While it may be expedient or comforting to declare Anders Behring Breivik to be insane—as his lawyer has, with most pundits following suit—what should really concern us is the political agenda that underlies the massacre. This is not about Breivik, the person, but about the political world from which he comes and to which he speaks; a world in which the defense of Christendom is so urgent that it must lead to violence. Breivik forces us to recognize what kind of politics of religion is taking hold in Europe.
Political ideas may be evil or despicable, even if it’s not certifiably insane people who are making them. And perfectly sane people can do horrendous things in the name of ‘freedom,’ ‘the nation,’ or ‘Christendom.’ Breivik’s atrocious acts, in fact, were a veritable 21st-century media strategy.
In his manifesto, “A European Declaration of Independence,” he explains how he used Facebook to amass an email list of potentially favorable conservatives in Europe. To their addresses he disseminated the 1,500-page document, written in nearly perfect English under an Anglicized version of his name. He created a Twitter account and sent his only tweet 5 days before the assault to become visible for the journalistic research he anticipated. He produced a video summary of his “Declaration” and encouraged his contacts to translate and further distribute both the images and text. Whereas this obsessively curated selection of his motives, background, and planning was clearly addressed to the media, Breivik, who was deeply concerned about keeping control of his public persona after the attack, had more than one audience in mind.
To understand how this strategy of communication works, it’s worthwhile to remember the Cold War-era communist terrorist groups. Despite his vehement opposition to the politics, Breivik took a page from their playbook: they too produced extensive texts to communicate their revolutionary theories; their authors wanted to be, and indeed were, intelligible to a wider public that either was not (or was not yet) radicalized; they often targeted critics of the capitalist status quo who might have thought in Marxist terms but rejected a violent overthrow of Western society, as if to say If you agree with my analysis and if you share the sense of urgency, how can you stand at the sidelines and not engage in this all-defining struggle?
In lacing together his own revolutionary theory with a number of more mainstream anti-Islamic texts, Breivik appeals not only to a slim network of extremists, but to those who claim that the “Islamization of Europe” is a matter of life and death for European and Western civilization—especially those who argue that the culprits for this development are those who gave up Europe’s Christian character.
The blogger Fjordman, for example (whom Breivik admiringly and extensively quotes) writes in a 2007 post for The Brussels Journal, “In more and more cities across the continent, non-Muslims are being harassed, robbed, mugged, raped, stabbed, and even killed by Muslims. Native Europeans are slowly becoming second-rate citizens in their own countries.” Passages like these can be found over and over again on ultra-conservative political forums, blogs, and other media. They connect a radical extremist fringe (like Breivik) with radical and Islamophobic groups (such as the English Defense League) and more mainstream anti-Islamicist publications like Pam Geller’s Atlas Shrugs blog. They are united by a sense of heightened urgency in the face of an allegedly pernicious enemy, and they reach deeply into the center of European society.
Breivik’s attack should make us more concerned about figures like Fjordman. This is not to say that their writings actually caused the massacre—Breivik is responsible. But Breivik does reveal a lack of nerve, or honesty, in the European and American far-right. If, as their rhetoric suggests, the anti-Islamic struggle is a matter of life and death for an entire civilization, isn’t “armed resistance” required? If Breivik is insane, then his insanity lies in taking fully to heart the widely fluctuating language of an existential threat to our freedom and life, a Manichean vision of an uncompromising evil fighting a good that has to be equally unsparing in warfare.
Last week on RD, scholar of religious violence Mark Juergensmeyer noted this penchant both for black-and-white thinking and for giving one’s action meaning in the context of a cosmic struggle as hallmarks of religious violence. This, he claims, is what makes it so pernicious and destructive. Yet the language of ultra-conservative bloggers like Fjordman and of extremists like Breivik is not that of a cosmic struggle but of a historical one, a conflict that is said to originate with the beginning of Islam and to characterize world history ever since.
At stake here is the veneration of an imagined political community, an imagined homogeneous people, and an alleged cultural homogeneity. “Christendom,” a singularly uniting Christian heritage against Islam, is meant to hold this holy Europe together. Thus, though Breivik describes himself as not particularly devout, he characterizes his “resistance” in the terms of a crusade in defense of Christendom. “European Christendom isn’t just about having a personal relationship with Jesus or God. It is so much more. Christendom is identity, moral, laws and codexes which has [sic] produced the greatest civilisation the world has ever witnessed.” Indeed, the crusader himself has no particularly strong faith. “If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian. Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity.”
Breivik’s manifesto is not built around substantive theological concepts; there is no particular appeal to a personal relationship to Jesus, or a biblical foundation for his struggle. Rather, prayer has a pragmatic appeal for strengthening the modern-day crusader: “If praying will act as an additional mental boost/soothing it is the pragmatical thing to do. I guess I will find out… If there is a God I will be allowed to enter heaven as all other martyrs for the Church in the past.” The cross has no mystical or religious meaning for him, but it serves as a powerful cultural symbol to unite diverse European tribes into a pan-European community. His Christianity is political and disconnected from actual devout practice—yet Christendom it is, rather than any secular foundation of European politics.
The idea of a Europe that is allegedly culturally homogenous because it shares a single Christian heritage, and the claim that European countries are under siege from a violent and profoundly foreign Islam, are actually quite plausible to the wider European mainstream. This is the most troubling lesson we have to learn from Breivik’s attack and accompanying manifesto. Just as left-wing terrorism during the Cold War crystallized the most dangerous tendencies of socialism, right-wing terrorism sends a troubling message about the state of ultra-conservative rhetoric. After the horrid day in Oslo, it is undeniable: political religion has taken hold, even in allegedly secular Europe.