Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Christian terrorists, Right-wing extremists and Madman

by Gary Berg-Cross

Edd Doerr provided a perspective on size of the right-wing terrorist attack in Norway and its mix of large humanist culture and Lutheran tradition. One argument that is still unfolding is the role of Anders Behring Breivik’s faith in his actions. At the Washington Post’s On Faith blog Mathew N. Schmalz, Professor of Religious Studies at College of the Holy Cross, posited 3 possible categories to explain Breivik:

  • Christian terrorist?
  • Right-wing extremist?
  • Madman?

While the question seems posed as alternatives he might be all 3 and maybe more. It is perhaps illustrative on how several factors play out and reinforce one another.

At first news reports first described Breivik as a “Christian terrorist.” These seem to have been based of things you could on his Facebook profile (now shut down). But people also tracked postings to Christian fundamentalist Web sites. On his Facebook page he described himself as a Christian, leaning toward right-wing Christianity according to an early report by Deputy Police Chief Roger Andresen.

This was supported by quick browsing of Breivik’s 1500-page manifesto, “2083: A European Declaration of Independence”. Breivik e-mailed the document to thousands of people hours before he detonated a bomb outside Norway's government headquarters. It suggests that he saw himself as some form of Christian Knights Templar crusader. I’ve seen one report (not by Dan Brown) that he allegedly attended a 2002 meeting to revive the Templar order.

After a few days many media sites moved from the Christian terrorist explanation to more of a right wing extremist. He posted to right wing web sites too and wrote of being influenced by right wing extremists like Robert Spencer, author of 10 books, including "Islam Unveiled" and "The Truth About Muhammad.". The threat of Islam is a dominant motif of his posting on Pamela Geller's website Atlas Shrugged. of “Obama birth certificate is a fake” fame. Muslim Guns Down Six Daughters To Cleanse Family’s “Honor”” is a typical blog post there

There are sites reporting on the blogging. Breivik apparently guest blogged for other right wing extemeist sites like Jihad Watch and Gates of Vienna. So there is lots of evidence for explanations 1 and 2. They are not mutually exclusive.

But the 2nd angle has allowed some commentators to develop a defense of the Christian connection and move to make it more of a political thing. They soften the religious factor by making an argument that is often missing when people are blaming Islam for terrorism. They argue that Breivik was just a “cultural” rather than “religious” Christian. Even more extreme is Bill O'Reilly's tautological statement that it was "impossible" that Breivik is a Christian. As he said:

"No one believing in Jesus commits mass murder…The man might have called himself a Christian on the net, but he is certainly not of that faith...we can find no evidence, none, that this killer practiced Christianity in any way."

A reader of the manifesto countered this claim by going all the way to page 1403 of Breivik's manifesto, where it states flatel : “At the age of 15 I chose to be baptized and confirmed in the Norwegian State Church. I consider myself to be 100% Christian.” One can add to that that in later life Breivik seemed to champion the Catholic Church as purer than the one he was baptized into.

A weaker formulation is the idea that Breivik’s religious beliefs are just a cultural background that is set in the political context and dominated by political goals. A central goal was, yes, a more (or less) Christian Europe but one predicated on expelling the real evil - Muslims. In this formulation the real goal is to stop the “Islamization” tide in Europe. The tide was enabled by a Europe enfeebled by the women’s movement, “multiculturalism” and its fellow traveling secular ideas.

I think that the religious defense is getting away from the intricate and reinforcing relations between political and religious forces. Jeff Sharlet, contributing editor to Harpers and author and expert on right-wing movements in the United States, dispensed with all of these arguments by a close reading of the entire 1500 page document. You can see his a long interview on Democracy Now Like other scholar Sharlet rejects the suggestion that Anders Breivik was/is insane. Instead, Sharlet , like others sees him as the extension of a virulently xenophobic narrative that has deep roots in the US. What struck him most about Breivik’s manifesto is just how like the fused American relgio-political view it is in every way. Sharlet put it this way:

“I mean, a huge amount of it is from American sources. He’s a great admirer of America, because he says United States, unlike Europe, has maintained its 'Christian identity.'”

Among the people Breivik admired is Robert Spencer and his Jihad Watch site. Sharlet sees such Islamaphobes as walking up to the edge by stirring up people, telling them what to do and they say, Fox-like, you decide. Sharlet addressed whether or not the writers, like Spencer, that Breivik quotes bear some responsibility for his rampage.

“It’s silly to say that any writer is responsible for the actions of others — Breivik pulled the trigger, not Robert Spence — but it’s an oddly relativist argument to suggest that we don’t ponder the ingredients Breivik used to make his toxic stew. As the conservative saying goes, ‘ideas have consequences.’ ”

Breivik is not the only one to browse Web sites to see the Christian identity story and calls to action. On the sites he browsed you find plenty of storylines that merge Christian nationalism, American exceptionalism, conspiracy theories, anti-intellectualism, and xenophobia. Light Christian extremists, like Pat Bachmann, have been on our scene for a while and their descendents are more extreme. Bachmann, Palin and others continue the march to infuse religious views into politics with nary a rational-empirical thought. You can see the relative importance of the US Constitution versus the Bible to see how powerful religious culture and its beliefs can be.

Among other things you can see Breivik’s vision as a European version of the class of cultures issue framed in the US some time ago. These were developed in part by the U.S. Christian Right Free Congress Foundation, founded by Paul Weyrich, in the early 1990s. These warned of an erosion of “Judeo-Christian values.” They were embodied in Pat Buchanan’s who warned about dark-skinned immigrants who drain resources but also fill the culture with alien ideas and religious formulations. On Monday, Pat Buchanan updated his views. He wrote at The American Conservative site:

"As for a climactic conflict between a once-Christian West and an Islamic world that is growing in numbers and advancing inexorably into Europe for the third time in 14 centuries, on this one, Breivik may be right,"

It’s all of a piece and has come home to bite.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What makes Robert Spencer and his approach to Islam any different than Doerr's old friend Paul Blanshard and his approach to Catholicism?