attacks in Britain the initial reaction for many people was to come together to care for each other. But soon thereafter arose increased fear and mistrust of the Muslim community, and “any young man with a brown face and who carried a rucksack” was regarded with suspicion. As in the US noted Alys, “We now have different alert systems, so there is always this fear.”
Irmgard Heilberger of WILPF Germany said that people in her country were very pleased to see the more compassionate reaction in Norway to the terrorist attack, but then the German political parties and media began to manipulate reactions for their own political purposes. “Our defense minister immediately referred to Muslims in his comments about terrorism,” which later he tried to turn around when it became know who the perpetrator was.
Press reports point to Muslim and Al-Qaeda perpetrators for the Norwegian massacre
Heilberger said that she had recently read a British newspaper which accused the Norwegians of not understanding the seriousness of the situation, and “even in Norway, they will realize they have to be frightened of immigrants.”
Several US press organizations were quick to jump to the conclusion that Muslims and Al Qaeda were responsible for the bombing and shooting rampage in Norway, even refusing to recant fully after it was revealed that the perpetrator was a blond blue-eyed Norwegian. An analysis by FAIR summarized many of these erroneous and irresponsible comments, including those on the O’Reilly Factor of Fox News by guest host Laura Ingraham who declared, “Deadly terror attacks in Norway, in what appears to be the work, once again, of Muslim extremists.”
Former UN Ambassador John Bolton (under Pres. GW Bush) expressed disbelief when a Norwegian was arrested, declaring on Fox News On the Record on July 22nd, “There is a kind of political correctness that comes up when these tragic events occur….This kind of behavior is very un-Norwegian. The speculation that it is part of right-wing extremism, I think that has less of a foundation at this point than the concern that there’s a broader political threat here.”
A Wall Street Journal editorial immediately after the news of the massacre reached the world concluded that jihadist groups were to blame, and that “Norwegians have now been made to pay a terrible price” for their commitment to tolerance and freedom. Even after it was revealed that a non-Muslim Norwegian had been arrested, the editorial was only modified slightly, claiming that this was a copycat act inspired by Al-Qaeda.
Relief that it was not a Muslim perpetrator and particularly not someone from Pakistan was the immediate reaction of Sameera Nazir of WiLPF Pakistan, because they are the largest ethnic minority in Norway. ” I also reacted like that because now most people think that everyone who lives in Pakistan is a terrorist…there are 180 million Pakistanis and we aren’t terrorists.”
Norwegian response of caring and compassion defeats attack on feminism & non-traditional women
Schanke noted in an interview with ESCRIBANA that the 1500-page manifesto of alleged mass murderer Behring Breivik also ranted against feminism and women who step outside of traditional roles, which Schanke said was also counteracted by the response of male Norwegian leaders who presented a “new caring masculine role.”
For example, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg who as leader of the Social Democratic Party knew many of the youth in the political group who were massacred, said he was strengthened and comforted when he comforted others. “Many persons – and particularly male leaders — have been using this language of love, tolerance, taking care of each other which is a type of feminine language,” said Schanke.
As in all five Scandinavian countries, Norway has a strong history of encouraging women’s empowerment, with 50% women in the current Parliament, a women prime minister in the past, and the current national police chief is also a woman. “So women do count,” said Schanke. She explained that Norway also has more feminist family policies with generous maternity and even longer paternity leave, as well as benefits for the elderly and children.
“One of the objectives of the terrorist is what might be viewed as an act in a patriarchal traditional aggressive masculine role, and fighting against feminism,” said Schanke. “But on the contrary, the reaction particularly by male leaders is in line with a new more “caring masculinity,” evident in press reports and pictures. “The Prime Minister declared that there can never be too much hugging,” she said. “So in terms of his misogynist anti-feminist message, the terrorist was defeated as well.”
Why the vastly different reaction in Norway compared with other countries following terrorist attacks?
Leadership is the key, concluded María Suárez Toro of Puerto Rico/Costa Rica, of ESCRIBANA. Norway’s response is an example of the leaders “stepping forward to bring out the best in people, calling for fighting terrorism with democracy,” rather than escalating the fear for political purposes to launch a war or enact extreme laws such as the Patriot Act immediately after the 9-11 terrorist attacks in the US.
Suárez said she arrived at JFK Airport in New York early on the morning of 9-11 and since everything was shut down after the terrorist attacks, ended up walking along with thousands of others for several hours into the city, in her case to Brooklyn. “I saw the people of New York taking care of other people like you describe here [in Norway], it was amazing. It was like Central America during the wars because then the military was attacking us, and we were taking care of each other.” Many small shops in NY were providing water, food, chairs, and other support along the way for those immediately displaced by 9-11.
But this climate of caring in NY changed overnight, noted Suárez. At 3 pm the following day, President Bush gave a televised speech in which he talked about the “War on America,” triggering enormous fear with the public, and calling for the invasion of Afghanistan because he knew that Osama bin Laden was responsible for this attack. Suárez said the atmosphere and attitudes on the streets after that were completely different, with people acting more distrustful and fearful.
“Bush was not only creating fear in people but creating fear so they stopped mourning about the deaths, and stopped caring for each other and became overwhelmed with the fear,” said Suárez. “And now I learned from the Norwegian reaction that the difference is the leadership, whose primary message was fighting terrorism with democracy. It means choosing leaders to be at the forefront in a crisis and not using the crisis to terrorize all of us.“
Suárez noted that the heroes of 9-11 for many kids in the US schools were the firefighters, the police, the people caring for each other, not the soldiers who appeared later in the media reports. “So the values of caring and compassion that people responded with initially, they didn’t find leadership and it silenced the true feelings of people,” and instead they were drawn into fear and anger. Instead of implementing a policy of using terrorism to terrorize, the Norwegians called for more democracy in this crisis, and “we need leaders to do this,” declared Suárez. “I claim for all of us to relook at our experiences based on this presentation.”
Overwhelming the public with fear and terror was one of the main objectives of perpetrators of 9-11, which actually was fulfilled with the extreme reaction of the US government, calling for more violence and war. So did they in effect achieve their goals, in contrast to the Norwegian shooter whose anti-multiculturalist and ant-feminist objectives were clearly defeated, all through vastly different responses of the leaders?
Schanke related some of the statements in the Norwegian press that emphasized the national reaction to the massacre: “The response cannot be a society with more security control, arms and power. We need to create a global culture of peace and non-violence. True security can only build on justice, co-operation and compassion with fellow humans, across all borders and religious and ethnic divides.”
Natarajan, also of Norway noted, “As Gandhi said, ‘nonviolence is the weapon of the strong,’ and that has been clearly shown.” She described a youth leader who spoke on TV who said that “if one man can do this, thousands of us can do a lot more, we can show a lot more love for each other.”