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July 29, 2011

Who are the terrorists?

Reuel S. Amdur

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A bomb blast in Oslo. The first reaction-it must be Muslim extremists. But no, it turns out that Anders Behring Breivik is anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and an Evangelical Christian right-wing extremist. Why do Muslims come to mind first?

One Norwegian commented that the killings in Oslo and on the island of Utøya were more like Oklahoma City than the World Trade Center.  The Oklahoma City bombing was the work of Timothy McVey, an Evangelical Christian right-wing extremist.

The Norwegian events and the reaction are interesting.  The immediate inclination to assume that the Muslims were responsible illustrates a built-in, even if unconscious, prejudice.  This prejudice can even be found among those who denounce prejudice and discrimination against Muslims.  In the case of Oklahoma City, Muslims were also the first suspects on the minds of many people, including people of good will. 

Not that right-wing Christian terrorism is unknown.  Far be it from the truth.  In Europe, the Roma are targeted for attacks and in some cases murdered.  The offices of the left-wing German political party Die Linke are frequently attacked by neo-Nazi groups, and so are dark-skinned people in Eastern Germany.  Anti-Muslim extremism is a feature of the right-wing landscape in Europe, just as anti-minority (Christian, Shiite, Sufi, Ahmadi) extremism is a feature of extremism in Pakistan.

Religion can be an inspiration for good, but it can also be distorted for evil.  The social psychologist Milton Rokeach did a study many years ago of church-goers, and he found what statisticians call a bimodal distribution.  The sample studied included one group extremely tolerant and the other extremely intolerant.  They were using the same holy book.  According to their temperament, they were selective in how they used and understood it.

Christians and Jews have texts going back thousands of years, written by many different authors, providing a great opportunity to find a passage justifying one’s attitude and actions.  In the case if Islam, the selectivity is more difficult because the Qu’ran was developed over a brief period, with one messenger.  Yet, some Muslims try to discredit clearly tolerant passages by claiming that they are superseded by others that they claim are later.  In any case, the choosing of the “right” passage of a scripture can be at least as much what the person puts into the book as to what one gets from it.

There are Islamists who are terrorists or at least terror-minded.  Evangelical Christians equally so.  Not only do they give us the Timothy McVeys and Anders Behring Breiviks; they also have pernicious influence in areas where they proselytize.  In Africa, they have promoted an anti-homosexual campaign that has resulted in murders and in efforts to make homosexuality punishable by death.

Intolerance learns from intolerance.  It is not surprising that Breivik finds things about Osama bin Laden to admire, in spite of his hatred toward and fear of Islam.

One further comment about terrorism.  There is a difference between those who are the ideologists and leaders on the one hand and those who carry out the activities, though Breivik was clearly both.  Many of the foot soldiers of terrorism are in it for different reasons.  Thus, some of the Taliban are involved because they get to have a paying job.  Some of the 9/11 bombers, rather than being strict Muslims, were living it up at a bar in the time before the attack.  Their exact motives are not entirely clear.  They may have been political rather than religious.

In any case, the Norwegian affair focuses further light on the need to be careful on jumping to conclusions as to responsibility for terrorist acts, especially here in the West. 

We tend to underestimate the terrorist possibilities inherent in some interpretations of right-wing Evangelical Christianity. 

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