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Faith Exchange: In Norway, faith and fanaticism

The Globe and Mail

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.


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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?

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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.

Sheema, I think religious or nationalist extremism comes into play when adherents are certain they are right, and accordingly, everyone else must be wrong, or damned, or infidels. Religious and/or political certainty fuels a potentially murderous fire. I agree with you that Mr. Breivik's "Crusader" ideology shares the same side of the coin with al-Qaeda; in both cases, the fear of modernity (and its global implications) led to mass murder.

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Guy Nicholson: I would agree with you, Howard. Mr. Breivik seems to have been obsessed with internal and external threats to his cultural identity, definitely including his religion (Christianity) but also other things (socialism, modern ideas of gender equality, political correctness), rather than espousing a fundamentalist vision – as advocates for a religious state might, for instance.

And the parallels to al-Qaeda's brand of extremism are many. What other obvious comparisons could be made, in other faiths and other times?

Lorna Dueck: Our own Air India tragedy, the Gandhi assassinations, the Iranian revolution, Sri Lanka's unrest, Sudan's civil war – sadly, global politics is rife with examples.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: As I said in my opening statement, no religion is an exception to religious fanaticism. I have seen religious intolerance among Hindus and Buddhists, though not to the extent of al-Qaeda.

Sheema Khan: Since I am originally from India, I do follow events there. In 1992, the Babri Masjid was destroyed in Ayodhya by Hindu extremists, which started a cycle of religious violence resulting in 2,000 deaths. The courts ruled just last fall on dividing the disputed land between Hindus (who were awarded two-thirds of the land) and Muslims (one-third). The case may be appealed to the Supreme Court of India. Nonetheless, the judicial route has provided an alternative to violence.

In the recent past, there have been horrific attacks in India (namely, Bombay and New Delhi) by Muslim extremists (allegedly from Pakistan). It should be noted that one of the extremists who was killed during the Bombay attacks was refused burial by Bombay's Muslim community. They denounced him and refused to accord him a Muslim burial, saying his actions were completely against the faith.

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As this is Ramadan, there is the example of Baruch Goldstein, who massacred Palestinians praying in a mosque in Hebron. This was a case of Jewish religious extremism that has been denounced by many Jews (although a hard-core fringe element still pays homage). Sadly, there are many more examples that can be provided. I'll stop here.

Howard Voss-Altman: I would like to add that Goldstein is another tragic example of religious certainty intertwined with nationalist extremism. There are Jewish settlers who revere his memory, but the vast, vast majority of the Jewish people look upon him for what he was: a sick, fanatical murderer.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: Guy, you correctly identified some of the factors other than religion that shaped Mr. Breivik's views. He was against multiculturalism, and this is a major challenge for Western countries. When European leaders express misgivings about multiculturalism, we are going to many who will view it as a threat rather than a strength of Western societies. Canada may be the only exception to this because of better integration of immigrants from different cultures.

Howard Voss-Altman: Which leads to another interesting question. Does Canada truly embrace multiculturalism? Just because it's in the Charter does not mean it is accepted or embraced. Perhaps that's a topic for another day. But as a religious minority, multicultural issues remain very much at the forefront of our lives.

Guy Nicholson: I sure hope you're right, Nallai. I think it's entirely possible to see something like this happen here.

Sheema Khan: With regards to multiculturalism, the flashpoints are far greater in Quebec than elsewhere – this is a whole topic on its own. Nonetheless, we are seeing glimpses here and there (the most contentious being the faith-based arbitration debate in Ontario. I think the key lies in divergence within society regarding the place of religious belief in personal and public affairs. Canada, like most of Europe, has a far lower profession of faith than the United States. There is also the key issue of gender equality. So absorbing immigrants into our ever-changing fabric will require much work, as the immigrant pool shifts more to South Asia and the Middle East.

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I may be wrong, but most Canadians value diversity as long as diversity doesn't "rock the boat." Remember the heated debates during the time when a Sikh officer was seeking to wear his turban as a member of the RCMP? That issue was resolved, but is emblematic of the continuous struggle to merge the values and beliefs of newer Canadians with established Canadian traditions and values.

Howard Voss-Altman: I could not agree more, Sheema. But can we say we accept a multicultural society when any attempt to "rock the boat" is met with swift denunciation? In many ways, when minorities assert their uniquely individual rights, the response of the larger society is, "Why can't they be more like us?" In short, multiculturalism is fine as long as the status quo remains exactly as it should be.

Lorna Dueck: When multiculturalism is feared, I think people of faith have so much to contribute. The Golden Rule is common in all our religious traditions, and the teachings of Jesus, respected by all our faiths, push us even further than that "rule" to do unto each other as we would have done to us. Those teachings show us the way to not only love neighbours but love those far outside ourselves, including enemies. That is a gift the faith conversation can bring to multiculturalism.

Meanwhile, am I the only one who wonders why media analysis tiptoed around the religion question? We heard quickly from a variety of authors and activists who were quoted in the manifesto, such as Mark Steyn, Melanie Phillips and Geert Wilders, but analysis on the fight for cultural Christendom was not explored.

Howard Voss-Altman: Lorna, I think such questions would have been too complicated for a journalistic culture covering such a sensational story. Questions of Europe's Christian identity, its failure to assimilate religious minorities and whether things have significantly changed since the Holocaust are simply too complex for full treatment. The influence of right-wing essayists plays much more easily into a black-and-white world. Issues of religious and national identity and the perceived threats to such identity constitutes a much more important subject.

Lorna Dueck: Couldn't journalists be asked to phone Christian history professors and inquire?

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Howard Voss-Altman: Yes, but the media decided the story was political and not religious in nature. "Christian identity" has been turned into a term of xenophobia, not faith.

Guy Nicholson: This very newspaper ran a piece by a Christian analyst who concluded that these attacks shouldn't be understood as an issue of religion but as an issue of not enough religion.

Lorna Dueck: Yes – and it was excellent – it was religion answering the question of what went wrong, not religion being ignored.

Guy Nicholson: This is a good point you've raised, Lorna. If the media did soft-pedal religion, was it because the other ideology put on its heels here, far-rightism, is more universally under attack? (More so than religion, even!)

Lorna Dueck: Or, Guy, did that happen because the religious ideology is so hard to access? We have staunch secularists trying to navigate motivations, and the literacy needed to understand religious motivations on situations that are happening all around the globe may be lacking.

Guy Nicholson: That's an issue even in this very conversation – I can't possibly ask the questions that you, our panelists, might ask of yourselves.

Lorna Dueck: Note to self: Sponsor media chair in religious studies at leading journalism colleges. :)

Guy Nicholson: Did you see any examples of mainstream media trying and failing on religion during coverage of the Norway attacks?

Lorna Dueck: Well, the best I saw was this item. What's encouraging to me about this blogger is that Dr. Thistlethwaite is trained and engaged in public theology. We need a lot more of that. Even our esteemed Globe and Mail took only that one religion item on the many pages of analysis it published online and in print. Global issues are going to need much more religious analysis. Reporters need to get comfortable with parsing out what is going on in churches, mosques, belief systems etc.

Worth reading on this is Blind Spot – When Journalists Don't Get Religion , by authors from the Hudson Institute and more than a dozen streams of thought in the United States.

Guy Nicholson: Back to our case study in Norway. Many religiously motivated "warriors" of the past – the Saladins, the Joans of Arc etc. – have become revered as icons, at least by the heirs to their beliefs. How is someone like Mr. Breivik, who believed he was igniting a long religious-cultural struggle, different from such figures?

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: The only difference is that we now live in a totally changed world. Most Western societies have let in people from different backgrounds and are trying to build a new society based on respect for each other's religion and culture. The majority of the population supports this change. In this context, a crusader like Mr. Breivik cannot be compared to a Joan of Arc.

Howard Voss-Altman: Past martyrs or religious fanatics were working with limited knowledge in a prescientific age. Religious faith was buttressed by events that could not have been understood and therefore were attributed to a supernatural God. However, in a postscientific era, we are confronted, in theory, by too much knowledge, threatening every certainty we might have ever believed. Thus, with no absolute truth to secure our faith, people lash out, desperate to reimpose order and certainty. When confronted by danger – physically or emotionally – we often respond with destruction.

Lorna Dueck: Only time will tell if he continues to be despised. It's not the ideologies that do the evil, it's always the person. A strong belief in our Christian theology is that the human race is prone to sin and destruction. We have no guarantee that one day there won't rise a movement that reveres what Mr. Breivik attempted. (I'll save my redemption beliefs for another time.)

Guy Nicholson: My last question for the day: Can ideology alone – including religious ideology – drive someone to extremism? Someone who would not otherwise be capable of it?

Lorna Dueck: Absolutely not. The human mind is not helpless to resist ideology. We have enormous capacity for free will.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: I certainly believe that ideology can drive people to extremism. It is a powerful weapon in the hands of manipulators, and I have see many cases of people being driven to violence and killing in all major religions and cultures in the name of an ideology. Even in the United States, we have seen people resorting to murder purely based on ideology. Examples are too numerous to list here.

Howard Voss-Altman: I agree with Lorna. Religious or political ideology alone will never be enough to drive someone to extremism. I will add as a caveat, however, that entire societies (Nazi Germany) can be so caught up in eliminating perceived threats that totally horrific behaviour simply becomes acceptable. In those instances, society can put a check on such behaviour or encourage it. Personally, I admire Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who clearly stated that his country's response to Mr. Breivik would be more democracy, not less. With such courageous leaders, Norway will continue to be famous for seeking peace.

Guy Nicholson: My own feeling is that it can – that there can be a range of outcomes inspired by ideology or ideas. Not to absolve someone of their personal responsibility, but it seems to me the very purpose of ideology is to inspire or motivate action on some level.

Howard Voss-Altman: I agree entirely, Guy. But there has to be more – socially, psychologically – that moves someone from disgust into actual violence. It's a big step that most people – thank goodness – will not take.

Lorna Dueck: And we are seeing extremism come from radicalization of ideologies found in religion, environmentalism, atheism, the list goes on. Eventually it comes back to the question of me. We bear full responsibility for our decision to act on our beliefs.

Sheema Khan: I agree completely with Lorna. Each individual is responsible for the moral choices she or he makes. This includes who one decides to associate with, which ideas to promote, how to treat people etc. One can't just say, "The ideology made me do it." I might add that the anonymity of the Internet provides cover for so many cowards to say things they would not otherwise say. As a society, we should be promoting personal responsibility for one's actions.

Lorna Dueck: Yes, technology has accelerated the ability to break boundaries. Moral taboos fall far easier in the anonymity of a text message, a blog post, of reading corrupt material online … we may not have been quick enough to place wisdom alongside our communication advances.

And Howard, while they were far too few, I recall the wonderful heroes of both Islam and Christianity who fought the Nazi ideology and rescued Jews. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, found guilty in a plot to kill Hitler, chided his church, saying that if the train were going in the wrong direction, one was responsible for jumping off the train.

Sheema Khan: One final thought: It seems that the extremists are driving the agenda for the rest of us. Why is this happening? Why have the likes of Mr. Breivik and Osama bin Laden had such influence? Perhaps the "middle" ground needs to be more forceful in combatting the extreme voices – not through violence, but by arduous vigilance and arguments to combat the lies and propaganda spread by people like Mr. Wilders and Pamela Geller.

We also need to encourage and promote values of pluralism, democracy etc. in our societies. It will be interesting to see exactly how Norway promotes more openness as a means to strengthen the fabric of civil society. We should not be complacent but, rather, dynamic in our efforts to create a vibrant, inclusive society. Let's learn from what Norway has to offer. So far, their leadership has been a moral beacon. And again – let us not wait for our politicians to lead, but take the initiative ourselves.

Guy Nicholson: We're out of time – thanks to all for joining this month's discussion.

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