Is secularism to blame for the Norway attacks?
The Holy Post, 01 August 2011
The Holy Post, 01 August 2011
The editorial blame game is in full swing after the July 22 terrorist attacks in Utoya and Oslo, Norway. Since initial reports indicated that perpetrator Anders Behring Breivik was a Christian extremist and opponent of European Islamization, Christian commentators and critics of political multiculturalism have been forced to emphasize their condemnation of Breivik under the charge that their beliefs may have motivated the massacre.
This claim has been taken a step further by Truthdig.com contributor Chris Hedges, whose July 26 essay entitled “Fundamentalism Kills” takes aim at atheists Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris for inciting Islamophobia. According to Hedges, religion critics known as New Atheists are “secular fundamentalists” and are responsible for “propagating the bigoted, hateful caricatures of observant Muslims and those defined as our internal enemies.” He especially targets Harris for a passage in his 2004 book The End of Faith, which discusses the future possibility of a pre-emptive strike on a radical Islamic regime armed with nuclear weapons.
Dr. Harris has already published a response to Hedges’s allegations, where he explains the context of these remarks (which he accuses Hedges of misquoting) and defends his criticisms of Islam. He also fends off the notion that his opinions are fueled by racial intolerance. However, there is more left to unpack from Hedges’s essay, which argues that the tandem of religious and “secular fundamentalism” is far more dangerous than Islamism, the ideology that supports political Islam. “I worry more about the Anders Breiviks than the Mohammed Attas,” he writes in the opening paragraph.
While the article is mostly filled with postmodern white noise about the ambiguity of truth and the arrogance of modern science, Hedges’s implication that secularism and criticism of faith are responsible for this atrocity is too fatuous to ignore. His willingness to downplay the severity of militant Islamism is also alarming and reveals the very incuriosity of which he accuses the New Atheists.
The central question here is whether or not the ideal of secularism could have motivated Breivik in the same way that Islamic beliefs motivated the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001. For the purpose of evaluating Hedges’s claim that Islamism and secularism are equivalent, it is necessary to compare the degrees to which these beliefs are dependent upon violence.
Trying to draw such a comparison between Islamic jihadism and secularism is nearly impossible, though Hedges’s essay forces one to give it a college try. However, the distinction is quite easily demonstrated as the ideology advanced first by Sayyid Qutb and later by Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam and Ayman al-Zawahiri involves unrestrained violence upon civilians to shelter a deeply illiberal and archaic way of life. By contrast, the proponents of secularism are mostly concerned with resolving domestic religious disputes through a policy of state neutrality.
There is simply no logical pathway that could lead from a belief that religion and politics should be separated to a decision to kill 76 people. There is, however, an obvious pathway between a belief that jihadists will be martyred in an Islamic heaven with all the trimmings and a willingness to conduct a civilian attack conceived by a militant Islamist organization. To come out of this believing that secularism is more dangerous than Islamism is absurd.
With respect to Harris’s nuclear war scenario, Hedges’s essay would lead one to believe that Harris advocates an immediate military strike on the entire Islamic world. It is quite clear that Harris’s reason for discussing this point was to raise our consciousness about the dangers of allowing a bin Laden-type, or a despot who shares his ideas, to accumulate weapons of mass destruction.
Another distinction: The individuals who carry out civilian attacks because of Islamic extremism are mentored and trained by Islamists, who often take responsibility for planning the attacks and commend the Mujahideen for their bravery. To my knowledge, no secularist has come out in support of Breivik’s massacre.
A better explanation is that the attack in Norway had little to do with multiculturalism, secularism, Christianity or immigration and had much to do with Breivik being insane.
At the end of his essay, Hedges reaffirms his belief in the staticity of morality and human nature, challenging the notion of social progress. While it is certainly true that there remain innumerable problems in the world, many of which are insoluble at present, it would be irresponsible to ignore the improvements that have been made vis-à-vis slavery, women’s rights and the success of international diplomacy in many countries, both Western and Eastern. The oppression of women, gays, Christians and non-believers is at its worst in countries ruled by the Islamic beliefs that are criticized by the New Atheists, not in states who govern their affairs through the secular democratic method.
Belief in church/state separation does not threaten the ability of innocent Muslims to observe their religion. Secularism, which Hedges attacks as extreme, is rooted in respect for free conscience, ethical progress and democracy, without which none of our culture’s social progressions could have been possible. Fundamentalism, indeed.
When critics of Islam point out that the Koran contains verses that justify the subjugation of women and incite hatred toward non-Muslims, they are not doing so to be recreationally mean to people. Rather, they do this because the importance of Koranic inerrancy and infallibility to orthodox Islamic beliefs has real consequences, especially when these beliefs are exploited by Islamists to further their own objectives.
The fact that one reasonably-literate Norwegian psychopath may agree with this concern does not make it any less true or important, nor does it remove any of the responsibility for this attack from the man himself. Instead, it gives ammunition to people like Chris Hedges, who take every opportunity to slander secularism using faulty reasoning and emotionally-charged language. The sort of tolerant society desired by Hedges can only be attained through the secular principles of free inquiry and open discourse, which are not fundamentalist in any possible way.
|Jackson Doughart||jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com|