Bjørn Ihler: Interview with the survivor of the Utøya Island attack in Norway

25 November 2014

Pemptousia has the honour to host an interview of Bjørn Ihler. Mr. Ihler is a survivor of the attack on Utøya Island in Norway on 22/7/2011. He is an activist, writer and filmmaker working against the ideology of racism, hatred and violent extremism. His work is greatly founded in his experiences, though traces of both his methods and beliefs date further back to his work for human rights and dignity. In 2013 he obtained- on time despite the act of terrorism during his studies- a bachelors degree in Theatre and Performance Design and Technology from the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. His work includes numerous articles for both national and international newspapers. Through participation at conferences such as The Oslo Freedom Forum, and in networks such as Against Violent Extremism he has brought inspiration to other activists. In 2013 he participated in writing the play ‘The Events’ by David Greig, uncovering the situation of a survivor after an incident resembling the attack. Bjørn is currently producing the film ‘Rough Cut – Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity’. Through the film he and Producer/Director Karoline Frogner uncover the similarities in ideology between right wing extremists, neo-nazis, racism and the ideology behind genocide. This is done by drawing on the experiences of survivors, activists and formers, from Rwanda, Norway, Germany and the US and by letting them tell their stories. Through the means of art, openness, freedom of expression and dialogue, he continues his work to uncover injustice and hatred, trying to make sure none will ever have to live through atrocities similar to what he in 2011 had to live through.

Utoya IN

Three years have passed since the attack in Norway. What do you think has changed during this period in your country regarding the radicalization processes that made possible such an event?

A few days ago news came out that one of the perpetrators in a previous case of violent far right extremism had been released from prison after 12 years instead of the 17 he was given in court for murder motivated by racism. After his release he returned to the nazi-movement, and has among others been attending gatherings within the nordic nazi community. For me this proves the disability of the norwegian prison system to deal with extremist ideologies. Our prison system is based on an ideology of reintegration and reformation of former criminals, and in most cases it’s surprisingly successful in this as long as the crimes are not tied to political or religious ideology. Improvements, such as implementing methods used abroad in Exit programmes and discussed within the FREE initiative[1] could be of immeasurable value in doing this. I know several former racists who’d be more than willing to share their expertise and process of transformation in order to improve official efforts in doing this with the prison population. The political and public systems in Norway does however seem fairly unable to learn both from previous mistakes, and to learn from foreign experience.

This inability to learn is shown in a lot of ways. Most importantly for a lot of those of us who survived the attack is the inability to learn and develop the mental healthcare system to suit the needs of survivors of violence. In 2011 the point of reference for most psychologists working on trauma in Norway was natural disasters, such as the Tsunami in the East Indian Ocean in 2004. Treating a politically motivated violent terrorist attack as if is a natural disaster is a mistake, which could have been avoided if the medical community had been better at learning from those who have had to deal with such acts previously. I was lucky enough to study in the UK at the time of the attack and moved back there fairly quickly after the incident. There I was treated by a shrink with sufficient knowledge of violent acts after several years working with the military and the police. The educational institutions in the UK are also better at handling survivors as a result of having more sufficient experience with the subject than what we’ve had in Norway. Little has changed within these fields.

When it comes to how we handle the radicalisation process that made the event possible we have learnt quite little as well. Norway had some people working on research of far right wing extremism in the military research institute. This project has however ended, and due to lack of governmental interest and therefore funding there’s no sign of interest of renewal.  Apart from this there’s close to no work being done on the issue here. I’m personally funding most of the work and research I do on the issue through other jobs, and so far there has been fairly low interest in Norway for this work even though it has gained international recognition in among others Germany and the UK. I hope this will change. The culture of inability to learn from other countries as well as from our own past also shows up here. In my experience little is being done to target the extremist communities, to reach out, to support in reform and to work with at-risk-groups to avoid they join extremist communities in the first place.

A problem with this is also that we have a very traditional understanding of terrorism. Our entire mindset is tied to extremist violence coming from extremist groups, rather from solo-terrorists as Breivik. This is still a problem as far as I am aware. In other words I think very little has changed in how the official side of Norway deals with radicalisation. I do however believe the attack still has a lasting effect in most peoples’ minds, a lot of far right extremists rejects Breivik’s actions even though they support his ideology. There is however a danger that the acts and the lack of ability to deal with them can serve as inspiration both to people from the far right, but also people from other extremist communities.

Do you identify parameters of danger in Norwegian society for further extremist attacks?

Due to our inability to sufficiently handle radicalisation I do believe there’s a danger in Norway of further attacks. We have a very non-confrontational culture, where challenging peoples views, both political, ideological and religious, is frowned upon. This is problematic when it comes to challenging extremist views, or the public’s willingness to both recognise that it is an issue and to challenge it.

We also have a tradition of viewing far right extremism as separate from other forms of extremism, such as jihadist extremism, while if you look at the core of it all extremists are fairly similar and the mechanisms of extremism identical in most cases. Within the political parties there’s very little being done as the right wing is trying to pin islamic violence on immigration and thus the left wing, while the left wing is pinning right wing extremism on the right wing parties. This is in my opinion used to score cheap political points by the political parties rather than to address the core issues of extremist ideology and development of violent extremists.

Another problem with this has been the dehumanisation of Breivik. To begin with people didn’t even want to say his name as they viewed him as some sort of monster, much like Voldemort in the Harry Potter books. People also view Breivik as a madman, which even had a quite massive effect on the trial and the public perception of it, as the core question became wether to treat him as sane or not. This further supported the view of the act as more of a natural disaster, a one time thing, rather than acts based on views and ideologies shared by others, acts that could easily in some form or another be repeated by extremist people with both similar and opposing views to those of Breivik.

These parameters in combination with a growing right wing populist movement across Europe as well as heightened levels of conflict between people of various cultures, religions and opinions can cause problems. I see this growth being a result of several factors including the issues in Syria and the public perception of islamist extremism all across the islamic world (which is portrayed in problematic ways in the media as the media lives off of conflict and in reality earns more when they scare people than when they’re balanced), post 9/11 racism which has played out very differently in Europe than in the US, and the financial crisis in 2008 which in terms of growth of right wing extremist movements in Europe have some parallels to the crack in 1929 but also has lead to a growing frustration, especially among young people who cannot find jobs and who experience claims they’re having their jobs taken away by immigrants. Real grievances such as the lack of jobs for young people is a real problem in post 2008 Europe, but we have to challenge those who jump to the conclusion that they can blame it on immigration, or the fact that someone is of a different skin-colour, nationality or culture than themselves. That is not the solution.

You were targeted in cold blood by another human being that you had never met and had nothing against. Has this changed (and if yes how) your attitude and trust towards people?

It hasn’t really changed my attitude and trust towards other people that much. I might be more sceptical now than what I was, but I don’t know how tied that is to the incident itself. I still have problems trusting the police, both because of their incompetence during the attack, but mostly because Breivik was wearing a police uniform. I will also be more careful in certain settings due to my current public profile, but I view that as a different matter.

What would you personally tell the perpetrator about his actions and their impact in your life?

I don’t have that much to say to him I think. I believe I’d be more interested in listening to him and his reasoning for killing, and then maybe challenge that. Through that I might also hope to prove that I have turned the violence around, that I’m using it to do something good in this world, to try and prevent future acts of violence, that we didn’t submit to Breivik’s ideology and that we instead are standing up against it.

Have you forgiven your attacker?

I just had a lengthy discussion with The Forgiveness Project in the UK on this, and will here copy in the answer I gave to them on this issue:  I don’t know if Breivik is capable of remorse and I don’t honestly care. People find it odd that I consider him so unimportant but I prefer to try to stop people harming others now than spending time on Breivik. I was given the gift of life and if I can spend my time making sure that one single person doesn’t have to go through what me and my friends went through then it will be worth it.

But I do believe that we have to recognise Breivik’s humanity, because it was a human being who was responsible for this massacre. I find people’s efforts to dehumanise Breivik really scary because that’s what he tried to do to us. At times people have refused to say his name which gives him even more power, making him almost half godly. This reminds me of the fear of the name Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, a name should not have that kind of power over us. Norwegians try to dehumanise Breivik by calling him a monster or evil; and leading up to the trial there was a big public pressure to see him as insane. The assumption being that Utøya was caused by one single madman, almost like a natural disaster. It was as if they were trying to write it off. But there’s a great danger in that, because you don’t realise then that another human being may do the same thing.

Forgiveness is perceived differently in Norway than in the rest of the world. All cultures have their own ways of dealing with the concept I guess. Forgiveness is therefore often misunderstood here. For me forgiveness has nothing to with Breivik, it’s about me being able to come to terms with what happened and moving on from that. It’s also about me using what happened in my life in a positive way to build on from, to confirm to myself that I am in control of my own life.

I’m extremely careful with the word forgiveness because it’s so easily misunderstood. When Desmond Tutu suggested that Norway needs to forgive it caused massive outrage among people. This frustrated me because I’m sure Desmond Tutu didn’t mean forgive in the sense of excuse or giving someone a free pass to repeat the offence. I think his views are closer to mine, about accepting and being able to move on while still recognising the pain; and about finding some wisdom that we can take out of what has happened to ensure that violence doesn’t repeat.

You are often mentioned in presentations as survivor. How does this differ for you from the common perception of “victim” in such cases?

In my eyes a Survivor is an active agent while a victim is passive. The victim was subjected to something perpetrated by somebody else, and so was the survivor, but the survivor moved on, took charge of his or her own life rather than staying passive and wounded. Victimhood is for me closely related to pity and I often do not want or need the pity of others, I am, and want to be perceived as a stronger person than that. At the same time I recognise that I have to realise my own weakness in confrontation with some of the issues related to the case, and in general I have no problems with such ‘weakness’ I will however not let that define me.

I do also recognise the fact that others have other needs than me and as such can benefit from identifying as victims rather than survivors. Some people need more help than me, or more time, some people have not yet been able to move on to being a survivor, and that is OK too. Neither is it a black and white case, I sometimes need the help and support too, and feel like a victim more than a survivor. When it comes to how I’m presented by others I do however find it important to be perceived as a survivor rather than a victim as that gives me the strength to keep on being an active agent in my life and in my work against extremism.

What would your message be to other people that have been also targeted in crimes of hate and extremistic violence

This is a difficult one. My message would be something along the lines of ‘you are not alone’. You are not alone as a victim nor a survivor, and even when it feels like you’re the only one working through the issues you have to work through, you can know that others are working through the same issues and that it is possible to rebuild a decent life afterward.

When you feel that everyone has abandoned you, and that nobody works against what you have been subjected to you’re wrong. We are here, I don’t always feel that we are many or strong enough, but we are here, and we will work tirelessly to make sure as few as possible will ever have to be targets of crimes of hate and extremist violence ever again!

Thank you!

(Interview questions: Dr. Maria Alvanou. Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons)

[1]Note: The FREE Initiative is the first pan-European resource to offer practical guidance on countering far-right extremism across Europe. It aims to inspire and promote cross-border learning among those working against violent far-right extremism, see