Stephen M. Walt

Breivik’s Warped Worldview

I was in New York City the past two days and left my laptop in my bag for a change. The main purpose of the trip was to pick up my daughter (who was flying home from a language immersion program), but we did manage to sneak in a benefit concert at the Beacon Theater. ...

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

I was in New York City the past two days and left my laptop in my bag for a change. The main purpose of the trip was to pick up my daughter (who was flying home from a language immersion program), but we did manage to sneak in a benefit concert at the Beacon Theater. Go here for a peek at The Life I Could Have Had if I Had Talent.

Along the way I’ve been reflecting more on the shooting/bombing in Norway and the debates that have surfaced since last weekend. One of the striking features of Anders Breivik’s worldview (which is shared by some of the Islamophobe ideologues who influenced his thinking) is the idea that he is defending some fixed and sacred notion of the "Christian West," which is supposedly under siege by an aggressive alien culture.

There are plenty of problems with this worldview (among other things, it greatly overstates the actual size of the immigrant influx in places like Norway, whose Muslim minority is less than 4 percent of the population). In addition, such paranoia also rests on a wholly romanticized vision of what the "Christian West" really is, and it ignores the fact that what we now think of as "Western civilization" has changed dramatically over time, partly in response to influences from abroad. For starters, Christianity itself is an import to Europe — it was invented by dissident Jews in Roman Palestine and eventually spread to the rest of Europe and beyond. I’ll bet there were Norse pagans who were just as upset when the Christians showed up as Breivik is today.

Moreover, even Christian Europe is hardly a fixed cultural or political entity. The history of Western Europe (itself an artificial geographic construct) featured bitter religious wars, the Inquisition, patriarchy of the worst sort, slavery, the divine right of kings, the goofy idea of "noble birth," colonialism, and a whole lot of other dubious baggage. Fundamentalists like Breivik pick and choose among the many different elements of Western culture in order to construct a romanticized vision that they now believe is under "threat." This approach is not that different from Osama bin Laden’s desire to restore the old Muslim Caliphate; each of these extremists is trying to preserve (or restore) an idealized vision of some pure and sacred past, based on a remarkably narrow reading of history.

In fact, any living, breathing society is driven partly by its "inner life," but also inevitably shaped by outside forces. Indeed, as Juan Cole notes in a recent post, most societies benefit greatly from immigration, especially if they have strong social institutions (as Norway does) and the confidence to assimilate new arrivals into the existing order while allowing that order to itself be shaped over time. What is even more striking about conservative extremists like Breivik is their utter lack of confidence in the very society that they commit heinous acts trying to defend. On the one hand, they think their idealized society is far, far better than any alternative, which is why extreme acts are justified in its supposed defense. Yet at the same time they see that society as inherently weak, fragile, brittle, and incapable of defending itself against its cruder antagonists.

This is really an old story: American hard-liners used to believe that the decadent Western democracies couldn’t stand up to Soviet communism, and previous generations all believed that the current wave of immigrants would bring some sort of fatal infection to an otherwise healthy body politic. We’ve suffered a similar wave of paranoia since 9/11, somehow believing that a handful of radicals in Central Asia posed a mortal threat to a society with 300 million people and a $14 trillion economy. (Of course, the real threat turned out to be the self-inflicted wounds that we suffered in Iraq, Afghanistan, and on Wall Street.) By contrast, those of us who are more sanguine about such matters have greater confidence in the inherent strengths of a liberal society and are therefore more worried about departures from these principles undertaken in the name of "national security."

Finally, to what extent can Islamophobes like Pamela Geller or Robert Spencer be held responsible for Breivik’s act? As someone who has some personal experience with "guilt by association," I do think we should be careful about assessing blame. None of these hawkish pundits openly advocated violence, and all have (for the most part) distanced themselves from Breivik’s act. But it is also clear that their writings consistently portrayed Islam in a crude and monolithic way and tended to depict all Muslims as part of some looming threat to core Western values. And it seems clear from Breivik’s manifesto that these writers did have a considerable impact on his worldview, even if they did not advocate the horrific response that he chose. Yet this seems to have sparked little or no self-reflection on their part, as befitting the committed ideologue.

As you’d expect, some of their defenders have pointed out that the late Osama bin Laden also cited some writers favorably, including Noam Chomsky, Michael Scheuer, and yours truly. Bin Laden also mentioned John Perkins (author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man) and Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The defenders suggest that these two situations are identical and accuse those who see a link between Breivik and his Islamophobic inspirations of a double standard.

This line of defense is pretty silly because it completely ignores conventional notions of causality. Osama bin Laden began his terrorist career over a decade before the authors he cited had even started the books to which he subsequently referred. He didn’t need to read Chomsky, Perkins, Scheuer, or me in order to develop his violently fundamentalist outlook; it was firmly in place long before I wrote one word and wholly at odds with the central views of the people to whom he referred. Indeed, I doubt he ever read my work; if he had, I wonder what he made of our defense of Israel’s right to exist, our condemnation of terrorism in general and al Qaeda in particular, and our explicit denunciations of anti-Semitism?

By contrast, it is clear from Breivik’s own statements that his thinking was shaped by the various Islamophobic writers whose work he cites (and whose websites he patronized and posted on). He wasn’t dreaming up terrorist plots 20 years ago and then citing these writers after the fact to justify it; on the contrary, these works apparently helped convince him that radical violence was necessary in part because there was a looming danger to "the West." Geller, Spencer, and their ilk are not responsible for his specific decisions and actions, of course, but they do bear some responsibility for creating and promoting a vision of cultural conflict that makes such extreme responses more likely.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola