What Anders Behring Breivik's unconscionable terrorist act teaches us -- and what it doesn't.
The revelation that the perpetrator of the terrorist attacks in Oslo, Anders Behring Breivik, is a self-described Christian and conservative is sure to provoke an outburst of the moral equivalence favored by apologists for jihadism. Ever since 9/11, those unwilling to confront the theology of violence in Islam have relied on the tu quoque fallacy––“you do it too”––to dismiss the role of Islamic doctrine in Muslim terrorism. In this argument, all religions have violent extremists, and so it is irrational bigotry to suggest that there’s something in Islam that makes such violence more acceptable and legitimate.
After 9/11, for example, the fact that the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was a nominal Methodist was presented as evidence for Christian terrorism––even though he died a self-professed unrepentant agnostic––or used as an example of how religious affiliation had nothing to do with Muslim violence, as Greg Easterbrook did in his book The Progress Paradox. The tendentious depiction of the Crusades in popular culture, as in Ridley Scott’s historically ignorant Kingdom of Heaven, went even further, suggesting that Christianity’s record of religiously inspired violence was worse than Islam’s. More recently, during Representative Pete King’s hearings into Muslim extremism in America, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee scolded King for ignoring “Christian militants.”
Or consider the six-hour CNN documentary, God’s Warriors, which appeared in 2007. Its host Christine Amanpour not only equated the tiny number of Christian and Jewish terrorists with the vastly greater number of jihadists, but also implied that Jewish militants were the cause of Muslim violence: “The impact of God’s Jewish warriors goes far beyond these rocky hills [i.e. Jewish West Bank settlements]. The Jewish settlements have inflamed much of the Muslim world.” So, too, historian of religion Philip Jenkins, who told NPR that “the Islamic scriptures in the Quran [concerning war] were actually far less bloody and less violent than those in the Bible.” The serial apologist for jihad John Esposito wrote in his book Unholy War, “Terrorists can attempt to hijack Islam and the doctrine of jihad, but that is no more legitimate than Christian and Jewish extremists committing their acts of terrorism in their own unholy wars in the name of Christianity and Judaism.” An atheist Richard Dawkins makes the same argument, alleging that Christian fundamentalists “fuel their tanks at the same holy gas station” as Muslim terrorists.
The absurdity of these arguments is patent. First, the number of attacks attributable to self-professed Christian terrorists is miniscule compared to the toll of Islamic jihadists––17,489 since 9/11, as counted and documented by Religion of Peace. More important, though the former terrorists may call themselves Christian, only a tiny handful of Christians would accept that label, contrary to the wide acceptance and approval of jihadist terrorism that can be found throughout the Muslim world. For example, a recent Pew survey found that one in five people in Egypt view al Qaeda favorably, the same percentage in supposedly moderate Indonesia, figures representing over 60 million people. It is unimaginable that a similar survey about Breivik would generate anything more than a rounding-error’s worth of Christians supporting him.
This fact reflects the most obvious fallacy behind the moral equivalence argument: the complete lack of anything remotely resembling a theology of violence in the Bible. Yes, there is plenty of blood and guts in the Old Testament, but as Raymond Ibrahim points out, the references to those battles are “descriptive, not prescriptive,” and reflect history rather than theology. There is nothing in the Bible remotely similar to the numerous commands to wage war against the infidel that can be found in the Koran, the hadiths, the biographies of Mohammed, and 14 centuries of Islamic jurisprudence, commentary, history, and theology.
Nor can one find Christian clerics or scholars praising and justifying religious violence, whereas numerous respected Muslim religious leaders do so on a regular basis, for the obvious reason that it is doctrinally legitimate and traditional. The continuity of this 14-century-long tradition can be traced starting with Mohammed’s farewell address in 642, when he said, “I was ordered to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no god but Allah.’” This incitement to religious violence was repeated by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979: “Until the cry ‘There is no God but God’ resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle.” It was repeated by bin Laden in 2001: “I was ordered to fight the people until they say there is no god but Allah, and his prophet Muhammed.” And it was quoted by the Fort Hood murderer Nidal Malik Hassan, in a power-point presentation at Walter Reed Hospital. No such tradition exists in Christianity or Judaism, because theological violence is not part of those faiths.
This reliance on moral equivalence not only obscures the causes of Muslim violence. It also leads to misunderstanding the true significance of European extremism. Rather than the expression of Christian or conservative pathology, acts like the Oslo bombing expose the bankruptcy of the EU utopian dream and its notion that nationalist loyalty and Christian identity are at best passé, at worst an expression of xenophobia or racism. EUtopia has marginalized legitimate nationalist and religious identity and exalted in its place some mythic transnational cosmopolitanism and sentimentalized multiculturalism alien to the lives of most ordinary Europeans. As such it creates the conditions in which extremist, if not neo-fascist varieties of nationalism, can flourish, particularly given the growing problems of marginalized and unassimilated Muslim immigrants.
This is not to suggest that anything is responsible for the Oslo bombing other than the actions of the bomber. But it is important to understand the correct context of those actions. As EUtopia continues to unravel, both economically and as a politico-social ideal, we can expect to see extremist parties in Europe grow larger, and violence be increasingly regarded as a legitimate response to the EUtopian assaults against national identity and cultural traditions.