Killing for Religion, Not God
First, as fellow RD blogger Julie Ingersoll has pointed out, Breivik’s more interested in Christianity as pan-European culture than as piety. Violent Islamic extremists don’t find traditional religion compelling either; in fact, the more religiously rooted you are in Islam, the less likely you are to even sympathize with violent rhetoric, let alone engage in violent action. (Contrary to the common bias that religious observance makes violent action more likely.)
In the European case, the decline of religion over the decades has been simultaneous with the damping of nationalist sentiment, though many times for good reason. It has unfortunately been replaced by an unsatisfying, often unpopular, elitist, and distant capitalist project, which is economically unnerving and therefore also culturally terrifying. Meanwhile, the old Left is often either complicit in the worst excesses of that project, or too fractured or alienated to speak cogently to new challenges.
Combined with relatively fast-growing Muslim populations (for now—soon immigrant populations begin to mimic local fertility rates), it’s not hard to see where the frightening, and frightened, rhetoric comes from. Faith is no longer an anchor in a social sense, the identity and belonging born through the secular nation is superseded by transnationalism, and transnationalism seems to at best offer the prospect of watching one’s standard of living decline and social safety net fray, for the sake of visa-free travel conveniences and the privilege of more centralized banking.
Don’t Trust Immigration (Islam), and Don’t Trust Marxism (Judaism)
While in Bosnia, I was driven past Sarajevo’s historic National Library, which was deliberately torched during the 1990s war. Centuries of history were erased, part of a larger campaign to deny the historical existence—as well as biological existence—of Bosnia’s Muslims. But the Bosnians I met were especially proud of their ability to save the Sarajevo Haggadah from the ravages of war, which they also saw as part of their history; the Haggadah was originally Spanish, and apparently brought from that country when its Jewish population was expelled (offered refuge in the Ottoman Empire by order of the Sultan), eventually ending up in Bosnia.
The reason I mention this is to point out that right-wing violence is often both anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic. I’m often incredulously asked if I believe Islamophobia to be real. Bosnia only happened fifteen years ago; I wish I could buy my interlocutors a ticket to Sarajevo, and answer them only after their visit. We should not forget that Europe’s violent spasms ended but very recently, and with the death of those generations who intimately recall Nazism and the Holocaust, Soviet Communism and the Gulag, it is possible the temptation to return to ugly ideologies will only increase.
Recently, the Boston Review covered the rise of a worryingly far-right party in Hungary, and its attendant anti-Semitic impulses, whether explicit or implicit. Breivik’s screeds link Marxists and multiculturalists and blames both for a defense of Muslims; “Marxist” is often a stand-in for Jewish, as the rootless population that, in this case, enables an imagined Islamic conquest—Jews as the ultimately rootless, Muslims as rootless (migratory) but also predatory tribals, always trying to push in. The linking of the Muslim and the Jew as the enemy of Europe is neither uncommon, nor innocuous. It speaks to a sense of embattlement.
We may not agree with it. We often should not. But the feeling exists, persists, and finds audiences, as we have seen, across both sides of the Atlantic.
His Own Worst Enemy
Breivik, like many others, is obsessed by the supposed demographic vigor of the Muslim, sexually energetic and irrational, as against the languid and supine European. It might be noted that the wealthiest nations of the world are not the most populous. Rarely, if ever, do mere numbers translate into power absent other factors. Otherwise, Luxembourg would not be Luxembourg, and Nigeria would not be Nigeria. But forget the more abstract arguments.
Why didn’t Breivik just marry a (presumably Norwegian) woman and have a big family? More than that, if he is so concerned about Europe’s alleged and dramatic demographic implosion—there is a demographic decline, but it is rarely as terrible as imagined—why did he target so many Norwegian youth? He was his own worst enemy, eliminating the very Nordic stock that is allegedly needed to fight this next historical battle. I don’t know what this means, except that in addition to being vile, he is also, by his own standards, quite foolish.
What Happens in Norway
It will take some time for the consequences of this attack to be fully understood. But the shock to Norway is profound. With an estimated 76 dead, in a country whose population is both small and concentrated, consider how it would translate proportionally into America, a country many times its size: 4,700 dead. Of course, we can never make quantitative comparisons to any profound purpose, as no human life can be rendered so easily, or so precisely. But hopefully this will inspire some reflection not merely on cultural prejudices and religious biases, but the underlying social and economic forces that accelerate, enable, or encourage such feelings—and let us see beyond the incident to the larger reality within which such tragic incidents occur.
One of the great shortcomings of contemporary analysis lies in our tendency to separate material and ideological factors, to unnaturally distance what economics does, and how we ideationally, culturally, and existentially experience those things, through our preexisting worldviews. Religion and economics, culture and capital, finance and faith: It is easy to draw stark divisions. But it may cause us to lose sight of the larger world we are inhabiting, and how those around us experience it.
This article was originally published by Religion Dispatches.