On Friday, July 22, Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik bombed government buildings in Oslo, then attacked a youth Labor Party camp on Utoya Island, killing 74 people. Dozens and dozens of young adults, emerging leaders, were brutally murdered at his hands, many while running or swimming for their lives.
We didn’t have to wonder long about why Breivik committed his crimes. He provided a 1,500-page manifesto, through which it became known the attacks were based in anti-Muslim, rightist hatred, committed by a man who said he feared for the future of his country at the hands of “multiculturalist” liberals and an increasingly large Muslim population.
In the following weeks, it became clear that Breivik took inspiration from none other than America’s own anti-Muslim rightists, who claim to fear for the future of their country for the same reasons. This group includes Pamela Geller, a staunch opponent of the Park 51 community center in lower Manhattan who writes an influential blog, Atlas Shrugs, and Robert Spencer, a prolific author who also directs the anti-Islam blog Jihad Watch.
Breivik quotes extensively from these two and others in the growing anti-Islam blogosphere in his manifesto, where he describes his inspiration for the attacks. He self-identifies as a Christian. “I prayed to God,” Breivik writes, to “ensure that the warriors fighting for the preservation of European Christendom prevailed.”
Geller, who appears to make a living off of spreading misinformation about Islam and trying to tie the religion to those who twist it to justify heinous crimes, responded, “I found very disturbing to hear the number of times [newscasters] use the word ‘Christian.’ They would never dare refer to religion when it is jihad, and this attack had nothing to do with Christianity.”
I agree with one part of this statement: The attack had nothing to do with Christianity. Just as Pastor Terry Jones, who stirred up controversy last September by threatening to burn Qurans, does not represent Christianity or the Christians that I know and am proud to call friends, neither does Breivik. But we can’t ignore Breivik’s explicit manifesto dripping with fear, intolerance, and ignorance of what it means to be a Christian, Muslim, or European in the 21st century.
The tragedy has stirred up much discussion about the role of the American industry of Islamophobia. Who is responsible when violent acts are committed in sick attempts to confront the “threat of Islam”? Is it only the one who holds the gun? Or are those who inspired the shooter also culpable?
Certainly no one would deny that most of the blame lies with Breivik. But it should embarrass us that American haters are informing European murder sprees. As the great civil rights leader Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”
We may not be able to draw a direct line from mean-spirited bloggers to a small island across the sea, marked by death. However, we can’t ignore the thousands of hateful words that inspired 74 repugnant deeds. And if we allow the industry of Islamophobia and others like it to flourish, we can’t be surprised if words once again manifest in reality.
Eboo Patel is founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.