When the first reports of devastating attacks in Norway began to circulate, news commentators immediately jumped to the conclusion that the perpetrator(s) must be Muslim extremists. This turned out to be far from the truth. The suspected attacker, a lone man named Anders Behring Breivik, identifies as a Christian. The horrific bombing in Oslo’s city center, followed by a brutal shooting spree at a youth camp on the island of Utoya, were motivated by anti-Muslim zeal. Breivik articulated his desire to protect white Christians from the encroaching on the rights of “indigenous European peoples” in a 1500-page manifesto, which, to some, is ample cause to label him a “Christian terrorist.”
Other experts, however, questioned Breivik’s knowledge of Christian theology, and speculated that his desire for violence was not grounded in Christian faith, but rather a kind of white nationalism linked to Christianity.
“My impression is that Christianity is used more as a vehicle to unjustly assign some religious moral weight,” to his political views,” Anders Romarheim, a fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies explained in an article for CNN. “It is a signifier of Western culture and values, which is what they pretend to defend. I would say they are more anti-Islam than pro-Christian.”
Many commentators are drawing connections between Breivik and Timothy McVeigh, the architect of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings. In a piece for Religion Dispatches, Mark Juergensmeyer uses the comparison to argue that if Osama bin Laden is a “Muslim terrorist,” then both men qualified as “Christian terrorists.” He writes,
“Both were good-looking young Caucasians, self-enlisted soldiers in an imagined cosmic war to save Christendom. Both thought their acts of mass destruction would trigger a great battle to rescue society from the liberal forces of multiculturalism that allowed non-Christians and non-Whites positions of acceptability.”
The fact that Breivik was not a theologian does not matter to Juergensmeyer. He argues, quite convincingly, that regardless of whether Breivik’s views were rooted in a theological reality, they were religiously based fantasies, intent upon preserving cultural European Christianity. Regardless of whether Christians would accept Breivik (and Christians are, of course, not a monolithic entity), he justified his actions using the rhetoric of Christian political dominance, making him a “Christian terrorist.”
Separating Christianity from European culture, however “secular” it may seem today, is a challenging business. In Formations of the Secular, the anthropologist Talal Asad famously proposed that European identity is rooted in the notion of Europe as a “civilization,” which is formed in opposition to the Islamic “other.” In other words, the cultural nationalism which today encourages supposedly secular Europeans to feel hostile toward Muslim immigrants is rooted in a deeply Christian past. This history rings out clearly in Breivik’s invectives against the “cultural warfare” of Muslim immigration.
In this sense, being “anti-Islam” is the same as being “pro-Christian,” even if Breivik did not understand the nuances of Christian theological thought. Christianity, according to Asad, has for centuries been used to assert Europe’s political and cultural superiority. The difference is that today, Europeans are “secular Christians” rather than mere “Christians.” In both cases, Islam defines the boundaries of European identity, and Muslims are dangerous threats to European civilization.
On a less theoretical level, other observers have pointed out that no matter how many times Muslims protested against the notion that al-Qaeda’s violence was sanctioned by Islamic theology, Osama bin Laden was still labeled an “Islamic terrorist.” Why Breivik be treated differently? ”Breivik was probably not a real Christian,” writes Jonty Langley for the Huffington Post. ”But how many of us were willing to listen when Muslims told us similar things about Osama Bin Laden?”
The whole discussion smacks of a bizarre, bemused, and sometimes violent blindness on the part of European commentators. In a piece for Slate, William Saleton skewers anti-Islamist blogger Pamela Geller, who was apparently an inspiration for Breivik. Geller disagrees. ”Watching CNN and BBC coverage about Norway, I found very disturbing to hear the number of times they use the word ‘Christian,’” she writes. ”They would never dare refer to religion when it is jihad, and this attack had nothing to do with Christianity. It is outrageous.”
In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Bruce Bawer bemoaned the fact that while Breivik’s cause was just, his actions were too radical and extreme. ”Surveys show that an unsettling percentage of Muslims in Europe reject Western values, despise the countries they live in, support the execution of homosexuals, and want to replace democracy with Shariah law,” he writes. ”It will, I fear, be a great deal more difficult to broach these issues now that this murderous madman has become the poster boy for the criticism of Islam.”
Other commentators are not defensive, but merely perplexed. ”Norwegian, Nordic and European society,” said Marcus Buck, a professor of political science at a Norwegian university, “were totally unprepared for a violent attack from someone who calls himself Christian.”
But even that seems in line with Asad’s trenchant critique. If European is “civilized,” and Islam is the “other,” then the only real terrorists can be Muslims.
Photo from Guttorm Flataboe via flickr.