Breivik admitted to the crime but expressed no remorse. He believed he executed his bloody plan for the sake of Europe, a Europe in which he wants to see no trace of Islam or Muslims by the year 2083, the 400th anniversary of the second siege of Vienna in 1683. The whole world is outraged, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and the Norwegian people. But there is more to do than being angry at this time.
The Norwegian massacre has clearly shown that Islamophobia is a crime that involves violence. An imaginary hatred of Islam and Muslims can easily lead to discrimination, hate speech, racism and physical attack. After the attacks of 9/11 in the US, the American Muslim community has been subjected to various types of hate speech, discrimination and in some cases physical attacks on individuals, Muslim-owned shops and Islamic centers. While physical violence on the surface did not lead to massive attacks or killings, the heretofore hidden elements of Islamophobia began to find their way into the mainstream of American society.
It is no surprise that Breivik’s murderous Islamophobic ideology has been shaped by the Islamophobic elements produced in the US and in Europe. Such openly Islamophobic authors such as Robert Spencer, whom Breivik quoted extensively, and others have, for years, sought to create a monster out of Islam and Muslims by preying on the sentiments of ordinary American citizens after the trauma of the 9/11 attacks. Having seen the short-term benefits of Islam-bashing and fear-mongering, populist politicians have taken up the call and gone so far as to hold hearings in the US Congress against the dangers of the “spread of Sharia in the US.”
At the heart of Islamophobia is hatred of Islam and Muslims and a sort of cultural and religious superiority. What are the punch lines of Islamophobia? They include the following: “Islam is inherently violent and bent on overtaking Western civilization”; “Islam wants to subjugate Jews and Christians”; “Islam cannot tolerate pluralism”; “Islam oppresses women”; Muslims cannot integrate but want to dominate”; “Muslims seek to convert everyone by reason or by force”; and “Muslims are potential terrorists and should be watched, monitored, profiled.”
These and similar diatribes against Islam and Muslims are forged out of ignorance, fear and hatred as well as deliberate ideological choices. Its deceiving power stems from its ability to combine irrational and sentimental elements.
Those who openly advocate Islamophobia defend themselves in the name of freedom of speech and the right to criticize. In contrast to anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, they claim, does not involve violence. Just as Christianity and Judaism are subject to critical investigation, so should Islam be. Criticizing Islam and Muslims, they allege, does not mean inciting hatred against them.
If this were a civilized and intelligent debate, no one would be talking about Islamophobia today. But Islamophobia is not the critical scholarly study of Islam but a smokescreen for an ideology that preemptively sees Islam and Muslims as the enemy of the Judeo-Christian and the secular West. It incites hatred and thus turns violent at a time of identity crises, misplaced fears and political opportunism.
The Breivik case has proven those who claim that Islamophobia does not produce violence dead wrong. Incitement against a community and/or its faith does lead to systemic, psychological and eventually physical violence. A distorted history, a misguided heroism and misplaced fears can easily turn violent. We have seen this violence committed against Jews, Blacks, Chinese, Japanese and others in the past. The logic and the manner in which old racism and anti-Semitism have been fostered and organized is similar to the way Islamophobia is making its way into mainstream politics and society in Europe and the US.
Therefore we cannot wait for another massacre like the Norwegian one in to act. Europeans, Americans and Muslims need address the problem of Islamophobia and the rise of the radical right in a serious and comprehensive manner. Governments, political and religious leaders, scholarly communities, the media and other social actors need to get together to devise intelligent policies to prevent another massacre in Europe.
(Published in Today’s Zaman on July 28.)