Although those who study terrorism cannot seem to reach a standard definition of terrorism—perhaps because past actions of their own governments might be so classified (for example, using atomic bombs or massive numbers of firebombs on civilian populations during World War II)—a simple working definition, slaughtering innocent civilians for the political reason of changing their government’s policy, seems to work just fine. By this straightforward standard, both Breivik’s action in Norway and al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center in New York would easily fit that definition. So far so good in analyzing things.
But when the Western media ascribe motivation for such incidents, however, a double standard seems to arise. Instead of focusing on Breivik’s stated identity as a right-wing Christian whose lengthy manifesto called for a Christian war to defend Europe against the threat of Muslim domination, Western media have focused on his hatred of immigration and multiculturalism (except The New York Times, which first called him a “Christian extremist,” but has since apparently changed his moniker to “anti-immigrant extremist” or “anti-Islamic extremist”). In contrast, although President George W. Bush always insisted that his “war on terror” was not a “war on Islam,” many Western media often refer to al-Qaeda as “an Islamist terrorist group” and some commentators speculate on whether Islam is an inherently violent religion, or so imply or even state.
Yet Western media sweep under the rug the religion-related motives of Breivik, Eric Rudolph, the U.S. abortion bomber, and Adolf Hitler, who clearly believed his Christian God wanted him to slaughter millions of Jews. These individuals are instead usually referred to as deranged or racist. These certainly might be apt characterizations—and we might even add brutal and ruthless—but the main point is that religious motives are downplayed in these cases, yet are accentuated in the case of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups that are Islamic.
The Western media should be more consistent and honest in their coverage. Neither Christianity nor Islam, in most of their modern forms, despite violence or brutality in their scriptures written long ago, are inherently prone to violence or the spawning of terrorists. Religious motives played only a secondary role in explaining all of the aforementioned terrorists’ actions. In Breivik’s case, he clearly hated Muslim immigration and multiculturalism and the non-Muslim Norwegians who he thought were fostering them. In the case of al-Qaeda, the root motivation of the attacks is not Islam, but the meddling in and occupation of Muslim lands by the United States and its Western allies. So stated religious identification may play some role in the attacks, but not a dominant one.
Religion may divide people into groups based on fundamentally different and potent spiritual outlooks, but other factors, such as race, ethnicity, geography, class, and wealth can also segment populations into factions and cause conflict.
In the case of al-Qaeda, focusing on Islam is just a way of avoiding a much-needed introspective examination of U.S. foreign policy to see if unneeded, and often counterproductive, U.S. interventions in the Muslim world could be eliminated, thus taking the fire out of the movement (instead of enhancing the status of the group by expanding the war against it).
Ironically and tragically, in the case of Breivik, religious bigotry may aid his cause. Although Muslims weren’t his direct target, his manifesto decrying Muslim immigration has reopened a festering wound in Norway and Europe. Pressure could very well build to curtail future Muslim immigration so that it will not be a lightning rod for future terrorist attacks by extremists such as Breivik—a classic case of blaming the victim.
The Independent Institute