Icelandic government officials were quick to respond to last Friday’s deadly attacks in Paris, but not just in the sense of expressing sympathy and condolences. The following Monday, Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, Minister of the Interior Ólöf Nordal, and Chief of the National Police Haraldur Johannessen met to discuss how Iceland should respond. What has become immediately noticeable from these discussions is a clear disconnect between populist rhetoric and reality. This disconnect needs to be bridged, because the momentum of ignorance is carrying Iceland, and Europe as a whole, into scarily familiar territory.
The first thing readers who are not already aware should know is that the Ministry of the Interior presides over the police force. This is important to have in mind when comparing the statements Ólöf has made to the press with the statements of the police.
Ólöf has gone on record stating that there is “no doubt” that Iceland’s terrorism threat level has elevated since the Paris attacks, and made it clear that she sees this threat coming from presumed evil people hiding amongst “people seeking refuge”, i.e., refugees.
Both of these statements are false. The police – who, unlike politicians, do not need to win populist votes to stay in power – have already directly contradicted Ólöf’s terrorism threat level assertions, with Haraldur saying flat-out that they “see no direct threat against Iceland at this time”. A journalist from RÚV who I spoke with last night and has been following Daesh communications closely added that where Daesh is concerned, Iceland isn’t on their radar; that they only have the vaguest idea that there is a country called Iceland, and that it is a Nordic country.
Not that this has necessarily stopped the police from asking for “pre-crash funding” and announcing that they have instituted “special security measures” for Iceland’s protection while refusing to provide any details of what these measures are. While bodies were still laying in the streets of Paris, Snorri Magnússon, the head of Iceland’s police officer’s union, was quick to comment that the attack was a direct result of weakening borders, decreased police staffing, and too much “tolerance”. When Pirate Party MP Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson cautioned that increasing police armaments would mean increased independent supervision of the police, Birgir Örn Guðjónsson – better known to the internet as Biggi the Cop – took great umbrage with the very idea, asserting that the people trust the police more than parliament.
What the Interior Minister and the police are ignoring is the fact that last Friday’s attacks had pretty much nothing to do with refugees. The only link to refugees the Paris attacks show so far is that one of the killed attackers had a Syrian passport laying next to him which had been registered at a Greek refugee centre. This passport may have been planted, French investigators believe, and was probably a forgery. The other suspects identified so far were born in either France or Belgium.
As has often been pointed out, Syrian refugees are fleeing Daesh, and there is nothing Daesh wants more than for Europe to slam their doors closed. The wishes of fascists posing as Muslims and the wishes of fascists posing as right-wing European politicians are in harmony with each other once again, as illustrated by one of our best political cartoonists.
We should remember that Iceland has an Islamophobia problem to contend with, extending from elected officials to mass media. This is what makes the recent remarks of President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson especially hard to bear.
In a radio interview, wherein he shared his thoughts on what can be learned from the Paris attacks, he declared that “extremist Islam” is a direct threat to the nation (again, in complete contradiction to what the people actually in charge of security have said), and that these extremists are now “getting themselves involved in religion in Iceland”. This statement is utterly baseless, irresponsible, and accomplishes nothing besides fanning the flames of hatred against a religious minority in this country that is already subject to far too much prejudice and intolerance.
The President, himself a big fan of those paragons of human rights, Saudi Arabia, also emphasised that these attacks amounted to an attack on “western values”. He’s not the first person to say this, and it does make one wonder: do people living in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan not also value peace? Last time I checked, pretty much no one in the world enjoys having family and friends murdered, whether by a gunman in the streets or a drone in the sky. Talk of this being about West vs. East makes this conflict a regional and ethnic one, not a moral one, and puts marginalised ethnic minorities in even greater danger of being perceived as biological threats to civilisation itself.
The reason why this matters especially is because politicians making irresponsible and inaccurate fear-mongering statements such as this elevates the environment of fear, which is more often than not taken out on minorities – as can be seen in this particularly ugly example.
The undertones of these attitudes can be found in how the President compared extremist Islam – the definition of which seems to be as numerous as the people warning against it – to Nazism. Take a look at this disgusting comic from renowned xenophobic septic tank The Daily Mail. If comparing perceived ethnic enemies to rats looks familiar, it should: the Nazis made the exact same analogy about Jews. In fact, a lot of the Islamophobic rhetoric in Iceland and Europe as a whole today sounds a lot like the rhetoric against Jews in the 1930s.
However, there is a ray of hope here. Israeli news service Haaretz recently went to Paris to speak to some of the survivors. Here is what one of them had to say about the attackers:
“They’re stupid, but they aren’t evil. They are victims of a system that excluded them from society, that’s why they felt this doesn’t belong to them and they could attack. There are those who live here in alienation, and we are all to blame for this alienation.”
“After the [Charlie Hebdo] attacks in January, they said we should unite, but that essentially meant that we should be together and not think independently. They don’t want us to think that maybe it’s connected to the policies of our government and of the United States in the Middle East. These are people the government gave up on, and you have to ask why.”
Iceland could stand to learn from the French here. We can continue down the all-too-familiar trajectory that much of Europe seems to be following, further oppressing and excluding people on the basis of religion and ethnicity until all-out war erupts across the continent. Or we can learn that there is no greater enemy to terrorism than tolerance, acceptance, and regarding our fellow human beings – wherever they hail from – as equal partners in an open and democratic society. Iceland should not play into Daesh’s plans. For the sake of the future of this country, I have to believe we can and will choose a better way.