Anders Behring Breivik is an archetype of terrorism. He is a non-state actor who committed an attack against a non-military target for political means. It is difficult to understand how a citizen of one of the most peaceful, wealthy, and equitable countries in the world could transform into a right-wing, xenophobic, Christian extremist with no respect for human life.
And yet the reactions to Breivik’s horrendous actions are interesting in their own right; they shed light on how people qualify ideological motivations and perceive threats. The general reaction within Western society is one of shock, not only because of the horrible rampage that killed 76 people, but because Breivik was a seemingly regular, well-adjusted Norwegian. Reactions to Breivik make me wonder how events would have played out differently had he been a Muslim.
Breivik's thoughts and actions closely resemble not his own culture, but the culture of hatred espoused by the likes of Al-Qaeda. "Onward, Christian soldiers!" Breivik said in a July 12 video. "Celebrate us, the martyrs of the conservative revolution, for we will soon dine in the Kingdom of Heaven."
Replace "Christian" with "Muslim," and you have a sentence that could very well have come from the mouth of Osama bin Laden. And yet the media generally portray Breivik as a violent sociopath. That may be true, but had a Muslim done the same thing, the conversation would be radically different. The focus would be on group identity, such as religion or terrorist groups, rather than the individual.
What is clear is that violent actions, taken independently, are not sufficient to engender fear and anger throughout a population. The West is not discussing the risk of Christian terrorism. Instead, Westerners recognize that Breivik is an anomaly who does not represent Judeo-Christian values despite his protestations otherwise, and right-wing Christians do not see the need to ask introspective questions about the impact of the attack on their beliefs. They simply do not see Breivik as a member of their group despite Breivik’s very public and overt efforts to associate with them. Whether or not the Christian or right-wing communities renounce his actions, as is the case with Muslims after Islamic terrorist attacks, is not an issue.
The double standard is frustrating to many Muslims, but it is at least partially understandable because it hints at a cultural division that explains how Christianity and Islam are viewed in the West. The reactions are so fundamentally different that something must be going on at a deep cultural level. That root is an issue of trust.
Western cultures understand very little about Islam. Most Westerners probably do not know the Five Pillars of Islam, or know that Christians and Muslims have lived in peace for centuries at a time in the past, or that some of the greatest literary, scientific, and mathematical advances in the history of the world were the result of Islamic scholars working in the great universities of the Arab world.
In fact, a 2010 Gallup Poll found that 63% of Americans rated their own knowledge of Islam as either “very little” or “none at all.” Westerners make little effort to differentiate between Islam and terrorism, and they do not have any interest in doing so. The world is too complicated to figure it all out, and simplification is the easiest (not to mention most dangerous) coping mechanism. Many Westerners do not trust Muslims because they do not know who they are or what they believe.
But when it comes to issues of Christianity or right-wing politics, Westerners are well-versed and comfortable with the tenets of these belief systems. They understand the mainstream positions, they have family and friends who belong to these labels, and they understand the limitations of cultural acceptability. Westerners trust that their right-wing Christian neighbors will be peaceful, productive members of society. They may not agree with their opinions, but they agree that they are safe.
The Breivik attacks are tragedies that strike a certain chord of outrage among us all. It rattles the core of Western security because the attacker is one of our own. There is no easy target of blame, no evil foreign villain to point fingers at. Had Breivik been Muslim, he would have been lumped into a generic category of Islamic fundamentalists we don’t know much about but certainly know how to hate. So in some ways, a Muslim Breivik would be more comforting, more familiar. Instead, the West must look in at itself and reconcile with a new and unsettling threat from within.
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