The terrorist blame game: Replace Muslim with Christian

Bible-bashers. Happy-clappies. Turn or burn fear-mongers.
Fundamentalist Christians are accused of many things.

I should know, I’ve been called one of them often enough, subtle explanations of differing denominations aside.

But terrorist? That’s a new one. But it’s fast gaining traction, thanks to Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who killed 76 of his countrymen in the name of Christianity, or how much he hates Islam—we’re not quite sure which.

Either way, its blown the idea of Muslims as innately predisposed to terrorism right out of the water, if you’ll excuse the rather inappropriate turn of phrase.

Early self-righteous and self-appointed experts were quite certain the awful bombings and shootings were the work of a Muslim terrorist network. Speculation was rife that al-Qaeda could be involved.

The work of an “ethnic Norwegian”
But the biggest surprise was that this was no attack by a bearded and swarthy man but rather, as one Norwegian editor put it: “an Aryan-looking ethnic Norwegian describing himself as a Christian nationalist whose aim was to try to undermine multicultural Norway”.

He goes on to say: “As culture and op-ed editor of Norway’s major newspaper, every week I read contributions which are rhetorically and politically not too unlike the blog posts written by the 32-year-old man who is now in custody, charged with the bomb explosion and the massacre. These articles more often than not contain extremely strong accusations against the political establishment and the media—for tearing our society apart and destroying Norwegian values and society as they knew them.”

It’s good to know it’s not just us with the pessimistic and borderline racist online commentators.

Many parts of Europe have long struggled to reconcile themselves with the Muslim populations living within their borders, and the trend has been to malign these people as backwards, violent and intolerant. Maybe it’s the way I grew up but, despite my firm conviction as a Christian, I’ve never thought that one group of people are inherently better than another. In fact, it became pretty clear to me at an early age that most people are pretty messed up, regardless of their religious affiliations.

Despite apartheid’s genius spatial engineering, I managed to clock up a fair amount of diversity in my Indian-only childhood neighbourhood in Pretoria. I was thrown together with Christian, Hindu and Muslim kids. It taught me pretty fast that we could all be as nasty, mean, occasionally gracious and often quite as nice as the other. Islam was never this “other thing”, to be heaped up with all our failings as humanity and derided to make ourselves seem better.

Yet, against all reason and irony, there are still those who use the Oslo violence as an excuse for Islamophobia.

“Islam remains the most retrograde and ill-behaved religion on earth,” said best-selling and respected author Sam Harris in response to the murder and the revelation that the Muslims weren’t responsible for this one.

It’s exactly the twisted logic a brilliant Guardian op-ed poked fun at: “In other words: assume it’s the Muslims until it starts to look like it isn’t—at which point, continue to assume it’s them anyway.”

Given the massive contradiction of this latest act of terrorism—this blonde man with his quasi-Christian ravings—it’s tempting to turn the institutionalised racism of our age on its head: let’s racially profile possible suspects at airports, conduct spot checks on blonde men, instead of the burqa-clad women that usually get picked on.

But as the head of New York University’s Islamic Centre put it: “A more appropriate response would be to expand the conversation around terrorism and violent extremism beyond Islam and the Muslim community.

“By cultivating a narrative that says Islam is the problem, we keep ourselves from maintaining that focus. All terrorist acts stem from an idea that it’s OK to resort to violence in order to get what you want; that it’s OK to kill to get the kind of world that you would like; that if we disagree, we cannot co-exist peacefully.”

A Christian?
In the end it’s not clear if Breivik even was a Christian fundamentalist.

“He was a flaky extremist who might as well have claimed to be fighting for the honour of Hogwarts as for the cause of Christ,” said Philip Jenkins, a Pennsylvania State University professor who studies global religion and politics. “He did not represent a religious movement. ... People should not follow that Christian fundamentalist red herring.”

Convenient for me to quote, I can imagine you thinking. It gets me and my fundamentalist ilk off the hook.

I know that the beliefs I profess are not value-free, and the respect I have for Muslims can well be read as a smokescreen for other core, and more divisive views. But it’s not some glib tolerance I’m preaching here, if I’m preaching at all. It’s the abiding knowledge that I know myself to be no better than anyone else, that my faith, the same faith that Breivik claimed at times to be motivated by, is one that has taught me that common grace and its attendant kindnesses are made available to all, just as we all have the capacity to be mean, hurtful and even realise the kinds of evil that lead to the horrific and mindless violence we witnessed in Oslo on Friday.

It’s the kind of knowledge that doesn’t logically lead me to pick out one group of people as more evil or backwards than the rest. It’s the knowledge that reminds me of that famous reformist cry: That there, but for the grace of God, go I.

  • You can read Verashni’s column every week here, and follow her on Twitter here.

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Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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