30th September 2020

Bjørn Ihler on the power of personal storytelling, violent extremism and why it’s important not to dehumanize terrorists

Marina Cantacuzino talks to 29-year-old Bjørn Ihler, a writer, filmmaker and ‘peace activist’ from Norway. Bjørn is a survivor of the attack on Utøya Island in July 2011 when far-right extremist Anders Breivik killed 69 people and injured many more. Bjørn’s expertise lies in countering extremist narratives, as well as deconstructing their propaganda.

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Show Notes

Bjørn Ihler is an internationally renowned expert in countering and preventing radicalisation into violent extremism through the design of healthier communities on and off-line. In 2016 Ihler co-founded the Khalifa-Ihler Institute which works to promote peace, human rights and thriving communities. Ihler is also a member of the group Extremely Together working under the Kofi Annan Foundation to empower youth internationally to challenge violent extremism in their local communities and work against radicalisation across the globe.

Read Bjørn’s story

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Marina: Welcome to the F Word Podcast – a podcast series which examines, excavates, unpicks and reframes Forgiveness through the lives of others. I am Marina Cantacuzino, a journalist from London, Founder of The Forgiveness Project Charity and I’ve built my career investigating how those who face the most complex and devastating things in life find a way through. I will be talking fortnightly to a guest who has experienced something very difficult or traumatic in their life but who rather than respond with hate or bitterness has embraced or at the very least considered forgiveness as a response to pain.So my guest today is Bjørn Ihler and it is a real privilege, Bjørn, to have you here today and I know you were passing through London and you are very busy but in your schedule you found time to come in here and talk to me. I am really grateful to you for that.

Bjørn: Thank you so much for having me.

Marina: So I will just introduce you. Bjørn Ihler is a Norwegian and he is a survivor of the July 2011 attacks on Utoya Island when right-wing extremist, Anders Breivik shot and killed 69 people and injured 110 others. Most of the dead were students attending summer camp organised by the Youth Division of the Norwegian Labour Party and by the way in 2012 Breivik received a 21 year prison sentence for homicide.

So, Bjørn, you were trapped on that island for several hours. You witnessed several of your friends being killed. There were 600 people on that tiny island battling for a few hiding places. I think that really sort of expresses the fear and trauma of what went on that day. And, during that time you even came face to face with Anders Breivik, but then you chose to actually come face to face with him again much later in court. That was a very important thing for you to do and I know many didn’t want to do it for very understandable reasons. Why did you choose to do that?

Bjørn: I chose to do that largely because Breivik, when I met him on the island, was a powerful figure. He was capable of killing me and tried very actively to kill me and killed my friends.

In the days and weeks that followed the attack people started speaking about him more as a monster than a human being and he grew to become this figure that was larger than any person should be and I felt that that was giving him more power than any human being should have. And, I think it was really important to me to see him in court in order to bring that back down and bring him back into reality as a human being. It was really important for me to see him not pose a threat to me anymore because in the first few months after the attack, I saw him the first time which was in November 2011, a few months after the attack, still a very short matter of time actually.

But it was important for me to see him in order to move along my process of recovery, in order to realise that he wasn’t actually posing a danger to me anymore because I was living with quite heavy PTSD and trying to figure out my life and he was a figure that was always there as a threat and living beyond that was a key part of the recovery.

Marina: I remember when we first spoke and we had quite a long conversation. You went into quite a lot of detail about what happened that day. It was extremely harrowing and upsetting to hear that.

One thing I remember, particularly, you describing once you got through this appalling experience, you somehow lived even though he actually fired at you at one point, got on a boat, rescued, taken with others back to the mainland and you actually said and I am quoting you here “thinking back I find that part was even worse than the island realising that a lot of parents would be returning without their children”.

So, given that, how did you deal with the trauma of what happened? Did you feel any sort of survivor guilt during that time? How did you look after yourself?

Bjørn: I wouldn’t say survivor guilt as such. The difficult part kind of came after the attack. In the moment there was surely a fight for survival. I accepted that and I think that is quite clear in the situation that you do what you can to make it.

But, coming back to land and being gathered at the hotel that was set up as a rescue centre and waiting there for hours, both to hear from friends that didn’t show up there, friends who were sent to hospitals and friends who were killed, that was when I kind have moved beyond just a survival place and then to thinking more consciously about what had actually happened.

And then parents not only from Oslo, but from all over the country, started arriving and searching for their children. Obviously, a lot of the parents were lucky to find their children, heavily traumatised, but at least alive. But there were parents who also arrived, who didn’t find their kids and who were waiting and waiting and waiting in the reception areas of the hotel to see if their kids showed up there and through the night or whether they would get a phone call from a hospital saying their child was there.

I then realised the parents who were sitting there and that is really something which really still gives me the chills because that is really, you know, part of where the impact of the ramifications of this started sinking in.

Marina: You were given some good physiological support.

Bjørn: I was, yes.

Marina: But, you also came back to study in Liverpool in England, where you had started your studies and you said that was helpful.

Bjørn: Yes,

Marina: Why, just to get away?

Bjørn: Not just to get away. Actually the getting away part was mixed in how successful or helpful it was. I also went back to Oslo once a week or month for some time because I wanted to follow the trial and because I needed to be near my family and all of these things.

And, it was also really important for me to reclaim my life and say this is not going to change my path, it is not going to change who I am. Of course, it has. I mean anything else would be unrealistic. But, at the same time I was on this trajectory and I wanted to stay as close to that trajectory as possible, continuing working towards my degree, continuing my life because what happened was not only that Breivik took the lives of the people he killed but he significantly altered the lives of the rest of us as well.

And again, it kind of comes back to this concept of how much power you want to give someone like Breivik over your life and I really didn’t want to give Breivik the power to throw me off from that so it was really empowering to be able to go back and to complete my studies in time.

I would have got better grades certainly if I wasn’t dealing with all of this at the same time. I completed my studies on time and it was very good also to feel that I was cared about and taken care of by that community. So all in all, I think it was the right choice for me but necessarily the right choice for everyone else.

Marina: Yes, I think that is really important. So, even from quite near the beginning you felt comfortable sharing your story in public.

Bjørn: Yes.

Marina: Now, Bjørn and I first met through the Against Violent Extremism Network which was set up originally in 2011 by people with similar ideas. The AVE Network, as it is known, is still operating today and I would say the need in fact is greater than ever in this ongoing struggle to tackle violent extremism.

The way that it operates is that former violent extremists, known as “formers” and survivors of sectarian violence work together to push back extremism narrative. The idea is that by sharing their lived experience you can prevent further recruitment into extremist groups.

Bjørn, you do a lot of really important work and I am just really interested to know that despite this appalling trauma you choose to work in an area which must continually remind you of what happened. So, I was wondering why you don’t choose to work in an office or in a forest to create a completely new life for yourself.

Bjørn: Well to be fair I work quite a bit in a forest and in an office. I started doing this work actually before. If I can explain why I was at the Summer Camp was that I was engaged in working to bridge the gaps between communities both in Oslo and nationally to help people, young kids in high school really, to tell their stories and I learnt about the power of storytelling and the importance of owning your own story.

It really kind of shaped a lot of my work around story telling as a tool for building those bridges. Then, subsequently, I went on to study theatre as part of that and one element of that was also that I did believe that you can speak statistics and politics as much as you like but if you are not able to connect with people, if you are not able to tell them a compelling story of some sort, you will not be able to change how they feel about the people around them.

A lot of the work I do and always have been doing is trying to get people to at least listen to each other and possibly change their minds about how they feel about each other.

Marina: I think that really is really interesting because my background is journalism and I wrote to a lot of what we call first personalities in the early days of my work and that always had far more impact than me giving my opinion about what had happened. People became invested in the story. They were able to walk in the shoes of the person who had told the story.

Bjørn: I mean that is logically the concept of The Forgiveness Project, right?

Marina: Yes, absolutely.

Bjørn: Helping people tell their stories.

One of the first things I did after the attack was starting to write it down which was really helpful because I didn’t then have to have the story inside my head. I mean it was running on a loop in my brain and when that ended, it is a good question if it had ended. Another good question, but it was very intense to begin with and I was re-living it and sitting down during even the first week and writing down details, full details of what had happened to me was a way of not feeling like I had the responsibility to remember it.

Marina: So I just want to come back in here because when Bjørn talks about writing down his story in those days just after the attack and the trauma I am really reminded of the ground-breaking work of the American psychologist, James Pennebaker.

In the 1980s Pennebaker, a role luminary in this field, discovered something extraordinary. He discovered that writing about your feelings could significantly improve not just your mental health, but also your physical health and it was the first time there was evidence that keeping feelings closed and locked away will make you sick. During a number of studies Pennebaker found that writing down thoughts and feelings and disclosing things that were difficult and painful leads to feelings of relief and committing words to paper in a way labels your feelings, puts it into a coherent story which is important because when you construct a story you can walk through it much more easily.

Amway, I then went on to ask Bjørn about how and when he first shared his story publicly.

Bjørn: Sharing it with others and I think I did a first interview with ITV as well during that first week. Sharing it as widely as possible was a way of distributing the weight in many ways, making it not just being my burden to carry but sharing the burden, which sounds selfish in many ways, but at the same time was also a way of sharing the responsibility of what happened because Breivik was part of our society. He was a white, western man who was building his ideology and values that are/were prevalent in Western society now as they were in 2011 which is deeply problematic and so I felt it was OK to kind of share the responsibility for what happened.

Discussion about that and about the impact and effect it had on the people who were there which of course is a divesting impact that attack had and the subsequent attacks, including the attack in Christchurch and the attacks in other parts of the world. Of course, there has been plenty of attacks founded in a similar ideology that have significantly altered people’s lives and changed the fabric of those communities for ever and we have to have discussion about how we deal with that. These stories are important for that.

Marina: Just coming back to the Christchurch terrorist attack, I wrote a post relating to it shortly after on Facebook and got taken to task by someone because I mentioned the name of the killer, the attacker. This person thought I was giving oxygen to them and giving them what they wanted, publicity. I know that you have slightly different views around that. Can you just explain?

Bjørn: I think, first of all, publicity is not primarily what these terrorists are after. It is an element of what they are after, of course, and they want to spread their ideology as far as possible and use it for keeping that in mind is important. But, at the same time, I feel it is more important to have a discussion about them, about who they are.

These are human beings, they are similar to you and me in most ways. They come from communities that are very similar to the community I come from. They are largely white, angry young men, much like myself, and I think, being honest about those things, means that we should also say their names and again it comes back to also the element of power. Do we want these people to become figures that we are scared of saying their names?

So my kind of constant reference for this is J K Rowling and Harry Potter. I grew up on Harry Potter and I learnt reading three languages from reading Potter. So it is a different kind of mythology to me but Potter, Harry, is the only one who says the name of Lord Voldemort. I think learning from that is very important in that Lord Voldemort has less power over Harry because he will say his name and the rest of the community is afraid, they are scared they won’t face the kind of real evil.

Then, holding on to that in my own life I had to face Breivik, like I did in court. I have to use his name otherwise I start going down the path of giving him this kind of mythological figure. I don’t know how to explain it entirely and it becomes again more of a monster than a human.

Humanising these extremists is important, not only to see the faults in our own society and addressing the issues that are leading to their radicalisation of them, but in order also to make sure that we are able to see them as normal, as human beings who don’t have that extreme level of mythological almost power over us.

Marina: You have also said “I believe that we have to recognise Breivik’s humanity. I find people’s efforts to de-humanise him really scary because that is what he tried to do to us”.

Bjørn: Yes, that is another element of it, of course. Breivik saw us as less than human. He didn’t realise or value us as human beings and I think that is one of the things that is recurring in all forms of violent extremism, this de-humanisation of others. It is largely about if people are different from you, you see them as less valuable than you which is recurring in Islamic extremism as well as in far right extremism as well as in all other forms of extremism. It’s what makes it possible for people to justify killing each another and that is how Breivik rationalised to himself killing us.

I think when we start doing the same thing to extremists that they are doing to us we are on a bad path. If we are to honestly counter extremism we must not become extremists ourselves. Nietzsche, or someone, had a saying, “if you spend enough time staring into the abyss, the abyss starts staring back into you” and it is really something like that. The reflective nature of the way in which we often choose to deal with these evils of the world by monopolising it and using the same level of evil to counter what we see as external evils in a way which kind of underpins all violence largely.

Marina: Thank you and I think this sort of leads on to another question around forgiveness in the sense of just discussing the very word “forgiveness” in the case of someone like Anders Breivik who showed no mercy at the time and no remorse afterwards, did unspeakable violence to children and young people. It is a very hard word to use at the best of times but when it comes to someone like Anders Breivik how we can frame forgiveness because it can always be framed in every context and people can forgive just about anything. It is entirely a personal choice and I know you have spoken about forgiveness. I wonder how you articulate forgiveness in this context.

Bjørn: For me forgiveness is an enormously difficult word because there is so much, so many feelings around it. I choose to see forgiveness largely in the context of reconciliation.

Marina: Inner reconciliation?

Bjørn: Yes, reckoning with what happened and then figuring out how to build on from there. That has been my path in a way. Yes this happened. It is going to change who I am and in a kind of mental kind of way, it has. And that is OK that is part of life.

But, then coming to terms with that I am letting that not guide me on to a destructive path but becoming a positive force, becoming something that empowers me now to work to counter violent extremism to prevent other people going down the path of Breivik and using that to foster conversations that lead to healthier communities. Using that to help people realise the potential of diversity and celebrating diversity as something positive in our communities. Creating spaces for dialogue in which peace can be found between people who are radically different. All of these things are beautiful things that grows out of the gruesome thing that happened and so learning from what happened has been really important in my personal experience of reconciliation.

Forgiveness is closely tied to reconciliation and often used synonymously and so my path is one way of showing that and at the same time people tend to use forgiveness as some form of “I accept what you did, I forgive you” which is not true in my understanding of forgiveness. I do not forgive Breivik in that sense and my level of reconciliation has very little to do with Breivik. It has more to do with what happened and my personal journey with that.

Breivik is not really a factor in my life at this point and hasn’t been for some time but forgiveness is also not only something you give others but something you give yourself. Forgiveness is and reconciliation is for me very much an internal process where I choose to not let this be a destructive force. I am not carrying it as a destructive force.

Marina: Desmond Tutu said shortly afterwards, he suggested that Norway needed to forgive and that in a way you can understand why it infuriated some people, some Norwegians. It was probably, possibly, worded or framed or misunderstood in some way. Do you think it was misunderstood?

Bjørn: I think it was misunderstood. Desmond Tutu is an Archbishop within the religious community. It is not very present in Norway which is a very secular country and the religious relationship with forgiveness is very different from the secular relationship with forgiveness first of all. And, so I think a lot of Norwegians found that very problematical. I also think the Norwegian language is different than English when it comes to how these concepts are vocalised and discussed. We do have the concept of forgiveness and continue to do so.

Marina: So that is tilgivelse meaning forgiveness coming from the verb tilgi meaning to condone or pardon. Then we talked about the word for reconciliation in Norwegian.

Bjørn: Language shapes the way we think about these things. Reconciliation is not as much used in Norwegian. As the word, there is the word “forsoning”, which basically is more or less the direct translation of reconciliation. But the way in which Norway likes to see itself reconciliation is largely kind of an international peace-building progress that being closely related to forgiveness is not something that people really think about in their day to day lives.

So, these elements were part of creating the professional misunderstandings of what Archbishop Tutu said and I don’t think that was Desmond Tutu’s intent and I don’t think he necessarily understood the cultural mis-conversations which might have occurred there. And, I think a lot of Norwegians were upset and went straight to being upset rather than to try to understand what Tutu was actually trying to convey, which I think was more aligned with his own process of reconciliation after apartheid, it is what he is known for.

Marina: Yes, and one of the things I have noticed from talking to people like yourself, Bjørn, is that a really important part of the healing process is around meaning-making and by meaning-making I don’t mean that you make sense out of what has happened but sometimes these things can be senseless, crazy. But it does mean that you intentionally pursue what matters to you and that puts meaning then back into your life. So, it is about ensuring violence doesn’t happen again by finding some wisdom in the trauma that has happened to you.

Does that make sense?

Bjørn: It does and I wish I was more successful in it because we had back in Norway where a white, young man from the same neighbourhood as Breivik went to a mosque with the intent of shooting people. He was overpowered there but he had managed to murder his older sister before going to the mosque.

And I think these things keep happening and people say that hindsight is 20/20 and that is logic? But it also means that we have a responsibility to use the 20/20 hindsight in order to look ahead and see the sort of mistakes we made in the past.

These are the ways in which our society allows for the radicalisation of these people and Norway is a net exporter of terrorists. We have like 120 people or so who have gone off to join terrorist organisations nationally over the last few years. We have had now several far-right inspired terrorist attacks domestically and it is time to take this seriously. It is time to all look at what happened daily. It is our responsibility as a community to look at what we can do better as a community in order to take care of our people so they don’t go down the path, both of self-destruction and destruction of the society and the people around them.

Marina: I understand what you are saying about learning from something like this and preventing it happening again. I think this meaning-making thing is about putting meaning back into your life. Your life could have been frozen at that point but in some sense you have used what happened to you to create value in the world.

Bjørn: Yes, creating value in the world is my way of creating value in my life really. It might be problematic sometimes. People who have been through these things, myself and a lot of people who are involved with The Forgiveness Project have a fairly selfless sense of duty to the world and I definitely fall in that recovery. It is definitely not always the healthiest way of going about things and so when it comes to creating meaning in my own life I do that by creating meaning around me which is a coping mechanism.

It’s a way of making it not feel like what happened was in vain, of trying to honour friends who were lost, of honouring families and people who are forever broken by what happened. I wish I had a better answer in terms of how that in any way is sustainable to me personally but the meaning that I create for myself is kind of the meaning I try to create in the world.

Marina: Working with former violent extremists, whether Islamist extremists or far-right supremacists it a very powerful thing, isn’t it? I have seen it at first hand and there is something, some sort of incredible ingredient, if you like, that comes together when people have been hurt work with people who used to hurt others.

Bjørn: Yes, I think that is a very powerful path and I hope that work with “formers” will inspire others to follow their path and at least show that there is a way back out of violence. I also hope it will show those of us who are not engaged in violent extremist organisations that have never had been that the people who are in these business are people who largely have been hurt themselves in different ways.

I know that Arno Michaelis, another Forgiveness Project person, had the saying that “hurt people hurt people” and by dealing with his own trauma that was a large component of his recovery process from being a very far right extremist. People are not static. We make mistakes. We do stupid stuff and that is not exclusive to extremists. I am sure you have done plenty of silly things in your life….

Marina: Indeed.

Bjørn: ….and so have I. So has everyone and we have in the public landscape right now this tendency of thinking about people in a very static way but people are dynamic. We keep changing and that’s part of what is beautiful about humans and that’s what I love about humanity is that we never stop changing. But also it is something we need to remember when it comes to the people who are in bad places, the people who are doing bad things, they are on bad trajectories, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t change.

Marina: So Bjørn I want to thank you so much for coming along and talking to us and just to wish you well for your work which is so important and valuable and until the next time we meet.

Bjørn: Thank you so much for having me. It is always a pleasure to catch up with you and with The Forgiveness Project.

Marina: Thank you for listening to the F Word Podcast. To dig a bit deeper around some of the themes we have talked about do check out the show notes by going to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast. From there you can also explore The Forgiveness Project website which over the years has collected and shared many more stories of how people have transformed the darkest situations.

I also want to invite you to join The F Word Podcast Facebook Group especially if you have more to discuss or share. Again, to find the link go to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast and finally, all of these podcasts have grown out of years of trying to shift the narrative of our time away from one of hatred and division towards empathy and understanding.

So, if you have enjoyed this podcast please do consider donating even just the smallest amount to help us to continue our work. All details of how to do this again are on the show notes page of our website.

But, most of all I hope you will join me again.

Next time on the F Word Podcast I will be talking to Joan Scourfield, a woman whose son was killed by a random act of violence and who later went on to meet the man responsible.

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