By Dennis Gruending
On July 22, Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik set off a car bomb in downtown Oslo that killed eight people. Then, dressed as a policeman, he traveled to a nearby small island and used a semi-automatic rifle to massacre 77 members of the Labour Party’s youth wing who were attending a summer camp. Now the dead (many of them just teenagers) have been buried. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has been unequivocal in saying that Breivik’s unspeakable actions will not change Norway’s commitment to democracy and tolerance. However, many media commentators, columnists and pundits on this side of the Atlantic have conspicuously lacked Stoltenberg’s vision or grace. On his syndicated talk radio program, the notorious Glenn Beck compared the young Norwegian victims to Nazis. As New York Times columnist Timothy Egan described it, Beck said the summer camp attended by the Labour Party youth “sounds a little like, you know, the Hitler Youth.”
Pat Buchanan, stalwart of the American religious right, wrote on a conservative website: “As for a climactic conflict between a once-Christian West and an Islamic world that is growing in number and advancing inexorably into Europe for the third time in 14 centuries, on this one Breivik may be right.”
While neither Beck nor Buchanan actually justified Breivik’s murderous shooting spree, they trotted quasi-justifications in which they made a crime appear to be less heinous than it was. Columnist Egan said both men were “muddying the humanity of those young people executed by Anders Behring Breivik… ” On this side of the border, commentator and blogger Michael Coren provided a mean-minded commentary dismissing the young Norwegian victims as belonging to a “socialist party youth wing”.
Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente took a somewhat less distasteful tack. These murders, she wrote, were the work of a mad loner, adding, “Norway has no significant far right party.” An alert reader pointed out in a letter that the frequently xenophobic Progress Party won 22 percent of the vote in Norway’s last election and is currently the official opposition.
Wente’s column dumped on those who would draw a connection between the writing and commentary of right-wing extremists in Europe and America and acts such as Breivik carried out. Wente had precisely the same analysis when Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot down in a Tucson parking lot early in January 2011. It is interesting that when liberals are hunted down by killers, it is conservative commentators who go on the attack — against liberals. That, as my mother used to say, takes some nerve.
Wente doesn’t really know what connections might exist between the Breivik’s actions and the writing of fringe commentators. I don’t profess to know either, but at the least it can be said that in his so-called manifesto Breivik drew heavily upon the scribbling on any number of Muslim bashers and those who despise moderate liberals. These conservatives include Canadian author Mark Steyn who claims that Muslims pose an imminent threat to Europe and the West through immigration and religious domination.
Toronto Star columnist Haroon Siddiqui bluntly described an attempt by “Islamophobic politicians and pundits” to “decouple themselves” from Breivik’s crime. “They, of course, do not advocate violence, while he is a mass murderer. The distinction is clear enough. But they influenced him and shaped his worldview. His exaggerated sense of the danger posed by Islam and multiculturalism is about the same as theirs.”
To put matters into perspective, consider that Muslims constitute only 3.2 percent of the population in Europe and about one percent in the US. In Canada’s 2001 census, 570,000 people identified themselves as Muslim, out of a total population of thirty million: about two percent of the population.
Margaret Wente’s colleague Doug Saunders, the Globe and Mail’s European correspondent, had an analysis quite similar to Siddiqui’s, although it was somewhat more muted. Saunders, like Siddiqui, believes that the denizens of the right are not responsible for Breivik’s murderous activity.
There is nothing wrong with having debates, even heated debates, about immigration, multiculturalism, or the role that religions play in society, he wrote, “but these writers have created a larger fiction, one with dangerous implications.” They insist that Muslims are about to take over the West and as Saunders described it, “This is demonstrably false.”
Also false is the claim that nearly all Muslims are literalist believers who cannot become ordinary members of Western secular societies. The ideas of these writers “should never be banned or outlawed,” Saunders wrote, but they should be exposed as “dangerous fictions.”
Breivik says that he is a Christian but many commentators have quickly said that he cannot do what he has done and still claim to be Christian. Similarly, Muslims could say that the murderous nihilism that characterized Osama bin Laden’s actions cannot be squared with the behaviour of a believing Muslim. Fanatics of all stripes have used religion as a justification for the calculated murder of innocents in the name of some nefarious greater good.
We live in dangerous times where a world growing in its interdependence presents unprecedented opportunities, either for understanding and compassion among people of different races and religions, or for ruinous conflict. Theologian Hans Kung has said that there will never be peace in the world until there is peace among the world’s religions.
Inter-religious dialogue, respect and tolerance are more important today than ever, within countries and among them. Progressives and moderates – whether they are religious people or secular – must work together to promote solidarity and understanding. The alternative is not at all pleasant to contemplate.