The media has been reporting a lot about Anders Breivik. I’m curious about the tendency of some to label Breivik a “Christian Extremist”. Additionally, there is widespread repetition of the Norwegian official deeming him a “Christian fundamentalist.” I think this is wrong on the specifics, but it also goes toward the general problem of our age where we attempt to fit everything into black-white religious dichotomies. For example, “moderate Muslims” vs. “Islamists.” “Islamic extremists” vs. “Christian extremists.” Because of the salience of notionally religiously motivated Islamic militant movements there has been a shift toward reinterpreting secular nationalist terrorist movements as religious ones. For example, the attempt to frame the Irish Republican Army as Catholic terrorists, or the Tamil Tigers as Hindu terrorists (in reality, both these are nationalist movements, often with a Leftist slant). Or consider the refashioning of Tim McVeigh into a Christian terrorist when he was a lapsed Catholic at best and probably irreligious by the time of his terrorist act. This religionization of all radical movements means that people have a really hard time today digesting the fact that 19th and early 20th century anarchists who committed what seem to be patently suicidal acts were generally atheists, motivated by politics and not religion! Similarly, the shocking raid on Harpers Ferry was executed by a cast of characters of diverse religious views. John Brown was famously Calvinist, but some of his followers, including one of his sons, were free thinkers who did not adhere to religion.
In our age it seems that consumer culture and post-materialism has totally vanquished the power of political religion, and the materialist messianism implicit in liberal nationalism and Marxism is barely recollected. Unfortunately forgetting the shape of the past seems to have coarsened our model of the present world, and I think a conception where religion motivates all extreme action leads to false inferences. If Christianity was the primary motivator of Anders Breivik’s ideology one might presume he would favor the mass immigration of zealous African Christians to Norway to balance the waxing of the Muslim population. Do you think this is a plausible inference? No. Anders Brievik was a conservative nationalist, albeit an evil or crazy or unbalanced one. The attempt to emphasize Brievik’s religious identity seems due to the need to inject parity and balance into the “religious clash” with Anders Brievik himself perceived in his political framework, and which is highlighted by Islamic radicals.
But we don’t need to go that far back into the past to see the power of politics as opposed to religion in motivating acts of terror. And we don’t even need to leave what we today often refer to as the “Muslim world“. In the 1970s and 1980s there were a series of hijackings and other terrorist acts, often done in the name of Palestinian nationalism. The innovator who began the shift toward this mode of opposition to the Israeli state was a man of Arab Christian background, George Habash. Habash was a Leftist who was aligned with the Soviet Union, and despite his confessional origins in the Eastern Orthodox community he seems not have been a religious believer by adulthood. The audacious and shocking actions of his PFLP movement served to prod rival Palestinian outfits, Left nationalist movements all, to organize their own terror units. The most famous of these was Black September, which came into the spotlight during the 1972 Munich Olympics. I’m old enough to remember the tail end of this phase of the Age of Terror, and its explicitly nationalist and Leftist connections. Only these deep fundamentals could explain the collaboration between groups as distinctive as Habash’s PFLP and the German Red Army Faction (which was being backed by the GDR, though that was not known at the time).
The secular phase of terrorism in the 1970s is rather clear. More recently you see that the terms “Islamic” and “Muslim” are starting to outpace “Arab” as modifiers. But Ngram is not always accurate after 2000. So I did some independent checks. I looked at these terms in Google Scholar and The New York Times archives, by decade. For the latter the period before 1981 is thrown into an aggregate pool. I log-transformed the y axis, but you can see the reported values on the plots. Yes, I got 0 hits for “Muslim terrorist” in The New York Times before 1981!
These results confirm the impression that the face of terror as a religious face is a relatively recent phenomenon. Less than a generation in fact. The collapse of Arab nationalism as well as the Soviet Union left the secular terror movements with fewer sponsors. Islamism’s rise, and the more prominent role of religion generally in the Middle East, meant that politically motivated terror took on a religious cast. Robert Pape’s work has shown that there’s a surprisingly strong correlation between independent political variables and religiously motivated suicide terrorism. And scholars of religion who take a cognitivist vantage point have also illustrated how religious rationale is often integrated after the fact to scaffold and buttress actions which may have other proximate causes (e.g., Christian libertarian vs. Christian socialism). The human mind is a complex thing, and its incoherence is a structural feature, not an exceptional deviation.
And complexity and texture also apply to terrorists and terrorist movements. When it comes to men such as Anders Breivik, Tim McVeigh, and Nidal Hasan, who are de facto lone wolfs (in that they operationalized their ideology mostly as individuals, even if they felt they were part of a broader movement) there is a tendency toward incomprehension, and to push them into the category of inexplicable evil and insanity. But even insanity perceives its own sense. This is why Gore Vidal cautioned that we shouldn’t view McVeigh as deranged.
When we ascribe purely religious motives toward people that amps up the tendency toward engaging in mysterianism when it comes to terror. Religion is a sensitive topic, and may people ascribe deep and sincere meaning to their religious beliefs. By connecting terror with religion one makes it harder to approach terror from a rational perspective because many resist decomposing and analyzing religion in a reductionist manner as if it was just another thing. In contrast, there are militant atheists who see in religion as the “root of all evil.” The insanity of religious terror makes total sense to them. The root is poisoned after all. But by explaining everything, unfortunately they often explain nothing. Most religious people don’t engage in terror.
And yet the broad family similarities between religious and secular terror remain. There is no hesitation in understanding the sense of Palestinian nationalist error, to the actions of the I.R.A. There are obvious proximate material causes. It is more difficult with religious terror, because terrorists such as Osama bin Laden who operate under the religious guise often elide the material causes of their actions and reframe it as an idealistic and metaphysical conflict. And yet of course we don’t expect Islamic terrorists to attack arguably the most anti-God nation-state on earth, North Korea. Whatever metaphysical disagreement with North Korea they have, these terrorists have more serious material conflicts with a nation where most of the population adheres to a belief in what is notionally the same God of Abraham.
In regards to Anders Breivik there’s a lot of esoteric material coming out. That’s the noise. The reality is that Breivik had some political agenda, which seems to have been warped through a seriously unbalanced lens. In the short term confusing him for a genuinely religiously motivated terrorist, like Eric Rudolph, may seem harmless. But as we distort our map of reality one step at a time, the errors compound, and our coarse models may lead us to false inferences about the arc of the future. That’s more than just abstract.