Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Breivik, Islamophobia, and the Destructive Culture Wars in the West

Richard Landes

Some readers may have already seen the article by Bret Stephens that cites me.

In a superb new book, “Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of Millennial Experience,” Boston University’s Richard Landes notes just how pervasive this kind of impulse has been throughout history and across cultures, and how much its many strains—Christian, Marxist, Islamist, Nazi, environmentalist and so on—have in common. Breivik, Mr. Landes says, was of a piece: “Like many active cataclysmic apocalypticists, he believed that the socio-political world is in huge tension, like tectonic plates about to crack, and if he can set off a small explosion in the right place it will unleash far greater forces.” In this sense, Mr. Landes adds, “the thing he resembles most is the people he hates.”

Obviously, I’m pleased at the praise. I can’t, however, say that I like his list of millennial movements. If he’s going to put environmentalism in there he needs to include democracy and Zionism — all forms of millennialism although dramatically different from the death-cults worshipped by others on this list. To put environmentalism after Nazism is not really fair, either to environmentalism (except the most extreme varieties that feel only with the death of some six billion people can the planet be saved), or to my understanding of the varieties of the millennial experience, which includes a wide variety of actors, including both Francis of Assissi and Stalin.

The article continues:

What it is, is millenarian [in my terminology, "apocalyptic"]: the belief that all manner of redemptive possibilities lie on just the other side of a crucible of unspeakable chaos and suffering. At his arrest, Breivik called his acts “atrocious but necessary.” Stalin and other Marxists so despised by Breivik might have said the same thing about party purges or the liquidation of the kulaks.

Eloquently said. And probably no small number of Nazis who did not like the unsavory business of exterminating a whole people convinced themselves with similar arguments. Active cataclysmic apocalyptic is the most destructive ideological force the world has ever seen, and in the past, when those forest fires have “taken” (like the Taiping in China, chapter 7), tens of millions lie dead in their wake.

The article concludes:

Norway, Europe and probably the U.S. will now have anxious debates about xenophobia, populism and the rise of neofascism. These are worthy topics, but they are incidental to understanding what happened on Friday. What we witnessed was the irruption of an impulse—more psychological than political—that defines a broader swath of the ideological spectrum than most people would care to acknowledge.

I received the following email today from someone for whose intellectual integrity I have a great deal of respect.

I can’t agree in any way with the journalist’s conclusion that ‘xenophobia, populism and the rise of neofascism … are incidental to understanding what happened on Friday’. Certain (significant and influential, I grant you) elements of the left try to disassociate violent political Islam from the rest of the religion entirely, as if there were no connection; some of the commentariat seems to be doing exactly the same with respect to this guy and the new European populist right. Other than partisan point-scoring, I can’t see the how that helps in any way.

I initially agreed with this note, and was somewhat dismayed by Stephens’ use of “incidental” (even though in some senses it replaces the “right-left” split with my apocalyptic analysis, in which the psychological tendencies to be found on both – all – sides of the political divide are more significant than the the differences). But as I reread Stephens, I think he is on to something here.

This is not about xenophobia – I’m willing to bet that Breivik is not hostile to every stranger in Norway. The fear of Islamism and its military wing of global Jihad is an entirely legitimate concern, and to dismiss it as xenophobia is both dishonest and dangerous. It is an active cataclysmic apocalyptic movement aimed at a hierarchical millennium (i.e., it believes that massive destruction must occur and Jihadis are Allah’s agents in bringing that destruction about, in order to bring on a millennial kingdom in which Dar al Islam dominates the globe (my chapter 14).

This is also not populism, although clearly people who are not part of the elite in the public sphere are more ready to break with taboos that constrain intellectuals who want to avoid being called racist, in order to talk about the problems of Islam. But there are plenty of serious observers who see a serious problem. Bruce Brawer is not a populist.

This is also not about “Christian Fundamentalism” – a favorite trope of anti-Islamophobic discourse. As Massimo Introvigne, one of the more astute observers of new religions noted:

At first, the media called Anders Behring Breivik a Christian fundamentalist, some of them even a Roman Catholic. This shows the cavalier use of the word “fundamentalist” prevailing today in several quarters. In fact, Breivik is something different, as evidenced by his videos, his postings on and his 1,500-page book 2083 – A European Declaration of Independence which, interestingly enough, was first made publicly available on the Internet by Kevin Slaughter, an ordained minister in Anton LaVey (1930-1997)’s Church of Satan which, by the way, has a sizeable following in Norway.

The eagerness to label him so betrays an almost irresistible meme among some, as evidenced in this mistake-filled paragraph by Peter Beinart.

It may be about neo-fascism, although given the highly selective use of fascism these days (which dates back to the 60s when anyone we didn’t like was a fascist, and today must not be applied to Islamism), that would take some serious – and worthwhile – discussion.

What I do think is that Breivik has given us all something to think about and worry about. I think those who have stepped out into public to warn about Islamism and global Jihad, despite the near-certainty that they will be smeared as racist Islamophobes, need to think about our rhetoric.

I am cited by Breivik in his interminable 1500-page manifesto.

In the view of blogger Richard Landes, the media play a critical role in the global Jihad’s success. The major media outlets “are the eyes and ears of modern civil societies. Without them we cannot know what is going on outside of our personal sphere, with them we can make our democratic choices in elections, assess foreign policy, and intervene humanely in the suffering around the globe. But as any paleontologist will tell you, any creature whose eyes and ears misinform it about the environment, will not long survive.”

That’s a line I’ve written many times, sincerely believe, and will stand behind in any forum, intellectual or polemical. And, in the past, I would have agreed with the analogy Breivik makes from my point:

This can be compared to being attacked by an angry and hungry polar bear, while your eyes and ears, the media, tell you that it’s a cute koala bear who just wants to be cuddled. Meanwhile, your brain has been indoctrinated to think happy thoughts about diversity and smile to all creatures, regardless of their nature or intentions. This is pretty much how the entire West is today. The heavy bias of our media and our education system constitutes a very real threat to our survival.

I’ve even used the saying “sharing your lunch with a polar bear.” And I have written in my book about Stephen Spielberg’s contribution to the idea that if we just hug them, the ET’s are eager to be our friends (chapter 13). But when someone like Breivik takes it literally (if you’re being attacked by a polar bear, you should shoot it), then I clearly need to be very careful how I use rhetoric and analogies.

On the other hand, if people who claim to represent the “left” (I think the whole “right-left” spectral analysis has become counterproductive, but here I’m addressing people who do think it’s meaningful), would engage in a little self-criticism (no more than they demand of Israel, for example), then I think we might begin to hear some “progressives” and “liberals” addressing their inability, unwillingness, to deal with the problems with Islam. It would be hard to argue that Breivik did not act in response to a threat he perceived, that he could not get the mainstream to pay attention to.

All those people who, in the mid-aughts, like Cherie Blair and Jenny Tonge among so many, thought that Palestinian terror was an understandable response to their hopelessn condition, for which Israeli was responsible, owe it to themselves to think: what did I to contribute to Breivik’s despair, with my insistence that anyone who sounded the alarm was an Islamophobe? How much have I contributed not only to the apocalyptic radicalization of Breivik, but to driving many people who would ordinarily not have gone there, into the arms of “right-wing” protofascist groups?

Of course that means going beyond the currently operative definitions of Islamophobia – which in principle is a “irrational” fear of Islam but in practice operates as a term for anyone who criticizes Muslims and Islam sharply. People who use this term to marginalize critics of Islam(ism) need to ask themselves how much their accusations of Islamophobia as a form of racism are motivated by another Islamophobia, the fear of criticizing Islam, a form of cowardice.

This is not just about infidels and Muslims. Many – indeed most – Muslims are in danger if global Jihad continues to expand its reach and its grip. The joke about apocalyptic politics runs that “my enemy’s enemy is my enemy.” Right now the “left” is treating people who are neither fascist nor xenophobic as the enemy, when in fact we are all on the same side – in favor of decency and dignity and treating the other (and being treated by the other) with respect. It’s time to stop the culture wars within the West (the narcissism of small differences) and deal with an apocalyptic enemy that threatens, even if it will eventually fail in its goals, to engulf us in war.

The Romans coined the expression si vis pacem para bellum (if you want peace, prepare for war). The opposite is also true, and a lesson that the obsessive peace camp in Israel, who believe that adopting the Palestinian narrative will bring peace, might well take to heart: si vis bellum, para pacem. You cannot make peace with apocalyptic enemies. But you can defeat them without descending to their level. You will certainly not defeat them with cowardice masquerading as generosity of soul.

Guest comment: "...his regard for outsiders in Norway, 12% of the Norwegian population are not Nordic. Half of these are from Africa, and Asia (about half of this group are Muslim), and another 6% are immigrants mostly from Eastern Europe. I have not waded through the Manifesto, but have not picked up from any reports that Breivik was hostile to immigrants from Serbia or Poland. The WSJ had an article today india that there were 99,000 registered Muslims in Norway. Registered Muslim? Do they have registered Christians?" Thanks RB

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