Is there anyone who believes that, if Anders Behring Breivik was a Muslim, the coverage of last Friday’s events in Norway wouldn’t have focussed on that fact, almost to the exclusion of everything else? Is there anyone willing to make the case that the media wouldn’t have been full of talk about ‘Muslim extremists’? Does anyone seriously believe that the papers would not have been editorialising at length about the ‘scourge of Islamic fundamentalism’, and muttering darkly about those who do not share ‘our values’? (In fact, as Tabloid Watch has shown, some of them did that anyway; why let an absence of verified facts get in the way of a bit of thinly-veiled immigrant bashing?)
Given all that, I wonder: why has Breivik’s self-proclaimed Christianity been treated as such a minor aspect of this whole affair?
The BBC mention it in most of their main articles on him – here, for example – but as a single, parenthetical phrase in the main text, and a strangely ambiguous bullet point in a sidebar. Some other media outlets haven’t even gone that far. The narrative about Breivik is that he’s a ‘far right extremist’, but it’s clear that his particular brand of fascism is fairly tightly bound up with his interpretation of Christianity. It seems that he indulges in quasi-mystical fantasies about an elemental battle between ‘good’ (i.e. Christianity) and ‘evil’ (i.e. Islam). It seems likely Breivik, quasi-mysticism aside, reflects wider currents in far-right thinking, where Muslims have come gradually to replace Jews as the supposedly sinister ‘other’ thought to threaten the integrity of European civilization.
Now, let me be clear about something: Breivik is, obviously, not a Christian in a way that most practising Christians would recognise. The overwhelming majority of Christians will be sincerely appalled at Breivik’s actions, and horrified at the thought that he could have reached the conclusion that the faith they profess could permit, let alone recommend, such heinous actions. The same is, of course, true of the overwhelming majority of Muslims, and their reaction to the terrorist atrocities carried out by extremists in the name of Islam. (Not that you’ll find that distinction being given much more than lip service in most accounts: the words ‘Islamist’ and ‘Islamic’ are used almost interchangeably by much of the media.)
It seems to me that, in both cases, the extremists are not motivated by religion so much as they are an authoritarian political ideology that places great value on homogeneity, is radically intolerant of difference, and views exemplary violence as a valid means of stimulating socio-political change. It seems to me that religion only really comes into this in a secondary way, as a marker of difference, and a means of justifying the apparently unjustifiable. I suspect religion may also function as a kind of cloak that lets extremists disguise the reality of their actions from themselves, enabling them to think of themselves, not as mass-murderers, but saints and martyrs doing God’s work.
I’ve had some fairly harsh things to say about religion and its adherents on this blog – a trawl through the posts appearing under the category ‘Atheism’ will give you a snapshot – but I find my views are changing. So far as my own ideas and opinions are concerned, I’m still very much a rational empiricist (and by extension, therefore, an atheist: there is no objectively verifiable evidence that God exists). However I also find that I’m becoming less comfortable criticising belief per se. These days I tend to think it’s more important, when encountering a religiously-motivated bigot, to criticise the bigotry head on, rather than the religious beliefs that exist alongside it.
It would be daft, of course, not to recognise that religiously-motivated prejudice and intolerance are amongst the most intractable and deeply ingrained of any such attitudes, but I’ve also come to think it’s a mistake to attack the faith itself, when every faith has liberal adherents who repudiate the prejudices endorsed by hardliners. It’s a mistake because it treats groups of people as an undifferentiated mass, rather than as individuals, and that’s something that bigots do. It’s also, I think, a mistake at the level of strategy. I want to live in a world that’s free from every form of prejudice and bigotry, and I’ll treat as an ally anyone who shares that goal.
So I’m not going to condemn the fact that the coverage of Breivik has not focussed on his religion, and has concentrated instead on his hatred of Muslims and (mildly) leftwing politicians. In the final analysis, it’s the hatred that provoked him to mass-murder, not the Christianity, and so I won’t complain about a news agenda that focuses on those aspects at the expense of his religion. I think it would be better if terrorist attacks carried out by Muslims were covered in the same way – where the perpetrators’ faith is seen as a factor in their actions, but secondary to the political ideology that promotes intolerance and violence against people marked out as different.
The fact remains, of course, that attacks perpetrated by Muslims aren’t reported in this way, and the contrast really is striking. I don’t want to see it, I’m not calling for it, but really, where is the thundering condemnation of Breivik as a Christian fundamentalist? It’s conspicuous by its absence, isn’t it?