Should Anders Behring Breivik, the killer of nearly 100 people in Norway, be described as a Christian terrorist?
It is commonplace in the media and elsewhere to refer to members of Al Qaeda and similar groups as Islamic terrorists.
Is there any essential difference between a person who describes himself as Christian and carries out mass murder in the name of Christianity, and a Muslim who does the same in the name of his religion?
This is a question fraught with emotional content, one that has been widely discussed on various Websites for several years and certain to draw more attention as the full extent of Mr. Breivik’s views about religion and terrorism become known.
Many Christians would consider the term “Christian terrorist” an oxymoron. Christianity proclaims itself to be a religion of love.
Likewise, many Muslims consider theirs to be a religion of peace and disavow Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
Yet acts of terrorism have been carried out over centuries by people claiming to act in the name of religion. The medieval Christian Crusaders, with whom Mr. Breivik identified in his 1,500-page manifesto, are one example.
But many in the West will argue that so-called Christian extremists who resort to violence are fringe groups enjoying no broad public support, while the same is not true of so-called Islamic terrorists.
After the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, large numbers of people danced in the streets of some Arab countries in celebration. A Pew Research Center survey in 2005, in the relatively liberal nation of Jordan, found that 60 per cent of Muslims had “a lot or some confidence” in Osama bin Laden to do the right thing regarding world affairs.
There has been no public celebration of Mr. Breivik’s crimes, only horror and condemnation.
But in an article written several years ago, Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor, dismissed such distinctions between terrorism in the Muslim and Christian worlds.
“While there are Muslims who feel themselves at war with the United States, they form a tiny set of shadowy organizations and are not representative in any way of the some 1.5 billion Muslims in the world,” he said.
Mr. Breivik entitled his manifesto 2083. The date will be the 400th anniversary of the Battle of Vienna, in which the Ottoman Empire’s assault on Europe was turned back at the gates of the Austria capital. He foresees a modern struggle against Islam ending in 2083.
“In Breivik’s mind, he was recreating the historic efforts to save Europe from what he imagined to be the evils of Islam,” according to Mark Juergensmeyer, a sociology professor and director of Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“Am I right in calling Breivik a Christian terrorist?” he asked. He said it was true that Mr. Breivik expressed more concern about politics, race and history than about scripture and religious belief.
But he said the same was true of bin Laden, his deputy and current Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and many other Islamic activists. “Their writings show that they were much more interested in Islamic history than theology or scripture,” he said.
“If bin Laden is a Muslim terrorist, Breivik and McVeigh are surely Christian ones,” he wrote on the Religion Dispatches Website. He referred to Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in a bombing attack on a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
In 2010 Leonard Pitts Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Miami Herald, wrote that those who regard terrorism as something exclusive to Islam are engaged in “a self-deluding fallacy.”
He noted several criminal acts that were attributed to people calling themselves Christian—attacks on abortion clinics and the murder of physicians who had carried out abortions, the solicitation to murder of a federal judge in Chicago, the murder of a gay couple in California, Mr. McVeigh’s bomb attack and an alleged plot by Hutaree, a self-styled Christian militia in the Middle West to kill police officers in hopes of sparking an anti-government uprising.
“We have seen no shortage of ‘Christians’ who believe Jesus requires—or at least allows—them to commit murder,” he wrote.
“Many of us would doubtless resist referring to plots like this as Christian terrorism, feeling it unfair to tar the great body of Christendom with the actions of its fringe radicals. And here, we will pause for Muslim readers to clear their throats loudly.”
(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent of the Chicago Tribune and has worked extensively in the Middle East. He can be reached at email@example.com.)