Gender and nationalism: Breivik’s ‘Western values’

22 July 2021 marks ten years since the Utøya massacre, when Anders Behring Breivik killed 8 people in a bomb attack in Oslo and 69 people on an AUF (Workers’ Youth Front) summer camp in Norway, including 33 under-18s. Despite universal condemnation of the massacre, Breivik’s political motivations have been consistently side-lined. But when examined, his far-right politics demonstrate clear affinities with much more mainstream right-wing ideology.

The aftermath of Breivik’s bomb attack in Oslo on the same day as the massacre. Photo via A Davey on Flickr.

Anders Behring Breivik, the perpetrator of the July 2011 Utøya massacre in Norway, is a celebrity of the international far right. The text he compiled in anticipation of the massacre, 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, is an index of what we might think of as contemporary fascist thought.

In this article Breivik’s manifesto will be examined as a characteristic example of the ideology of the contemporary far right. Breivik’s text is useful to analyse because it explicitly spells out some of the broader logic of the contemporary far right in an attempt at a coherent manifesto. The political ideas that motivated Breivik are a constellation of hard far-right and fascist ideology, and much more mainstream anti-immigration rhetoric and ideas, representing a convergence of state-sanctioned racism (driven by border regimes and the state apparatus) and the virulent racial hatred of traditional street fascism. These have been much discussed since the massacre, but less appreciation has been afforded to the crucial role that gender plays in organising the ideological touchstones of the modern far right. This is true both of ‘old-school’ fascist ideas and of the more ‘modern’ and mainstream anti-migrant rhetoric used by populist right-wing parties across Europe (an example being Norway’s Fremskrittpartiet (FrP), or Progress Party, which was, until recently, currently part of a coalition government in Norway, and of which Breivik was a member some years before the massacre).

The nationalist political constructions of 2083 are centred around the idea of a ‘clash of civilisations’ – a framing that situates Europe and the US as one Western civilizational ‘bloc’, in conflict with other blocs – most importantly, with the Islamic world (likewise imagined as monolithic). Of course, this ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative is not limited to the far right, but has been gaining traction in mainstream politics ever since 9/11, becoming one of the central discourses influencing international relations. Crucially, this ‘clash’ is imagined to transpire not only between geographically separate nation-states and civilisations, but also within Western countries due to immigration from the ‘wrong’ type of civilisation. Breivik’s manifesto argues that the ‘Islamification’ of Europe is signalling the end of European civilisation and the Norwegian nation-state. The stated goal of the 2011 attack was to alert people to the perceived dangers of multiculturalism, particularly the presence of Muslims.

Breivik’s politics are also aggressively anti-feminist. This anti-feminism, and his concern over the supposed erosion of the Norwegian nation-state, are fundamentally linked through a naturalised conception of the ‘nation’ as a territory where members of a collective that share cultural, ethnic and familial markers live protected from ‘cultural’ and ‘ethnic’ others. The culture Breivik wishes to preserve is an imagined pure Norwegian one, populated by (white) Norwegians who find a natural home in the Norwegian nation-state. The nation is conceptualised in nationalist discourses as universal and timeless, and is an extension of the (also naturalised) family. The nation, thus imagined, is therefore always an inherently gendered concept. Family units, in this imaginary, are based on a natural sexual division of labour. National coherence therefore relies on clear and strict gender roles.

Within nationalist and fascist worldviews, a hyper-masculine protector is demanded by the weakness and vulnerability of women and children and by the presence of menacing enemy ‘others’, both within and outside of the national home. The maintenance of masculine national honour necessarily requires that the men of a nation control the sexuality of ‘their’ women. The violation of women’s bodily and sexual integrity by civilizational ‘others’ is seen as a crucial way in which masculine pride and national cohesion are attacked and undermined. Rape and other forms of gendered violence thus play a crucial role for nationalisms and the far right through the creation of a discursive link between sexual violence against (white) women and the infiltration (penetration) of Europe by migrants and minorities, with the nation itself often described as a feminine entity (the ‘motherland’) that needs protection. Violence perpetrated by Western men against Western and migrant women is disappeared; sexual violence perpetrated by Muslim men is constructed as the only real and concerning form of gender-based violence, on the basis of its symbolic link to the ‘rape of the nation’. Reproduction of the nation’s population (and, along with it, cultural values, morality, traditions and so on) is of great concern as it is intimately linked to the nation’s economic, political and military power. Nationalisms have therefore always paid close attention to women’s fertility and reproductive capabilities – both the fertility of the national community’s ‘own’ women and the fertility of others. Breivik conceptualises the fertility of Muslim women and the entry of migrants from Muslim countries into Europe as ‘demographic warfare’ with the goal of conquering the West.

These obsessive preoccupations lead naturally to anti-feminist positions. In 2083, Breivik rails against ‘radical feminism’ for introducing contraception and abortion, developments which he characterises as undermining the nation’s ability to reproduce itself, thus weakening it and making it vulnerable to attack. While discussing the supposed ‘wave’ of rapes of white women by Muslim men in Norway, he further argues that Western women have ‘brought this upon themselves’, not just through their support for liberal immigration policies but because feminism wages ‘ideological, psychological and economic war against European men’. Weakening the European male means weakening Western civilisation, as demoralised, feminised men are unable to defend their women and their nation. In this way gender equality is conceptualised as weakness in the conflict between nations and civilisations.

Thus far, these are all ideas that we can easily recognise from fascist movements of the past. But in analysing the forms of anti-feminism prevalent in far-right extremist politics like Breivik’s, we must not lose sight of the fact that closely related gendered ideas are often extremely prevalent in more mainstream contemporary political discourse. To appreciate this, we need to take a short detour to look at ideas of ‘culture’ and ‘race’.

Criticising Muslims based on their ‘cultural’ rather than ‘racial’ qualities has become a preferred way for far-right activists and mainstream politicians alike to articulate the apparent differences and incompatibilities between Europe/the West and the (‘underdeveloped’) rest of the world. In this way, anti-immigration parties and politicians such as FrP in Norway have developed a repertoire of arguments that conveniently bypass ‘race’ (and thus accusations of racism). Yet their dependence on essentialist and static notions of nation, belonging, culture and difference represents a continuation of xenophobic and racially based ideologies of the inferiority of non-European peoples. European right-wing and anti-immigration politics has entrenched a convenient discourse within which the authoritarian, colonialist and fascist European past is wiped clean and it is posited that a pure European culture (an apparently shared and monolithic one) is under threat solely because of its over-tolerance towards people from dangerous or destructive foreign ‘cultures’. Ironically, for a man who has become an icon of terrorist white supremacism, at one point Breivik purports in his manifesto to feel ‘uncomfortable’ with the language of race, and claims to have hesitated to write ‘anything including the word race, white or ethnicity, mainly because I instinctively dislike writing about anything related to these words’. He argues that he is first and foremost against Islam, and so has replaced the term ‘race’ with less troubling terms: ‘culture’, ‘native European’ or ‘ethnic group’.

As mentioned earlier, the ‘civilizational’ clash threatening the West is construed by Breivik and many other, more mainstream right-wingers as happening within the national borders, as well as between states, due to immigration. And despite superficial pretences to the contrary, the essentialist tone of these discourses overall makes clear that ‘culture’ and ‘race’ in these imaginaries are essentially the same thing, with the former term standing in for the discredited latter one. Examining the right-wing gender politics associated with the modern European far right can help illuminate this in some important ways, as modern far-right uses of gender bear important marks of descendance from traditional fascist and ultranationalist gender politics. Notably:

  1. The valorisation of masculinity and the suppression of ‘feminine’ values, as demonstrated by fear of national weakness resulting from feminism;
  2. Anxieties around women’s sexuality, and particularly fears of a dangerous ‘other’ whose sexual rapaciousness represents an injury to the national and cultural community; and
  3. Concerns about birth rates and demography, as a key marker of national strength and power.

These three points underscore that when modern fascists (and ‘muscular liberal’ chauvinists) discuss ‘culture’, they are always in reality alluding to race, or at least a conception of culture which they conceive of as biologically determined. This is particularly clear from the third point, but flows through the logic of all three. In national and ethnic collectives, the idea of a ‘common origin’ features as a core (mythic or real) influence, often meaning that the only way to be a part of the community is by being born into it. Fractured recent public debates about women’s fertility in Norway illustrate this clearly. Following a speech where the Norwegian Prime Minister expressed grave concerns about the low fertility rates in the country and a policy response of increasing child benefits was suggested, FrP argued explicitly that policies aimed at boosting the birth rate should only be applied to non-migrant Norwegian women. Child benefits, it was argued, should be withdrawn from migrant women with more than three children in order to ensure a societally ‘sustainable’ population growth. Evidently, the solution to falling fertility rates amongst Norwegian women cannot involve (non-white) migrant women having children – and even despite being born in Norway, these children could not count as members of the national community.

Perhaps more urgent to understand, however, is how, in tandem with these tendencies, liberal ideas about ‘gender equality’ have simultaneously become repurposed to attack migrants, particularly Muslims. In the aforementioned controversy over the too-high fertility rates of the not-quite-Norwegian-enough migrant women, the same FrP politicians argued that cutting the child benefits of migrant women was for their own good, as it would incentivise them to find paid work, thus making them more independent, socially liberated and integrated into modern society. European self-understandings position the continent as the birthplace of modernity and the most enlightened of all civilizations. This self-understanding has expanded to incorporate a pride in Europe as the supposed birthplace of ‘human rights’, including the protection and autonomy of women. Islam, by contrast, is constructed as fundamentally backwards and pre-modern, particularly when it comes to gender relations. What is new here is not the broader stereotype of the ‘other’ as barbaric and misogynistic – which has historically been applied to various peoples following European colonialist logic – but rather the way in which this insinuation of misogyny is contrasted with the Western world’s supposed active ‘feminism’ and modern gender egalitarianism, with these terms then being instrumentalised in the battle against multiculturalism and immigration.

This is reflected not just in rhetoric, but also in concrete immigration policy. Around Europe, there has been a notable shift towards an expectation for immigrants to adhere not just to laws, but to the ‘values’ of their host countries, proving that they can become part of the organic, intact community by denouncing their difference and assimilating into the dominant culture. In Britain we have become used to the term ‘British values’ appearing again and again in discourse around immigration, and the ill-defined spectre of ‘British values’ is the bedrock of the Government’s Islamophobic ‘Prevent’ counterterrorism strategy. These ‘values’ are commonly defined as encompassing commitments to gender equality, despite the contested nature of these issues in European countries. Across Europe, both far right and mainstream politicians bring up violence against women, forced marriage and veiling as charges of illiberalism against migrants. Patriarchy, in European debates about ‘culture’, is almost always conceptualised as the exclusive domain of non-Western, particularly Muslim, migrants.

Returning to 2083, Breivik’s attitudes towards women’s emancipation, freedom and equality are superficially in contrast with these lines of argument, as he argues explicitly for reinstating patriarchy. However, it is notable that there are several places in the manifesto where the language of feminism is appropriated as a tool for attacking Muslims. In one particular section, feminism itself is attacked for promoting ‘anti-racism’, the feminisation of men, the masculinisation of women, divorce, political correctness, the breakdown of the traditional family structure and so on as one would expect – but then we come to an intriguing caveat:

‘While feminism may have strayed away into extremism, that does not mean that all of its ideas are wrong’’

Thus, 2083 calls for a ‘moderate’ feminism:

‘even a moderate version of feminism could prove lethal to Islam. Islam survives on the extreme subjugation of women. Deprived of this, it will suffocate and die (…)’

‘Men lament the loss of a sense of masculinity in a modern world. Perhaps a meaningful one could be to make sure that our sisters and daughters grow up in a world where they have the right to education and a free life and protect them against Islamic barbarism’.

And in another section:

‘We should remove all Muslim non-citizens currently in the West and change our laws to ensure that Muslim citizens who advocate sharia, preach Jihad, the inequality of ‘infidels’ and of women should have their citizenship revoked and be deported back to their country of origin.’

Further, it is argued that Norwegians should fight for mixed-sex sports events and against the veil in order ‘to break down the traditional subjugation of women [in Islam].’

In such a worldview, women are instrumentalised symbolically in different, yet predictable, ways. In the modern, ‘feminist’ anti-immigration discourse, ‘women’s rights’ and the culturally based oppression or equality of women becomes a key differentiating factor between separate ‘cultures’ – and thus, a dimension of the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative which feeds the more traditional, biologically tinged hysteria over birth rates, family units and national defilement. Seemingly separate ways of using women discursively to mark the boundaries of culture and nation are therefore not actually separate, but exist on an often mutually reinforcing continuum. Conceptualising things in this way helps make sense of the anti-feminism of Breivik without losing sight of how gender and culture have come be used in anti-immigration politics in the political mainstream. This is evident in the way in which rape is conceptualised as a symbolic attack on the whole of the given woman’s national or cultural community, and as a metaphor for the infiltration of ‘others’ into Europe, as well as in the way that demography and women’s fertility become parts of a moral politics concerned with births and bodies – positioning, as always, women’s bodies as the battle ground upon which the clash of civilisations is fought out.

The utilisation of gender and feminism in anti-immigration discourses thus demonstrates a symbolic usage of women as markers of culture. A similar logic is at play in constituting women’s bodies as national boundaries, situating women’s fertility as a frontline in the ‘culture clash’, and characterising ‘cultural attitudes’ towards women’s equality as boundaries separating who can and cannot belong in Europe. The racist myth of European superiority is given new significance through the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis and the notion of essential ‘cultural’ difference.

It is important to remember that the statements made by Breivik and the other ‘counterjihadists’ regarding the supposed multicultural sensibilities – and corresponding lenient approaches to immigration – of European elites, governments and political parties, stand in sharp contrast to actual developments in European immigration policy. In fact, we have for years been witnessing a shift towards stricter controls, more heavy-handed treatment of migrants, and a harsher political tone in debates around multiculturalism, immigration and diversity, particularly with regards to Muslim and Arab migrants.

As such, we must theorise carefully about the way that ‘culture’ has come to signify difference and how this cultural difference is utilised to create a separation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ which is then used to justify militarised borders, deportations and everyday state surveillance and repression as well as the virulent hatred and spectacular acts of violence of far-right extremists.



This analysis of Breivik’s manifesto was originally published in 2019 in ‘The new far right & how to fight it’. Order your copy here.


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