U.S. conservatives on defense after Oslo killings

July 25, 2011

(RNS) For years, many religious and political conservatives in the U.S.
have sought to connect Islam to violence carried out by Muslims, and
argued that Muslims often fail to denounce terrorism committed by
Islamic extremists.

But in the wake of the horrific attacks in Norway by a right-wing
extremist who identified himself as a Christian warrior against Islam,
many of those American conservatives are finding themselves on the
defensive, especially after some of them prematurely portrayed the
terror attacks as the works of Muslims.

Mark Juergensmeyer, author "Terror in the Mind of God," noted close
parallels between the 32-year-old Norwegian man, Anders Behring Breivik,
who killed at least 76 people in coordinated attacks on government
buildings in Oslo and a youth rally at a nearby island, and Timothy
McVeigh, the anti-government radical behind the 1995 Oklahoma City
bombing.

"If [Osama] bin Laden is a Muslim terrorist, Breivik and McVeigh are
surely Christian ones," Juergensmeyer, a professor of sociology at the
University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote on the blog Religion
Dispatches.

"Breivik was fascinated with the Crusades and imagined himself to be
a member of the Knights Templar, the crusader army of a thousand years
ago."

"But in an imagined cosmic warfare time is suspended, and history is
transcended as the activists imagine themselves to be acting out
timeless roles in a sacred drama. The tragedy is that these religious
fantasies are played out in real time, with real and cruel
consequences."

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen made the connection even more
explicit:

"Breivik has many ideological fellow travelers on both sides of the
Atlantic," Cohen wrote in an essay titled "Breivik and His Enablers" and
posted on Monday. "Theirs is the poison in which he refined his
murderous resentment."

Blogger Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs piled on, saying
that right-wing provocateurs "who spew apocalyptic rhetoric and refuse
to denounce the extremists among them now have the very real blood of
children on their hands."

The finger of blame tended to point toward people like Pamela
Geller, the anti-Islamist writer who helped foment opposition to a
mosque planned near Ground Zero.

Breivik's 1,500-page manifesto cites a number of American writers
who denounce Islam and promote Western culture, such as Geller and
Robert Spencer, who operates the Jihad Watch website.

Geller and Spencer did not take kindly to the associations.

"Attempts to link us to these murders on the basis of alleged
postings by the murderer mentioning us are absurd and offensive," Geller
wrote at her website, Atlas Shrugs. Breivik "is responsible for his
actions. He and only he."

Spencer also rejected suggestions that Breivik "has anything
remotely to do with anything we have ever advocated." In a later blog
posting, he grew even more defiant: "The Breivik murders are being used
to discredit all resistance to the global jihad and Islamic supremacism.
But we're stealing it back."

Other conservatives deployed calmer arguments to put distance
between Breivik and conservatism and Christianity, much as Muslims try
to distinguish between "genuine" Islam and the actions of extremists.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued that Breivik bore much
the same relationship to conservatism as the notorious anti-technology
Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, did to Al Gore's environmentalism --
which is to say, hardly any.

Douthat instead advised his fellow conservatives to push back
against such analogies -- and what he saw as liberal efforts to exploit
the tragedy for political gain -- by acknowledging Breivik as a
"right-winger" but at the same time reasserting the truth of their own
convictions about Islam and the wider cultural peril facing the West. If
Breivik shared some of those convictions, Douthat argued, his actions
don't automatically invalidate them.

Bruce Bawer, who lives in Oslo and is author of "Surrender://
Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom," made a similar argument in The
Wall Street Journal, writing that Breivik had hurt his cause.

"In Norway, to speak negatively about any aspect of the Muslim faith
has always been a touchy matter, inviting charges of `Islamophobia' and
racism," Bawer wrote. "It will, I fear, be a great deal more difficult
to broach these issues now that this murderous madman has become the
poster boy for the criticism of Islam."

In many respects, these conservatives are victims not only of their
past rhetoric holding all Muslims to account for the actions of a few,
but also of hair-trigger reflexes developed over years of fighting the
culture wars.

Bawer and Geller initially blamed Muslims for the Norway attacks, as
did conservative writers like John Hinderaker and Jennifer Rubin, a
conservative columnist for The Washington Post. Last Friday, hours after
the attack, Rubin wrote that "there is a specific jihadist connection"
to the attacks and that the killings are "a sobering reminder for those
who think it's too expensive to wage a war against jihadists."

Rubin had to shift her approach a bit when it turned out that a
right-wing extremist was the culprit, but she stuck to her main point:

"There are many more jihadists than blond Norwegians out to kill
Americans, and we should keep our eye on the systemic and far more
potent threats that stem from an ideological war with the West," she
later wrote.

Perhaps the best lesson -- for conservatives and everyone else
looking for obvious culprits and easy answers -- came from a Norwegian
woman who visited the devastation in Oslo.

"If Islamic people do something bad, you think, `Oh, it's
Muslims,'?" Sigrid Skeie Tjensvoll told The Washington Post. "But if a
white Protestant does something bad, you just think he's mad. That's
something we need to think about."