Religion played a central role in an event that transfixed the world in late July – twin attacks that killed 77 people in Norway. Anders Breivik, who confessed to the attacks, was clearly motivated by hatred of Muslim immigrants to Europe, but there remains much debate over his own Christian faith and how ideology shaped his decision to act.
Faith Exchange panelists have convened to discuss this case and the sensitive topic of religious extremism. Readers, if you choose to join the commentary, please do so as our panelists have – in the spirit of debate, rather than hostility.
Vettivelu Nallainayagam is an associate professor of economics at Mount Royal University. He is Hindu, originally from Sri Lanka, and has been in Canada since 1984. He has served as president of the Calgary Multicultural Centre and the Ethno-Cultural Council of Calgary, and has arranged multi-faith panels to talk about religion to students in the residences at Mount Royal.
Howard Voss-Altman has been serving Temple B’nai Tikvah, Calgary’s Reform Jewish congregation, for the past eight years. He is a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.
Sheema Khan writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail. She has a master’s degree in physics and a PhD in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and executive producer of Listen Up TV on Global TV, Sundays at 11 a.m. Eastern time.
Moderator Guy Nicholson edits The Globe’s online Comment page. He professes no religious beliefs.
Guy Nicholson: Thanks for taking the time to join us. Panelists, there has been a lot of debate ( here, here and here, for example) about the extent to which Anders Breivik was influenced by ideology described as right wing and Christian. Do you see this as a case of religious extremism?
Lorna Dueck: As I read through Mr. Breivik’s manifesto of hate, I felt sick to my stomach, as I recognized it clearly had distortions of evangelical theology implicit in its pages. Many other ideologies are quoted in its 1,500 pages, but as an evangelical Christian, it’s alarming how many times Christian thought comes up. It’s clear he believed God may have a special power for him, and that at the end of his life, he would be judged by God. He justified his violence with biblical passages, he distorted Christianity to be a dominant race rather than a belief. However, it’s too narrow to call this a case of religious extremism. It had the religious element in it, as a case of ideological extremism.
Vettivelu Nallainayagam: I am of the opinion that all the world’s religions have fanatics who do not understand the true teaching of their faiths. I therefore will not fault religions for the behaviour of some of the misguided people. We can fight against such a trend only by working together and creating a better understanding of and respect for different religions and cultures.
Sheema Khan: The New York Times refers to Mr. Breivik as a “self-described Christian Crusader” in accordance with his manifesto. Mr. Breivik indicates in his writing that he is not particularly religious, but, nonetheless, prays to God to prevent the influx of Muslims into Europe. He makes numerous references to the Crusades, and pines for a pristine “Christian” Europe. So there are numerous references to Christian symbolism.
His murderous actions and thoughts were definitely extreme, but I would describe this more as extreme nationalism wrapped up in Christian garb, totally opposite from the spirit of the message brought by Jesus. Muslims have had to grapple with extremism in similar vein – namely al-Qaeda, whose political goals mirror those of Mr. Breivik: lands that are “pure” with populations of adherents of a specific faith. In both cases, religion is used as a cover to act on personal grievances. Nonetheless, we need to keep a critical eye on these developments, and counteract the false arguments used by extremists.
Howard Voss-Altman: Mr. Breivik wrote that he is not a particularly religious person, and based on his horrific conduct, who could disagree? However, the issue we must deal with concerns the inflammatory rhetoric of a so-called “Christian Europe” about to be overrun by an invading Muslim horde. We hear this kind of rhetoric in certain right-wing circles, and I believe it played a very important role in Mr. Breivik’s twisted world view. This is not a matter of religion, per se. It is the conflation of “Christian” identity with a nation or even a continent. Such thinking, as history teaches us, can be extremely destructive.