Following the horrific attacks in Norway, something really struck me today on reading Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's column in The Independent.
Before I go on to explain this though, I will start by saying I have long followed Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's writing. I have found her to be challenging, engaging and progressive. I respect her convictions, and her ability to critically question herself as well as others. She is someone, I feel, who speaks from the heart as well as the head. I once saw a moving documentary about how she has been repeatedly targeted with abuse and threats by extremists, of both Islamist and white nationalist movements, and wrote an email to her in support of her work - and she promptly responded, in person. Again, for someone who writes for a national newspaper and appears on TV etc., I think this is a measure of the character beyond the words.
Today though, I sat on the train reading her article, Who will stand up for the refugees?, and was left with the feeling that she is (unknowingly) part of the problem in Europe, not someone working towards a solution.
Looking at the footage and reading through the reporting from the Oslo bombing - and thinking about the 7/7 attacks in London - what shines through is both the human tragedy and human hope amongst the charred pieces of concrete and metal. The human tragedy in that every life taken was a life unfulfilled, a great spark of God-given potential extinguished - and from there, the tragedy that indelibly marks each of that person's loved ones. At the same time, you see the human hope - survivors helped along by strangers, bloodied and bruised, often maimed and always psychologically scarred - yet resolute in their determination to live on. It this common human spirit and experience we all share in. It is what we of this little island often call 'Blitz Spirit' - to sum up the complexity of bravery, fear, heartache, solidarity, loss and relentless optimism in the face of tragedy (and I would guess the peoples of 1940s Dresden and other continental European cities like Sarajevo have coined their own terminology to describe this experience).
This also leads me to A Confession by Leo Tolstoy, in which he explores his own search for meaning, sifting through the various theological positions of religious, philosophical and scientific schools of thought - driving himself into despairing confusions and depression over the various differences - but eventually finding capital 'T' Truth in simply watching the lives of 'ordinary' people. He concludes that for them, the finer details and debates of their particular belief systems were irrelevant; the realities of human life offered the answers - in this I imagine he was contemplating the experience of loving one another, of romance, of sex, of seeing new life emerge, of building something with our own minds and hands, of life passing away, of nature and its cycle of seasons.
Which brings me to today. I read through Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's latest piece, an article which it would appear was written with the intention of advocating for the rights of refugees, yet spirals into a directionless diatribe riddled with habitual references to the ethnic and religious identities of the people she is speaking of. At one point she quite needlessly describes Brevnik as "a handsome Aryan with glassy, blue eyes" and talks of a seemingly minor altercation with a irritable French woman by referring to her as a 'Gallic bat'.
It struck me that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown inhabits that same racialised, sectarianised, over-intellectualised world as Anders Behring Brevik inhabits - a world we each inhabit to various degrees but which our media often seems to exaggerate.
Anders Behring Brevik has been described as a 'Christian fundamentalist' and emphasis given to his looks - in much the same way (if not more so by the BBC) that terrorists fighting in the name of Islam are reported as 'Muslims fundamentalists' usually with pictures of furious men in long beards to match.
First, if we break this term down (somewhat pedantically), we could argue that 'fundamentalist' - in the literal sense of adhering strictly to the fundamentals of a belief system - is not an accurate description for someone who kills in the name of a religious tradition that, when stripped down to basic fundamentals, holds peace and service to a life-giving 'Other' at its heart (this can be said of all the world's major religions). Nor does appearance really give clue to character. Ultimately, Brevnik is quite simply a mass murderer, just as Mohammed Siddique Khan, Hasib Hussein, Germaine Lindsay and Shehzad Tanweer are mass murderers - they are broken, deadened characters who have poured out their pain onto others by attaching themselves to 'The Cause'.
But second, and most importantly I feel, we should actively move away from this casual day-to-day dividing of people simply into skin-colours and methods of worship. We must pay some attention to this 'thin end of the wedge' and how our national discourse contributes to the raising up of these mass murderers. That is not to deny diversity or to stop celebrating difference, but to stop us making it one of the defining factors in our culture, and in doing so, dehumanising one another.