By Nathan Lean
One victim wrote his telephone number in blood that ran from his head. Another described the sensation of feeling his brain through an empty eye socket.
During the trial of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian behind the July 2011 Oslo bombing and shooting attacks that killed 77, such testimonies were reminders that the city which awards the world’s most prestigious prize for peace is itself not immune to brutal displays of violence.
The 33-year-old Breivik is charged with terrorism and murder. On Aug. 24, judges will announce if he is sane enough for prison. The 10-week proceedings against him resembled a freak show more than a judicial event: Shoe throwing, self-immolation and far-right salutes were among the happenings that animated a normally humdrum process.
What was absent from the scene, though, was blunt discussion of the anti-Islam ideology that influenced Breivik and caused him to be so fearful of Muslims that his only response was to slaughter fellow citizens whose politics he blamed for their presence.
Breivik carried out his bloodbath alone, and his idiosyncrasies give him the appearance of a sociopath. But his delusions are hardly products of his imagination. Instead, they are the workings of a cabal of fear merchants who roam the post-9/11 world scaring people about Islam.
Breivik’s 1,500-page manifesto offers a clear view of the people and ideas that shaped his actions.
“About Islam, I recommend essentially everything written by Robert Spencer,” Breivik gushed in one of 162 shout-outs to the blogger, whose website is a one-stop shop for everything anti-Muslim. Spencer has waged a populist campaign against “stealth jihad,” “creeping Sharia” and even Campbell’s soup (which offers halal-certified cans of its famous products).
Breivik cited Spencer’s partner, blogger Pamela Geller, 12 times. Geller and Spencer co-founded Stop Islamization of America, the American branch of a European hate franchise, Stop Islamization of Europe, a group whose soccer hooligan members have whipped the populations of Britain and Denmark into nationalistic frenzies. SIOE’s motto states: “Racism is the lowest form of human stupidity but Islamophobia is the height of common sense.” Both Geller and Spencer organized the vitriolic protests against the Park51 Islamic Center in 2010.
Breivik mentioned Frank Gaffney, who runs the Center for Security Policy, seven times. Gaffney provides legal counsel for Spencer and Geller and is famous for decrying the threat of Sharia law and claiming that President Obama is in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood. He is also on the board of the Clarion Fund, a group that produced the now-infamous anti-Muslim film “Obsession.” Breivik’s manifesto linked to that movie 10 separate times.
No one denies that violent adherents of any religion are a serious threat. But Spencer, Geller and Gaffney and their ilk see Muslim demons in every shadow.
That’s had pernicious consequences. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. was at low levels. Two months after the attacks, polls showed that 59% of Americans had a favorable opinion of Muslims . Eleven years later, Islamophobia is at a record high. Half of Americans report that they would be uncomfortable with a woman wearing the burqa, a mosque being built in their neighborhood or a Muslim man praying in an airport. This despite the fact that Muslim-led attacks inside the U.S. have dwindled over the same course of time.
The Islamophobia industry insists that it is not just a fringe minority who distort an otherwise peaceful faith. Instead, they point to the Koran and suggest that terrorists derive their world views from its messages. If that is so, these anti-Muslim agitators are guilty based on the logic of their own argument. After all, Breivik read and interpreted the writings of people like Spencer and Geller. He deciphered their diatribes much like Osama Bin Laden interpreted the Koran. Both men were compelled to act on the messages they digested.
Society has a responsibility to counter these individuals with overwhelming overtures of pluralism — and to systematically push the fearmongers out of public discourse. The consequences of inaction are grave. Just as Bin Laden had several copycats, so too may Breivik. In his closing statement, the Norway killer said that, “My brothers in the Norwegian and European resistance movements are sitting and watching this case while they plan new attacks.”
Judicial systems must absorb the true scope of the Islamophobia industry’s rhetoric and rage. In the case of Breivik, examining the role of anti-Muslim sentiment would have been a logical first step. A second would be finding Breivik “sane,” and acknowledging that his plot was not the result of a deranged mental state but the product of a twisted ideology that turns the fearful and unstable into holy warriors.
Lean is editor-in-chief of Aslan Media and the author of “The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims. ”