How do we understand Anders Behring Breivik?
When news broke about the bombing in Olso, many commentators assumed links with Islamic extremism. When reports came of the massacre on Utøya island, perpetrated by “a tall, blonde, Nordic, man,” speculation quieted down until Anders Behring Breivik was identified. News reports first described Breivik as a “Christian terrorist,” largely on the basis of his Facebook profile and his postings to Christian fundamentalist websites. After his manifesto became public, Breivik was characterized as a “right-wing extremist.” To most, the Christian terrorist/right-wing extremist distinction makes little real difference: only a madman could engage in such wanton killing.
Amid summaries of the 1,500 page manifesto, Breivik’s religious beliefs are set in the context of an explicitly political agenda: his vision of a Christian Europe is predicated on the expulsion of Muslims to stem the tide of “Islamization” and “multiculturalism.” When it comes to Muslims themselves, Breivik portrays them as cunning enemies by selectively, and superficially, referencing Islamic discussions of naskh (abrogation), taqiyya (dissimulation), and jihad (exertion). As many commentators have already pointed out, the real template for the manifesto seems to be the writings of Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski. The religious content of the manifesto, especially its references to Christianity, is a hodge-podge, a series of bizarre after-thoughts buttressing Breivik’s xenophobic and paranoid worldview.
Breivik calls himself a “cultural Christian.” Religious Christians, he observes, have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, which he himself does not have. For Breivik, “Christendom” is a vehicle for preserving European self-identity and is not necessarily opposed to elements of “paganism” such as Breivik’s own “Odnistic/Norse” heritage, even though the cross, he argues, has a greater symbolic power than Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir. In spite of this, the initiation ceremony Breivik envisages for “Knights Templar” has no cross, only a candle, sword, skull.
The Christian history that Breivik seeks to reenact is not the passion of Jesus Christ, but the narrative of the Crusades. Breivik rhapsodizes about battles and lists the indulgences promises to Crusaders by Popes Urban II and Innocent III. Although he wishes that Benedict XVI would call Christendom to crusade, Breivik argues that the Roman Pontiff has been too accommodating to Islam and has thus betrayed the Church and Europe as a whole. The new Crusade will thus have to be initiated outside the authority of decadent institutional churches. Breivik’s description of how this Crusade will transpire has exaggerated contours of a computer game — it’s Valhalla via Warcraft.
Terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp has described Breivik’s manifesto as a “cut and paste” image of an Al-Qaeda training manual. Scholar Mark Juergensmeyer justifies calling Breivik a Christian terrorist by arguing that his vision is not dissimilar to that held by Osama bin Laden or Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
Labeling Breivik a “Christian terrorist” is just as vague as calling Al-Qaeda members “Muslim terrorists”: neither characterization tells us much about the specifics of either belief system and its justifications for violence. The devil is not only in the details — he’s created by them.
Where Breivik’s thinking differs substantially from Al-Qaeda is in its paradoxical embrace of an oddly secular framework. The Christendom that Breivik extols rests upon a distinction between the cultural and the religious that Al-Qaeda would never accept.
Breivik’s vision is a Christianity without Christ. In the manifesto, Jesus is mentioned only as a foil against Islam or referenced in a contradictory way such as when Breivik attributes the survival of Egypt’s Coptic Christians to their acceptance of Jesus’s teaching to “put your sword in its place.”
But Breivik’s manifesto does expose a dark side of Christendom as abstract fantasy and nightmarish nostalgia. When notions of cultural, religious, or racial identity become abstract entities, actual people have little reality in and of themselves. Commentators have already observed that Breivik fits the general profile of a mass murderer and that he is not “insane” in a conventional sense. The fundamental point is that Breivik could slaughter children without remorse precisely because it was a logical extension of his own worldview.
Image courtesy of Dmitry Valberg.