Breivik, Bin Laden and moral equivalency

Normally we like to look at news treatment, as opposed to opinion pieces, related to religion. But there were two analysis items from this weekend that were worth considering. The first came from the New York Times and was written by Thomas Hegghammer, a Norwegian expert on Islamist violence. It’s helpful for those of us trying to analyze how to define this rather idiosyncratic terrorist.

Hegghammer says that the first glance of the 1,500-page manifesto by Anders Behring Breivik, the accused terrorist in the Norway attacks, might lead you to think it’s a “fairly standard ideological treatise of the far right.” But he notes that Breivik’s worldview doesn’t fit well into any of the subcategories of white supremacism, unltranationalism and Christian fundamentalism:

For example, although Mr. Breivik says he fears “the extinction of the Nordic genotypes,” racial hygiene is not high on his agenda. He wants to expel, not kill, Muslims in Europe, and he does not mind Jews and non-Muslim Asians. Similarly, while Mr. Breivik says he is “extremely proud” of his “Odinistic/Norse heritage,” he is not a Norwegian nationalist — his “declaration of independence” applies to all of Europe. And while he is Christian, he admits that “I’m not going to pretend I’m a very religious person.”

Instead, Mr. Breivik’s goal is to reverse what he views as the Islamization of Western Europe; indeed, he sees himself as a soldier in a defensive war against “Islamic imperialism.” In his view, Muslims are colonizing Europe, helped by high birth rates and a doctrine of multiculturalism advocated by the European elite. Islam, for him, represents an existential threat to European civilization, a threat that must be countered at all costs. The best way to do so, he argues, is to wage war against “cultural Marxists” — his label for the European political and intellectual elite — because they are the traitors who allow the colonization to take place.

Having read the manifesto, and having failed to summarize it succinctly, I must commend Hegghammer and his editors for doing just that. Anyway, then we’re told about the counterjihad movement and its roots. The author explains that the manifesto suggests he was inspired by this movement’s writers but also that these writers don’t advocate violence and have condemned his actions.

Hegghammer argues that Breivik’s violence has more in common with something other than the counterjihad movement:

Indeed, the more belligerent part of Mr. Breivik’s ideology has less in common with counterjihad than with its archenemy, Al Qaeda. Both Mr. Breivik and Al Qaeda see themselves as engaged in a civilizational war between Islam and the West that extends back to the Crusades. Both fight on behalf of transnational entities: the “ummah” — or “community” of all Muslims — in the case of Al Qaeda, and Europe in the case of Mr. Breivik. Both frame their struggle as defensive wars of survival. Both hate their respective governments for collaborating with the outside enemy. Both use the language of martyrdom (Mr. Breivik calls his attack a “martyrdom operation”). Both call themselves knights, and espouse medieval ideals of chivalry. Both lament the erosion of patriarchy and the emancipation of women.

The analysis continues from there and Hegghammer even wonders if a violent anti-Muslim movement will emerge in the West. He wonders if this hypothetical movement will attack the European elites for their treason or whether they will attack Muslims as the enemy. Of course, a response of “both” would be a similar strategy to al Qaeda and other Islamic militant movements. These movements are just as keen, if not more keen, to go after the elites that threaten them in their home countries as they are civilian enemies.

In any case, it’s a very good analysis piece. The other analysis piece came from the Associated Press’ Jesse Washington, headlined “Christian Terrorist? Norway Case Strikes Debate“.

When the “enemy” is different, an outsider, it’s easier to draw quick conclusions, to develop stereotypes. It’s simply human nature: There is “us,” and there is “them.” But what happens when the enemy looks like us — from the same tradition and belief system?

That is the conundrum in the case of Norway and Anders Behring Brevik, who is being called a “Christian extremist” or “Christian terrorist.”

As westerners wrestle with such characterizations of the Oslo mass murder suspect, the question arises: Nearly a decade after 9/11 created a widespread suspicion of Muslims based on the actions of a fanatical few, is this what it’s like to walk a mile in the shoes of stereotype?

“Absolutely,” said Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. “It clearly puts us in a position where we can’t simply say that extreme and violent behavior associated with a religious belief is somehow restricted to Muslim extremists.”

“It speaks to cultural assumptions, how we are able to understand something when it (comes from) us,” Tyler said. “When one of us does something terrible, we know that’s not how we all think, yet we can’t see that with other people.”

The article goes on to explain that stereotypes come from an impulse to categorize and that it’s easier to stereotype groups you don’t belong to than ones you do belong to. And that’s why people thought Al Qaeda might be behind the deadly attack in Oslo (the idea that this might be a rational guess is not engaged). But they were wrong. You know how this story goes. Let’s do a quick sideline to correct the myth that will not die:

Mark Juergensmeyer, editor of the book “Global Religions: An Introduction” and a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote an essay likening Breivik to Timothy McVeigh, the American who killed 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. It was the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil until 9/11.

McVeigh and Breivik were both “good-looking young Caucasians, self-enlisted soldiers in an imagined cosmic war to save Christendom … and both were Christian terrorists,” Juergensmeyer wrote.

Of course, McVeigh was not a Christian terrorist. I’ll slow down and repeat with another link: McVeigh was not a Christian terrorist. Yes, George W. Bush and a variety of other folks have repeated the claim. But not everything George W. Bush says is true. This would be an example of just that.

So if you’re wanting to make a morally relativistic argument, you have to use a source other than McVeigh. Of course, sources seem to be a problem in general for this reporter since the next person quoted is Alex Pareene. Pareene is shrill and profane, but not a theologian or anyone who should be within 100 feet of a serious article about religion. For that matter, neither should the next person quoted in the piece, one Bill O’Reilly. I mean, come on, it’s getting silly.

The whole point of the piece is that the universal Christian response to Breivik as “he’s not one of us” is the equivalent of the universal response of Muslims to Osama bin Laden and his ilk as “they’re not us.”

And that’s where the piece fails to engage a pretty obvious counterargument. It’s true that Breivik’s complex views make it easier to see the folly in painting all Muslims with the same broad brush. That’s a great idea for an article.

But it’s also true that there are differences between Al Qaeda, for instance, and Breivik. Here’s one, from a new poll of youth in Malaysia:

The statement “Osama bin Laden is an Islamic liberation fighter” was endorsed by 51.1% to 28.1% among Indonesian youths and “Osama bin Laden is a freedom fighter” was endorsed by 62.4% to 33.3% among Malaysian youths.

Or what about that Pew poll from last December that polled Muslims in just six countries and found the equivalent of 150 million folks supporting Al Qaeda?

It’s certainly worthwhile to explore the topic of extremism in every religion. But a good report should go further than just raising the issue. What are the similarities between Breivik and Al Qaeda? I myself found quite a few when reading the Breivik manifesto.

But just as importantly, what are the differences?

I know people on all sides have been having quite a fun time pointing out the double standards in how the media treat various terror attacks. But if we’re going to have a big rally for moral equivalency, I’d like to see a tad more depth than “Oh yeah? What about the Crusades”-type rhetoric.

The story does have an opportunity to discuss just that, but fails to get into specifics. Psychology professor Art Markman is quoted saying that people justify their own behavior but not others:

“If you’re a Christian and you see this Norway murderer, you say, I have these teachings and I haven’t murdered anyone, so the teachings can’t be the problem,” Markman said. “But if you’re talking about the ‘other,’ it’s different. And if you don’t know what the actual Muslim teachings are, it seems like a plausible explanation.”

Some Christians say they do know the Muslim teachings, and that they are the problem. “There is a lot of text to justify the link between Islam and terrorism,” said Michael Youssef, founder of the Evangelical-Anglican Church of the Apostles in Atlanta. “In the Quaranic text, and in the tradition that was written by the followers.”

Youssef, who is identified as Egyptian-born to Christian parents, is quoted saying something about how Jesus was non-violent as opposed to some other unnamed guy “who waged war and killed people.” Presumably he’s talking about Muhammad who — whatever else you might say about him — waged war and killed people. But while there would certainly be plentiful opportunity to explain what’s being referenced in the quote, we get nothing. That seems fair neither to the critics of Muhammad’s violence or its defenders. And it’s not fair to people who may just be ignorant of Muhammad and his actions.

Instead, the whole line of discussion is just dropped like a molten spud. Youssef’s quote is immediately followed by an international human rights lawyer who wrote a book on Islamic pacifism and who says that the Norway attacks prove that terrorism can be committed by any race, nationality or religion. Which has nothing to do with engaging Youssef’s point.

Again, it is certainly true that people of all religions have engaged in violence. But is the net result of Breivik’s murder spree going to be that all stories about religion and violence boil down to “they all do it”? Are we capable of seeing the distinction between a dude acting alone with, at this point, no following and a large global movement with many leaders and supporters? Supporters of Islamic extremism are a minority in most Muslim countries. But there’s a dramatic difference between the level of support a killer such as Osama bin Laden had and the level of support a killer such as Breivik has. Media coverage should not ignore that distinction when pushing the moral equivalency meme.

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  • Norman

    A pro-Palestinian activist claims a Jewish identity in his public pronouncements. An old college friend subsequently reveals that the activist only has one Jewish relative, a distant one at that, and that said activist does not practice Judaism. The activist responds by appealing to his “most cherished sense of personal identity”.

    Is he Jewish?

    If the media accepts personal narratives over objective facts they are they are taking sides in an open public debate. It is better, in contested claims over identity, to present all sides of the issue rather than playing judge and jury via newsprint.

  • Jerry

    Typically when people do a popularity contest, there is no part of the survey which tests how much people know. So I wonder how many know what al Quaeda stands for and what they would do if they won? I’d bet that very few who say they support the terrorists really know what they are supporting.

    I base this on the number in America that support Democratic spending on a number of specific issues but also say they are conservatives who are against government. The statements illustrating that is signs we’ve seen: “keep the government out of my medicare” and “don’t steal from medicare to support socialized medicine”.

    And, of course, one of the big topics here is how ignorant the media is about religion.

    What to do about such ignorance is a hard problem. But a start would be to critique surveys are that not well constructed to get at the level of knowledge or ignorance on those responding.

  • Jeremy

    Great post. Excellent points.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Youssef, who is identified as Egyptian-born to Christian parents, is quoted saying something about how Jesus was non-violent as opposed to some other unnamed guy “who waged war and killed people.”

    Actually, the bigger problem here is the problem Pope Benedict identified in his Regensburg Address: Islam (at least the Sunni variety) doesn’t believe in natural law, doesn’t believe that God is bound by reason or by moral law, and subscribes to a rather crude divine-command theory of morality.

    As far as I know, no one has yet come up with a convincing refutation of the Regensburg thesis.

  • h.d.

    There is a large share of North American society who supports Brievik’s ideology and reject his actions only because it was ‘unproductive’. The implied idea is the best way for North to beat muslims is through bombing. Islamic radicals on the other hand, do not have the bombs and army, so they do guerilla war. Similarities between radicals are not coincident , they are exactly the same historical phenomenon.

    on the other hand, the war between Islam and Christianity is so fake and staged, that doesn’t warrant a theological discussions at any level. i’ve written articles on this, but didn’t know anybody who’d publish it.

  • Dave G.

    I guess I have a question. It seems the talk has been how this fellow is still more or less a Christian, even though he appears to be of a secular sort. So why, then, are we comparing him to Bin Laden? Was Bin Laden a fellow who said, “I do this in the name of a cultural Islam, because I never really believed all that religious stuff about Allah”? Is there a comparison beyond violence? Why not pick someone else? Why not focus on the ‘secular’ side, the ‘cultural’ side, rather than continuing the debate about the religious side? That’s still what I’ve heard the most: Does this suggest Christianity has terrorists, too? Why not ask: Does this suggest secularists have terrorists, too? Maybe it’s been asked. But I know I haven’t seen it.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: on the other hand, the war between Islam and Christianity is so fake and staged, that doesn’t warrant a theological discussions at any level.

    What does that even mean? Clearly, Islam and Christianity are in conflict in the realm of ideas (just as, say, Eastern Orthodoxy and evangelical Baptists are in conflict in the realm of ideas) because their beliefs are very different and incompatible. Whether that ideological conflict necessary involves political conflict is a separate question, and I don’t think it necessarily has to. But quite obviously, many Muslims (like Al Qaeda and its sympathizers) do believe that, as do some Christians. And there are more than a few military conflicts in recent history (Armenians vs. Azerbaijianis, Greek Cypriots vs. Turkish Cypriots, Christian Lebanese vs. Muslim Lebanese) that can’t be fully understood without the religious dimension (though there are certainly other dimensions).

    Perhaps you didn’t find a publisher because your thesis simply wasn’t worth publishing.

  • Julia

    I’d like to see a tad more depth than “Oh yeah? What about the Crusades”-type rhetoric.

    And I’d like to see reporters with a better understanding of the Crusades than what they got in Sunday school as kids.

    This is a very big subject right now. Reporters (or anybody else) can start with the current best concise book from Oxford on the subject with essays by different authors on all aspects of the Crusades as illuminated by scholarship of the last 50 years or so. $19.50 in paperback.

  • Darel

    The “Christian terrorist,” “Muslim terrorist” meme of the cosmopolitan elite makes sense only within a liberal worldview in which “religion” is defined as a set of individual beliefs and values rather than as the lived experience of a self-defined sacred community. Most (all?) Muslim terrorists find a home in radical mosques which nurture them. I have yet to hear a story of a Christian terrorist in the West who was nurtured by an actually existing congregation.

  • Mollie


    What’s your evidence for this idea about finding homes in radical mosques. Certainly several of the American terrorists who commit violence in the name of Islam don’t fit that profile.

    It’s important also to note that not all religions have the same attitude about life in a congregation or community of believers.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    If you want to examine moral equivalency, I suggest you compare reactions to 9/11 and Oslo:

    Have any major Christian leaders condemned Oslo? What were the reactions of equivalent Muslim religious leaders? Did any condemn 9/11 (yes, but who)? Did any Christian leaders announce support for Breivik? Muslim religious leaders for 9/11?

    More importantly, what about the silences? Were Christian or Muslim responses to the respective attacks lacking?

    What about “the street”? Were Muslims dancing in the cafes of Beirut and Damascus after 9/11? Were Christians dancing in the cafes of Berlin, Paris and New York after Oslo?

    Are there polls of Muslims which show some level of support for al Qaeda? Actually, there are:

    This Pew Research poll shows minority support for al Qaeda, but a report on the Pew Research study notes that the minority is about 130 million Muslims, maybe 100,000 to 600,000 American Muslims.

    Do 130 million Christians support Breivik? Do 100,000 Norwegian Christians?

    It’s early yet, so no polls, but there have been claims of support for Breivik, countable on the fingers or toes.

    There is a large share of North American society who supports Brievik’s ideology

    Now that’s a claim for which I would like to see evidence. I have no doubt there are some, but how many? See google search above.

  • Dave G.

    You know, Passing By has a big point. I’ve been hearing all about how Islamic terrorism isn’t any different than, well, anything else. But where are the numbers? Are there approximately 200 million Christians who support violence and killing non Christians? Are there Christian training camps where thousands of Christians are learing to slaughter innocent people? Is there a wake of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dead bodies floating behind Christian terrorists? I mean, if they are equal, it seems simple enough to prove. Show the numbers. Show me the equality with any other demographic.

    I’m not saying they aren’t. I’m just saying it would be nice to seem some numbers, even if we know that doesn’t always end the argument.