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Book Review: “You Can Escape a Maniac but Not Hide from a Society”

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On July 22, 2011, the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 people on Utøya, Norway. Wearing a police uniform, he hunted and shot young participants at the summer camp of the youth league of the Labor Party. Ali Esbati survived. 10 years after Utøya looks at the terror act’s connection to racism, Islamophobia and society in general.

Reviewed by Per-Åke Westerlund, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (ISA in Sweden)

It is not difficult to understand that this book project took a long time to complete. It is a personal book with a strong story, and at the same time important comments about today’s racism. The chapters that deal with his hours on the run from Breivik are as realistic as they are terrifying. Here are groups of young people running away from the shootings, the young woman who was shot in the face, two 10-year-olds who are helped to stay away, a life jacket in the water that turns out to be a dead body.

Ali Esbati, former chair of the Young Left and today a member of parliament for the Left Party in Sweden, had lived in Oslo for a few years before 2011 and was invited to give a lecture at the traditional summer camp held by the Labor Party’s youth league AUF on Utøya. During the lecture, information arrived about a bombing in central Oslo. Eight people were killed in what no one yet knew was just the beginning. Half an hour later, Anders Behring Breivik arrived in Utøya.

No one could imagine the extent of his murderous rampage. When Ali Esbati was rescued by boat, after the police eventually arrived, he thought that the number of dead was at least two. Later, in a car on the way home the same night, he only then understood that the radio news was talking about eighty dead, not eight as he first thought they had said.

The deed was also very personal. During the police interrogations and later, during the trial, it became clear that one of Behring Breivik’s main objects of hatred was Ali Esbati’s partner Marte Michelet, who the terrorist described as “one of the most extreme communists in Norway”. Marte was pregnant, and Behring Breivik called the baby “Berber Arab offspring”. Immediately after July 22, the couple were evacuated from their home for security reasons.

Not alone in his universe

The book’s central question is, how was Anders Behring Breivik created? “In the political universe in which Breivik was active, he was far from alone,” says Ali Esbati. He shows how the racist right-wing Progress Party (FrP) set the tone for a large part of the political debate in Norway, especially in 2008–2009. It was during this time that the terrorist began his preparations.

FrP leader Siv Jensen campaigned against the “creeping Islamization” of Norway. She often used Sweden as a deterrent, claiming for example that “Sharia law has completely taken over” in Malmö. Other Norwegian media spoke of the Stockholm working class suburb of Rinkeby as a war zone — “Sweden’s Mogadishu” (Somalia’s capital).

Although FrP started this campaign, it was soon followed by the editorial pages in right-wing newspapers. They claimed it was necessary to “dare to start the debate”, and to “dare to talk about immigrants, especially Muslims, as a problem”.

Other parties followed, including the social democratic Labor Party, in condemning the “foreigners” who were said to be violating Norwegian culture. The newspaper Klassekampen, where Ali Esbati was the debate editor, also suggested in its editorials that FrP had raised important issues.

It is difficult to read the book without thinking about the recent debates in Sweden. Moderate Party (M) leader Ulf Kristersson, who in 2018 said that M could not cooperate with the racist Sweden Democrats due to the large differences in values, now believes “that immigration in Sweden has become a burden” (interview with Swedish Radio July 7, 2021). This statement came just a week after he emphasized that MP and SD have reached agreement as a possible basis for a new government.


In Norway, Peder “Fjordman” Jensen, an internationally notorious writer and proponent of “counter-jihad” on the internet lived. He claimed that Muslims and Islam were about to take over Europe through jihad, that is war. He pushed the line that Muslims must be “permanently removed” from Norway. Another of his proposals was to bomb the holy cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina.

Hours before the terrorist attack, Behring Breivik emailed out a manifesto of 1516 pages and posted a film on Youtube. Most of the manifesto was copied from other right-wing extremist racists and Islamophobes. The theme was that Europe must wage a struggle for civilization struggle and war for its survival.

Hatred did not stop with Muslims. Even worse were the “traitors” — socialists, “cultural Marxists”, feminists and the “Politically Correct elite”. During his trial, Behring Breivik said that it was a matter of first taking military and political power, then “dealing” with the Muslims. He compared the AUF to Hitlerjugend.

Islamophobia is cultivated and supported by the leaders of society, among them many “experts on terror”. On July 22, after Behring Breivik’s attack, Magnus Ranstorp, a staff member of the Swedish National Defense College, commented on the Norwegian broadcaster NRK that it was “probably al-Qaeda” or a “local grouping from immigrant communities” behind the deed. His colleague Magnus Norell told Expressen that “Islamists do not have a hard time finding motives”.

Ali Esbati demonstrates how the act on July 22 was defined as “terror” 35 times in the first hours of broadcasts on NRK until Behring Breivik’s identity became known, and only twice thereafter.

Prior to the trial, the first psychiatric examination described Behring Breivik as “non compos mentis” (of unsound mind) needing psychiatric care. One argument to justify this was his use of “odd terms”. In fact, he was repeating common concepts found in right-wing extremist circles, as Swedish left-wing professor Mattias Gardell testified at the trial. The next investigation quite rightly dismissed the ideas that the terrorist act had been the result of some form of psychosis. During the trial, Behring Breivik and his lawyers also emphasized that he had acted in a planned and deliberate manner. He even entered the courtroom demonstrating a fascist greeting.

In his manifesto, Behring Breivik praised Peter Mangs, who murdered two and shot at least eight more people in Malmö between 2003–2010, as “the greatest resistance fighter in Scandinavia after the Second World War until July 22”. In the book about Mangs, The Race Warrior, Mattias Gardell, Professor in religious science, tells how the police failed to see that the attacks had the same perpetrator, with the court later ignoring his Nazi views. Ali Esbati shows how the same thing happened later when Anton Lundin Pettersson killed three people in an attack on the Kronan School in Trollhättan, Sweden, in 2015. Nazism and racism which were the clear political motivation for these attacks were toned down in a way that never happens after Islamist acts. Muslims are then urged to distance themselves from the perpetrators, whilst any Nazi act is dismissed as tragedy.

No mass campaign

The terrorist attack ten years ago provoked a very strong anti-racist reaction. Three days later, on July 25, one million participants gathered on the streets of Norway. The shock and sadness felt by many was derailed behind the idea of having a “train of roses” instead of regular demonstrations.

For the leaders of society, this was part of a strategy to avoid politicizing the terrorist act. We must “beware of drawing too many and too solid conclusions”, said Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who is today Secretary General of NATO, in a typical comment.

Ali Esbati states: “It is as if an unwritten rule is rapidly crystallizing in the Norwegian public that discussions about Breivik’s political positions should not point to or offend the FRP”. While the reality was the opposite: “It was mainly — though not exclusively — through the Progress Party, not least some of its most active top politicians, that conspiratorial, ‘counter-jihadist’ beliefs and statements found their way straight into the center of the political debate.” Behring Breivik himself was an active member of the Progress Party.

The horrific act and the sentiment against racism that was displayed immediately after should obviously have led to a massive campaign against racism and the FrP. But the leadership of the Labor Party wanted to retain control and act as representatives of the state rather than of the labor and anti-racist movements.

The official July 22 commission also emphasized how the police, state and government acted during the terrorist attacks, rather than concentrating on Behring Breivik’s policies.

The fact that the racist political basis was toned down and the FrP escaped criticism meant that the racists soon dominated the debate again. In Stortinget, the Norwegian Parliament, a macabre scene unfolded as the FrP accused the AUF of “playing victim”. Survivors from Utøya were exposed to threats and hatred.

The normalization of FrP continued and in 2013, two years after the terror, the party leader Siv Jensen became Minister of Finance in a coalition government with the Conservatives.

Racism and right-wing populism

“Ten years have passed since then, since it really happened. During those ten years, the parties that are carried by and push for racist ideas have strengthened their positions and left their mark on the political landscape in Norway and Sweden ”, describes Ali Esbati. A large part of the book is about racism and its effects.

He states that right-wing populism is the latest political expression for those who defend today’s economic system. The personal links between capital and racist politics are, for example, demonstrated by Johan Jakobsson, head of communications at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, who is one of the architects behind attempts to drive the Liberal Party in this direction.

“In principle, every political and social issue gravitates towards migration and immigration, about immigrants and children (and grandchildren) to immigrants.” He sums up how the political debate has been turned to the right to stress that Muslims in particular must be controlled, limited, studied and handled.

In the Nordic countries, this development has gone furthest in Denmark, where the Social Democrats and traditional bourgeois parties compete with the Danish People’s Party to present the worst proposals. Parties in Norway and Sweden follow in the same footsteps. So do large parts of the media, such as a main political show on Swedish public service television, Agenda.

Ali Esbati recalls that the Moderates took great strides in this direction as early as 2008. A special conference emphasized the need to be “clear about what applies in Sweden”, and that anyone who breaks the law could not use religion or culture as an excuse. This is an imaginary problem used to scapegoat immigrants. The turn of the Moderates was delayed by the financial crisis, but has now arrived.

Ali Esbati gives concrete examples of recurring racism from his own and his family’s experiences. He shows how racism shapes life, opportunities for work and housing, health and living standards. “Acknowledging the problems that exist” and “daring to take up the debate” should be about what really undermines welfare — the growing differences in living conditions. In society’s shortcomings lies the ground for racist and right-wing populist propaganda.

Ali Esbati also shows quite correctly how refugee policy has created a breeding ground for racists. The Social Democrat’s decision to accept fewer refugees back in 1989, which paved the way for the racist party New Democrats’ entry into the Riksdag two years later, was compounded by the Social Democratic and Green government’s turn to shock therapy in 2015, which pushed official Swedish politics sharply to the right.

Anti-racism and common struggle

10 years after Utøya is a good and important book, which would have benefitted from more concrete examples of the important anti-racist resistance, hope and solidarity, as well as the common interests and common struggles that are mentioned but not developed. One example is how the racist serial killer shootings in 1991–92 received a powerful response when we, in the Coalition against Racism, gathered 10,000 in a demonstration that blocked the major Nazi march and for a time pushed back the racism of that time. The major mobilizations in Kärrtorp in 2013 and Gothenburg in 2017, with 20,000 at each of them, also strengthened the struggle against racism.

The racist incitement against Muslims today cannot, in the same way as before, be used against Jews or blacks, writes Ali Esbati, referring to “a historically established level of social decency”. That requires further explanations — of how the labor movement, anti-racist struggle and women’s struggle have forced back the right and racism. As the book states, “it is not possible to inform away this threat”, and that other forces than the state, such as the trade unions, have a great responsibility. An important observation is that anti-racism is strong among young people.

It also needs to be emphasized that racism and reactionary ideas recur when the struggle and the left are weakened. Society must be fundamentally changed. Ali Esbati should have been clearer than just talking about “reforming the economy and extensive redistribution of resources”. Racism is a part of capitalist society that must be abolished and replaced by democratic socialism.

It would be very good if the book’s subheading, “You can escape a maniac but not hide from a society”, can set the tone for further discussions.

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