Something Rotten in Norway: The Breivik Tragedy

The events in Norway two weekends ago came, literally, like a blast. When the news of the bombings in Oslo first broke, a large number of people immediately concluded that it was the work of Islamic terrorists (I, pardon the pun, remained agnostic on the issue). Several hours afterwards, it was revealed that the author of the explosions and of a subsequent shooting spree on an island outside the city was a very Aryan-looking young Norwegian man named Anders Behring Breivik who was in fact vehemently opposed to Muslim immigration to his country. He had previously written a 1,500-page manifesto detailing his political philosophy. He is now in custody awaiting psychiatric evaluation.

As soon as the culprit’s identity was disclosed, reaction was quick to follow. Many Muslims understandably took offence at being blamed for a crime of which they had no part and which was committed, to add insult to injury, by an individual with profoundly anti-Islamic sentiments. Other commentators, Muslim and non-Muslim, cited the event and the immediate response to it as an example of the widespread Islamophobia in Western societies like Norway. Finally, following reports describing Breivik as a ‘conservative Christian,’ some left-wing observers used the tragedy to expound on the alleged evils of the right wing, Christianity, and religion in general. But as with other calamities of this nature, the truth lies somewhere in between the extremes presented on all sides.

As mentioned above, it is not hard to sympathize with Muslims who felt that they were once again unfairly smeared for an atrocity in which they apparently played no role. I say ‘once again’ because Muslims were originally (and wrongly) suspected in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building – which turned out to be masterminded by homegrown American ‘patriot’ Timothy McVeigh. Some commentators have even attempted to link Muslims, or the Islamic faith, to mass murderers/serial killers whose connection to Islam was tenuous at best and non-existent at worst. For example, some anti-Islamic websites have made much of the fact that Marc Lepine, a lone gunman who in 1989 killed 14 women at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique because he ‘hated feminists,’ was the son of an Algerian-born Muslim father. However, Lepine (whose name at birth was Gamil Gharbi) was actually baptized a Roman Catholic by his French-Canadian mother and eventually became an atheist. Even more absurdly, it was suggested that Rolando del Rosario Mendoza, a Filipino former police officer who took passengers of a tour bus in Manila hostage in August 2010 and killed eight of them, was a Muslim. (While the Philippines do have a Muslim population in the south of the country, it seems somewhat far-fetched that a person with a middle name that literally means ‘of the rosary’ would be one of them.)

On the other hand, should all those who initially thought that the bombings in Oslo were the actions of Muslim extremists be tarred as Islamophobic? The fact that Muslim groups were behind 9/11 in New York City and the later bombings in Madrid and London might have led some reasonable and not necessarily ‘Islamophobic’ people to this conclusion. In addition, an Islamic group linked to Al-Qaeda called ‘Helpers of the Global Jihad’ originally claimed responsibility for the explosions in Oslo, although they later retracted the statement. The notion that Muslims might have been involved in the attacks was, at least in the beginning, a plausible hypothesis.

Also somewhat dubious was the attempt to portray Anders Behring Breivik as a ‘Christian terrorist.’ Although like most Norwegians, he was most likely baptized into the Lutheran Church as a baby, in his manifesto he denied having a ‘personal relationship with God or Jesus Christ.’ He appeared to see Christianity as a cultural rather than religious phenomenon. In his own words, ‘I am first and foremost a man of logic. However, I am a supporter of a multicultural Christian Europe.’ In this respect he resembles the late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, a self-confessed atheist who nonetheless viewed Christianity as a bulwark against the encroachment of Islam in Europe.

Still, some people have tried to depict Breivik as an example of right-wing Christianity gone wild. OMNI TV commentator Zuhair Kashmeri, for instance, calls Breivik a ‘right-wing Christian nutbar.’ While Kashmeri’s statement might be forgivable given that initial reports described the culprit as a conservative Christian, Kashmeri weakens his case by later referring to Timothy McVeigh as a ‘fundamentalist crackpot.’ A crackpot McVeigh may have been; however, he was by no means a Christian fundamentalist but a Catholic-turned-agnostic – a similar trajectory to that of Marc Lepine. I strongly suspect that Kashmeri, author of a book titled The Gulf Within: Canadian Arabs, Racism & The Gulf War about the experience of Arabs/Muslims in Canada, is desperately seeking proof that yes, Christians can be terrorists too. Kashmeri further sinks his own ship by seemingly acting as an apologist for Muslim terrorists. In one commentary, he says that Canada can expect to see more terrorist plots like that of the Toronto 18 if the country continues to wreak destruction on Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq – even though Canada did not join the war in the latter nation.

To be fair, Kashmeri has in the past criticized Islamic fundamentalism in places like Pakistan. His seeming acquiescence to Muslim extremism, though, doesn’t help his cause of defending the Muslim population – especially that in Canada and other Western nations – in general. On the other hand, fervent anti-Islamists like those who claim that everybody from Marc Lepine to Rolando del Rosario Mendoza to even Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui were Muslims might diminish the credibility of people who raise legitimate concerns about the way Islam is currently practised. These include concerns, for instance, that there is a fanatical element within Islam today which is more prominent than that in other major belief systems, including Christianity. (This of course does not mean that all or even most Muslims are fanatics but that probably a higher percentage of Muslims than members of other religions are.) If any good comes out of the Breivik tragedy, perhaps reaching a balance between these extremes and discussing the event logically may be among them.

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