Even after such a horrific tragedy, it’s still sometimes comedians who manage to convey the most appropriate responses. Stephen Colbert, in the Colbert Report segment Norwegian Muslish Gunman’s Islam-Esque Atrocity, shows that some people in the media made unwarranted assumptions about the terrorist who perpetrated the attacks in Norway. The part when he says, “Just because Norway’s confessed murderer is a blond, blue-eyed, Norwegian-born, anti-Muslim crusader doesn’t mean he’s not a swarthy, ululating madman” beautifully sums up the point that horrible actions can be committed by people of any race, nationality, or religion. In response to the desperate attempt by some to continue blaming Muslims even after Anders Behring Breivik was arrested and admitted to committing the crime, Colbert hilariously asks, “Which is more plausible: That a non-Muslim did this or that al-Qaeda has developed Polyjuice Potion?” Jon Stewart, in the Daily Show segment called In the Name of the Fodder, responded to to the prevalent “Breivik is not a true Christian” argument. He pointed out that there is a double standard whereby certain reporters are quick to believe that attackers who claim to be Muslim really are Muslim, while claiming that attackers who claim to be Christian aren’t really Christian. Stewart also says that he would be fine with people distinguishing between attacks done in the name of religion and members of the religion if that standard was applied equally, instead of only being applied to Christians.
In a similar vein, over at The Wall of Separation (the blog of Americans United for Separation of Church and State), Kurt Ostrow writes about the way that the religious right here in the US advocates discrimination against Muslims. He also shows that well-known religious-right figures only half-heartedly condemn attacks committed by non-Muslims, especially if the attacker was motivated by a hatred of non-Christians and people on the political left, looking desperately for excuses. It is disturbing to see the way in which the reactions to attacks on innocent people are different based on the religious beliefs of the attacker.
There are also those who, while being horrified by and condemning the attack, still found a way to bring the conversation back to Islam, cautioning against forgetting the problems of Islam. One such person, whose response to this tragedy frustrated me, was Sam Harris. He wrote a blog entry called Christian Terrorism and Islamophobia, in which he expresses that he is uncertain if the attacker was a Christian, pointing out various writers who were mentioned by the attacker who are not Christian. He also writes that Islam is worse and that the attack, ironically, will make it more difficult to talk about the problems in Islam since people will bring up Islamophobia. While I cannot know for certain the internal workings of anyone’s mind, and cannot therefore say with certainty what the attacker’s thoughts are, it is important to mention that just because someone is not the same kind of Christian as many others is not a reason to say that they’re not Christian. More importantly, however, I must ask this: If attacks by Muslims that seem to be based at least partially on religious belief should motivate us to look at Islamic beliefs more closely, instead of endeavoring to change the topic, why should an attack by a non-Muslim not motivate us to likewise look more closely at the beliefs of the attacker, rather than changing the topic to another group? Why should only some ideologies that are responsible for harming people be examined while harm caused by other ideologies is used as an excuse to change the subject to a different ideology? (Also, incidentally, if an attack by someone who expressed hatred of Muslims — followed by assumption by people in the media that the attack must have been committed by a Muslim — is not an appropriate time to bring up Islamophobia, what is an appropriate time?)
One person who does advocate looking closely at Christianity in this case is Professor Susan Brooks Thislethwaite (of Chicago Theological Seminary), who advises Christians in When Christianity becomes lethal to think seriously about connections between Christianity and violence, specifically the theological perspectives that may lead Christians to justify such hatred and violence. She writes, “It is absolutely critical that Christians not turn away from the Christian theological elements in such religiously inspired terrorism. We must acknowledge these elements in Christianity and forthrightly reject these extremist interpretations of our religion. How can we ask Muslims to do the same with Islam, if we won’t confront extremists distorting Christianity?” I think there is great value in actually thinking about the content of one’s beliefs, rather than just insisting that anyone with a different interpretation is not a true believer. Holding one’s own ideology and group to the same standards as one holds for others is difficult to do, so I have respect for people who point out to members of their own belief system that it is not right to dodge problems rather than addressing them.
Christopher Hitchens (a frequent critic of Islam who I sometimes agree with and sometimes disagree with) wrote an article titled A Ridiculous Rapid Response, in which he asked, “Do the extreme jihadists and their most virulent opponents really have a symbiotic relationship?” (This is something I’ve wondered about as well, as the actions of those who hate each other seem to demonstrate an almost mutually dependent relationship.) He writes about the irresponsible assumptions made about this attack and states,
So-called “experts” should have been ashamed to reverse-engineer the motive from the modus operandi, rather as Steve Emerson had done in Oklahoma by stating that the maximization of violence was “a Middle Eastern trait.” A pale Christian rider from ultima Thule with a private view of the Book of Revelation may also be said to be infected with “Middle Eastern traits” of the sort that hell has not hitherto boasted.
The traits found in extreme ideologies and their members are not restricted to people from any one country, race, or religion. The attempt to guess that an attack must have been perpetrated by a member of a particular group based on invalid assumptions about the groups that have certain traits (rather than basing conclusions on evidence) is hasty and ill-advised.
Ultimately, the issue that comes up whenever someone takes a horrible action is what influenced them to do such a thing. JT Eberhard wrote a blog entry in which he argues that the attacker was indeed a Christian. The main important point I took away his from his entry was the following: “Christians commit horrors. Muslims commit atrocities. And yes, atheists also can be delegates of evil. The poison that infects them all is an unreasonable belief about something, erroneously convincing them that their actions are somehow beneficent or acceptable. Unreasonable beliefs, inaccurate beliefs, prompt people to do unreasonable, sometimes wicked deeds.” His statement, I think, expresses succinctly that the more general problem is any kind of unreasonable belief, which can lead to horrible actions, because people erroneously believe that their horrible actions are justified.
Susan Jacoby, in a recent article in her column The Spirited Atheist, addresses those who deny the influence of non-evidence based ideologies, writing,
Of course, right-wing Christian fundamentalists are as bent on insisting that their religion has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with a terrorist act committed by a man dedicated to a new Crusade as many liberal multiculturalists (both religious and secular) are on insisting that terrorism has nothing to do with the “real” Islam. Give it up, apologists for irrationality. Non-evidence based ideology, whether religious or ostensibly secular, always has something to do with this kind of pathology.
In addition, Jacoby cautions against making quick assumptions and acknowledges that many other factors can also play a role.
A lot of people jumped to a lot of unresearched conclusions in the 24 hours after the attack and a number of writers are still doing it. This time, however, they’re seizing on Christian fundamentalism and Islamophobia as the ideological villains.
It is undeniable that extreme religion-based ideology (most often Islam in the past decade) plays an integral role in the vast majority of terrorist acts. Recognizing that other emotional and cultural forces may also be involved could only aid us in identifying prime suspects before they turn their deadly, irrational fantasies into reality.
The aim of any reasonable and feeling person after such horrible attacks should be to support efforts to prevent such attacks in the future — efforts which include determining what causes them. What contributes to the corruption of a human mind, until it becomes capable of thinking that such violence is acceptable?
In this time, we can say that we stand with Norway and feel their pain; moving forward, it is necessary for us to realize that our feelings of sorrow should compel us to action which will improve our planet, which will create a better world for ourselves and our descendents. This better world can only exist if we think about the causes of horror and try to address them.
Much thanks to the people I linked to and/or quoted.
I found the video clip of The Colbert Report via Else Marie (a.k.a. mrsweasley on Tumblr), who reblogged it from Arina (a.k.a. warningdontreadthis on Tumblr). I found the video clip of The Daily Show via Krisko Isackson (Godless Liberal on Xanga).
Edits/Additional Recommended Reading
Michelle Goldberg has an article in The Daily Beast (of 24 July 2011) called Norway Killer’s Hatred of Women, in which she writes about the combination of Christian nationalism and male superiority that Anders Breivik expressed in his manifesto. (URL: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/07/24/norway-massacre-anders-breivik-s-deadly-attack-fueled-by-hatred-of-women.html)
Thanks to Ophelia Benson of Butterflies and Wheels, who mentioned Goldberg’s article in a Notes and Comments Blog entry. (URL: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2011/we-will-re-establish-the-patriarchal-structures/)
Edit/Correction (as of 18 August 2011)
I initially incorrectly credited the video clip In the Name of the Fodder to Stephen Colbert. It is actually a clip of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show. I offer my sincerest apologies; I get the two of them mixed up sometimes. The mistake has been fixed.
 Colbert, Stephen. Colbert Report: Norwegian Muslish Gunman’s Islam-Esque Atrocity. Posted on 25 July 2011 at the Colbert Nation website. Retrieved on 26 July 2011 from http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/393042/july-25-2011/norwegian-muslish-gunman-s-islam-esque-atrocity.
 Stewart, Jon. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: In the Name of the Fodder. Posted on 27 July 2011 at The Daily Show website. Retrieved on 29 July 2011 from http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-july-27-2011/in-the-name-of-the-fodder.
 Ostrow, Kurt. Norway’s Sorrow: Why Is It So Hard For The Religious Right to Denounce Evil? Posted on 28 July 2011 at The Wall of Separation. Retrieved on 29 July 2011 from http://blog.au.org/2011/07/28/norway’s-sorrow-why-is-it-so-hard-for-the-religious-right-to-denounce-evil/.
 Harris, Sam. Christian Terrorism and Islamophobia. Posted on 24 July 2011 at Sam Harris’s Blog. Retrieved on 27 July 2011 from http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/christian-terrorism-and-islamophobia/.
 Thislethwaite, Susan Brooks. When Christianity becomes lethal. Posted on 25 July 2011 in the On Faith section of The Washington Post. Retrieved on 28 July 2011 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/norway-attacks-when-christianity-becomes-lethal/2011/07/25/gIQAPRw5YI_blog.html.
 Hitchens, Christopher. A Ridiculous Rapid Response: Why did so many experts declare the Oslo attacks to be the work of Islamic terrorists?. Posted on 24 July 2011 at Slate. Retrieved on 26 July 2011 from http://www.slate.com/id/2299959/.
The link has been changed to http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd/2011/07/23/convict-the-killer-convict-unreason/, because JT Eberhard’s blog What Would JT Do? is now at Freethought Blogs.
 Jacoby, Susan. Media know-nothings first declare Norwegian terrorist Muslim, then Christian. Posted on 27 July 2011 at The Spirited Athest column at The Washington Post. Retrieved on 27 July 2011 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/spirited-atheist/post/media-know-nothings-first-declare-norwegian-terrorist-muslim-then-christian/2011/07/27/gIQAb132cI_blog.html.
 Marie, Else (a.k.a. mrsweasley). Posted on 27 July 2011 at mrsweasley’s Tumblr. Retrieved on 27 July 2011 from http://mrsweasley.tumblr.com/post/8102563092/warningdontreadthis-norwegian-muslish-gunmans.
 Arina (a.k.a. warningdontreadthis). Posted on 27 July 2011 at warningdontreadthis’s Tumblr. Retrieved on 27 July 2011 from http://warningdontreadthis.tumblr.com/post/8102502372.
 Isackson, Krisko. For those pissed at my post about Norway (+ Edit). Posted on 28 July 2011 at Godless Liberal’s Xanga. Retrieved on 29 July 2011 from http://godlessliberal.xanga.com/753496483/for-those-pissed-at-my-post-about-norway–edit/.