André Gide remarked that “everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again”. So it is with the recent article by Mandy de Waal, who took Sam Harris (and the ‘new atheists’ in general) to task for ‘hate speech’, ‘bigotry’ and encouraging so-called Islamophobia. It’s difficult to know just where to begin in responding, as I find the content of de Waal’s piece disagreeable in almost every aspect.
Of course it is unfortunate, and prejudiced, for many commentators to have assumed that Breivik was a Muslim – and for those who assumed this, the bias is clear in how they concocted quite torturous narratives to explain why a Muslim would target kids at a Labour Party camp. It made little sense that he would (from those motives), yet the perceived equivalence between terrorism and Islam were too strong for some to resist.
And now that we know he was not a Muslim, but that he was instead perhaps a Christian, probably a Mason, and certainly an ethnic nationalist, much outrage has resulted from the selective use of words like “terrorist”, or “fundamentalist” – once he was revealed to not be Muslim, some columns and Tweets stopped referring to Breivik as a terrorist. This again exposes a bias, whereby something that is the subject of extreme fear and emotive reaction is illegitimately associated with a particular religion.
But this is the problem with stereotypes – they are blunt instruments, which even when grounded in something true, can be so broad as to capture many cases that are not true. And this one is founded in something true, despite how impolitic it might be to say so. The fact that Breivik might be a “Christian fundamentalist” cannot obscure the fact that much of what we describe as “terror” in the recent past has come from those that we caricature as “Islamic fundamentalists”.
The fact that some Muslims will say that Muslim terrorists are “not real Muslims”, and that Christians will say that Breivik is not a “real Christian” is irrelevant. People who commit acts of terror get their mandate from something or other – and if a belief system can be interpreted to provide that mandate, this is a reality (and a problem) that that religion has to deal with. And as Sam Harris pointed out, it is an unfortunate fact that as far as religious belief systems go, Islam is correlated with a disproportionately large amount of oppression and intolerance of competing world-views, including secular world views such as those that promote gender equality.
The violence in Oslo is no excuse for Islamophobia. But we don’t need (another) one – as with all religions, Islam teaches you that propositions with no (or poor) evidence can be regarded as fact. Religions allow you to engage in metaphysical Ponzi schemes, whereby debts can be paid later down the line – rather than you being accountable right now, for what you do in this life. Again, it doesn’t matter that this might be a poor reading of whatever scripture, from whatever tradition, you want to thrust in my face – these traditions are open to such interpretations in ways that others are not, and they have to take responsibility for that.
Breivik’s problem – or our problem, that is presented by people like Breivik – is that he is perhaps insane, and that he believes nonsense so strongly that he is prepared to kill for it. Any of us – and any religions – that encourage belief in nonsense is at least partly culpable. If a particular religion has a larger component of such nonsense than another – such as routinely allowing rights violations and perpetuating gender inequality – it is proportionally more culpable.
This remains true, no matter how many Muslims, or Christians, are appalled by the actions taken in the name of their chosen fictions.