Posted by Michael Cohen
I, for one, am shocked, shocked to read that anti-Muslim bigots are defending themselvesagainst charges of culpability in the heinous terrorist acts of Anders Behring Breivik, by hiding behind the narrow reed that they never specifically advocated violence against children.
I was even more surprised that my good friend and colleague, Josh Foust, is making a similar argument, claiming that “In reality, no one really understands why they or anyone else behaves the way they do” and that “it does not follow that [anti-Muslim] writers should be linked to and blamed for his attacks. All of them, to a person, have distanced themselves from and condemned Breivik’s actions.” This strikes me as a far too generous read on the damage being wrought, both directly and indirectly, by the propagation of anti-Muslim narratives not just in Europe, but certainly also in the United States.
Certainly these writers don’t deserve direct blame for Breivik’s horrific actions (and it doesn’t mean one should put restrictions on their right to free speech). However the notion that hate-filled words and paranoid assertions about Islamic “takeover” somehow operate in a vacuum and don’t inform, inspire or, above all, validate the views of sociopaths likeBrievik runs counter to well-understood links between extreme and paranoid narratives and activism and violence. Individuals who are prone to paranoia, fetishize violence, demonstrate anti-social or sociopathic behavior or externalize blame can certainly be susceptible to conspiratorial and eliminationist narratives.
Honestly, is anyone really shocked that as anti-Muslim attitudes have increased in recent years (on both sides of the Atlantic) that something like this has happened? It’s like being shocked that as anti-government attitudes took on greater prominence in the early 1990s, Oklahoma City happened. (The only thing most surprising is that Breivik’s actual violence was perpetrated against non-Muslims).
Indeed, Breivik’s own manifesto, apes the hate-filled fear mongering of Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and other anti-Muslim bigots. He cites both writers and other anti-Islamistfearmongers in his 1,500 page manifesto that was released at approximately the same moment that he was engaging in one of the worst acts of mass violence in Europe since WWII. He is, as Toby Archer in Foreign Policy said a clear product of “predominantly web-based community of anti-Muslim, anti-government, and anti-immigration bloggers, writers, and activists.” Again, Breivik and his views didn’t just emerge from the ether.
Similarly as Brian Fishman nicely points out, Breivik’s actions coincide with the rise of radical right extremists and incipient revanchist nationalism across Europe. It stretches credulity to argue that this is all just a coincidence or that Breivik’s actions were in no way influenced or his beliefs validated by extremist narratives about Islam andmulti-culturalism that present these as some sort of existential threat to European civilization. Indeed, at his court hearing today Breivik plead not guilty, because he “believes that he needed to carry out these acts to save Norway” and western Europe from “cultural Marxism and Muslim domination.”
Of course, such rhetoric is clearly not restricted to Islam – and especially in the UnitedStates. We see it when pro-life advocates describe abortion doctors as “murderers”; we see it when political leaders warn that their opponents are seeking to ‘destroy America’; we see it when some of those same leaders talk about their political opponents with the use of eliminationist rhetoric. Stoking hatred and presenting opponents as not simply wrong, but immoral is the sort of speech that is and should be protected – but also should be recognized for what it is, deeply dangerous. (Peter Daou has a great post on this here). After the Gabrielle Giffords a lot of commentators jumped to false conclusions about what drove Jared Loughner to violence – but in a sense trying to find that connection was almost secondary in importance. Loughner may not have been influenced by Sarah Palin puttingcrosshairs over the names of vulnerable Democratic officeholders; it doesn’t mean such speech isn’t reckless and irresponsible.
Again, none of this means that those who might have inspired or influenced Breivik are responsible for his actions. And we certainly can’t know for sure if Breivik would have acted the way he did even if not for the anti-Muslims rantings of others (though it does appear on the surface that these words served as validation for his own toxic views).
But it also doesn’t mean that we should be blind to the consequences of hate-filled language.
If anything it should lead to greater scrutiny of how such words are being interpreted and even harsher condemnation for them. And that goes for both hate-mongers and political leaders, like the majority of Republicans running for President who have warned of creeping sharia – a stance that casually plays on anti-Muslim attitudes for electoral gain. Arguing that bigoted and prejudice speech is a value neutral exercise because it is not accompanied by calls for violence is, for a lack of a better term, a bit of cop-out.
Speech matters and those who would traffic in eliminationist, extremist narratives don’t get a pass when violent psychopaths take such rhetoric to a not illogical, violent end.