Religious Labeling in Lone Wolf Terror Attacks Misleading


The recent terror attacks in Norway caught anti-Muslim bloggers and some conservative commentators off guard, because the perpetrator did not match his expected profile. After years of denouncing “Muslim” terrorists, is Anders Behring Breivik a “Christian” terrorist?

This label is misleading and distracts from the true nature of his ideology and affiliations. Breivik does not represent the Christian community any more than Nidal Hasan, the “lone wolf” responsible for the 2009 Fort Hood massacre, represents the Muslim community.

The Norway attacks expose a dangerous double standard in the way that religiously-inspired terrorism is discussed. Islamophobes are now in a tough predicament that reveals their hypocrisy. Anti-Muslim bloggers that inspired Breivik are scrambling to distance themselves from him. Their struggle now is to prove that even though this attack is clear evidence that terrorism can be inspired by any ideology, Christianity is still inherently good and Islam is still inherently evil.

Although many would like to believe otherwise, mainstream Islam has numerous consistencies and parallels with mainstream Christianity. The language and metaphysical beliefs may differ, but they both espouse ideals of compassion, forgiveness, and social justice.

Some claim that Breivik drew upon crusader ideology, which is not the foundation for “true” Christianity. But concepts like the “house of war” and “house of Islam,” used by Al-Qaeda to justify religious violence, do not originate from the foundations of “true” Islam either; they are medieval inventions that served to justify expansion of the Islamic Empire.

Every religion has room for the best and worst of people, depending on which parts of their history and scripture they draw upon. Herb Silverman summarized this point by saying that “we can tell more about individuals by which parts of their contradictory holy books they emphasize than by which religion they have in common.”

It can be difficult to draw the line between who is a Christian or Muslim and who is not. The uncomfortable reality for both communities is both Breivik and individuals like Hasan drew upon religious themes to justify violence. If you believe that anyone who labels him or herself a Christian is, in fact, a Christian, then Breivik is a Christian terrorist. And Hasan is a Muslim terrorist. But this definition cannot conveniently change based on what religion you’re talking about.

Affiliating extremists with their purported religions is counterproductive. There is nothing to be gained by reducing terrorist labels to the religion they claim to act in the name of. The Christian community should not have to take responsibility for Breivik. He was clearly a troubled man whose perversion of the faith does not resonate with most people’s understanding of Christianity. Meanwhile, the Muslim community should not have to take responsibility for Hasan. Of those who call themselves Muslim, only 1% believe that attacks on civilians are justified in the name of their faith, and those who do, much like Breivik, often do not have a solid grounding in the mainstream practice of their religion.

To be fair, there is a difference between Breivik’s attack and Islamist-inspired terrorism worldwide. The suggestion that the threat from right-wing extremists demands the same attention and resources as Al-Qaeda and its affiliates is not grounded in reality. But the difference is grounded in history, politics, and power dynamics, not in religion itself.

The devastating attacks in Norway speak to the need to empower moderates in all religions and societies. Dangerous people will find a way to be dangerous no matter what ideology they are exposed to. We should not let extremists define religion — whether Christian, Muslim, or anything else.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons