July 11, 2018. As I reached the beautiful island of Utoya in Norway, amidst all the nature, I found myself in the midst of the peaceful serenity that almost makes one forget the daunting events that happened on this island. Indeed, its history is quite heavy. In the deadliest attack in Norway since the Second World War, on 22 July 2011, a mass shooting took place at the AUF’s summer youth camp there, where 650 young people were staying. Anders Behring Breivik arrived alone on Utøya dressed as a police officer, and told those on the island that he was there for security reasons following the explosions in Oslo, which took place a few hours before. He then began shooting at individuals, continuing until the police arrived one hour after the first alarm call. Combined, the attacks in Oslo and Utøya left 77 dead, with 69 killed on the island. After being apprehended, Breivik was characterized by police officials as being a right-wing extremist.
As we gathered on this island to discuss this issue, the first question that arises was what does it mean to be an extremist? What is extremism?
Different people shared what extremism meant to them.
“Extremism means for me to justify, promote and actively engage in violence, fighting against the democratic system in order to achieve an ideology. This ideology means believing in an ultimate truth and therefore seeing others as enemies.”-Niklas
“Extremism hits me as a person, as a human being. I am a strong believer in basic human rights, so extremism puts me in a position of danger. It leaves me with a severe sadness that people are able to go to the extend to commit murder instead of enjoying their own freedom of speech and using it for their purpose. Extremism also puts me in a spot of feeling sorry for the person, because they are in a position that they have to do something inhumane to express themselves. It puts me in a weird position where I to some extend feel sorry for the extremists, that they can not function well in a world of basic human rights such as freedom of speech and opinion. That they are ready to kill themselves or someone else in order to relief themselves, so to speak. And I believe the answer to that is a better understanding of our fellow humans. I believe that a better understanding eventually would lead to greater acceptance.”-Aleksander
“My first thought is that extremism is violence, extreme thoughts that are not really accepted by the rest of the society. It feels that people become extremists because they do not have space to express their thoughts, there is not enough space for them to express themselves without violence. I think that making this space is a job of the society, to give the space for expressing their thoughts although they are extreme, to listen.”-Emma
“For me, it is being at a certain point of view of society that is so far out from everything else that you can not actually see, interact, accept or understand. I was always interested in these topics because extremists are often very passionate which I would like to understand more.”-Andre
These brought several interesting discussions about the role of civic education in combating extremism, or how, we, as active citizens, can make the world a more just and a less polarized place all together, and also the role of democracies and political parties in it.
Visiting the memorial for the victims of the massacre on the island really fills you with emotions. Given so this island might seem like a bold choice, but a long reflection has gone into why it was appropriate to host the event there. After the tragic events that took place in 2011, Utøya has been reopened as both a place of memory and a workshop for democracy and civic education; it now hosts organizations to empower people to stand against extremism through learning, reflection, dialogue and the purposeful re-habitation of the island in the face of extreme violence. The theme was thoughtfully chosen to reflect the history of the island and to act as a catalyst for an open and honest discussion about extremism in its many forms, and how to counter it through civic education.
Through this, we tried to reclaim this island to what it originally was, a place for open exchange of ideas, a place of tolerance, a place of the youth spirit. In the words of the then Norwegian prime minister, “If one man can show so much hate, just think how much love we all together can create.“