This is not a political blog, but sometimes something happens that gives an urgent feeling to express oneself. The horrible events in Oslo and at Utøya Friday 22 July were of this sort. I happened to have recently returned to Norway for a summer vacation, passing close by the bomb site Friday morning, then to watch the utterly absurd situation unfold on television in Trondheim that afternoon. Like the rest of the country, I have been pretty much glued to the TV screen since then. I have also spent considerable time reading the perpetrator’s 1500 page “manifesto” trying to identify, analyse and dissect motivations and ideological underpinnings, and engaging in long and sometimes heated discussions with friends about all this.
The amount of words that has been written about this on blogs, social media and in mainstream newspapers is already skyrocketing, and I will not attempt to make any general contribution to that here. My own thoughts on what this all means (or ought to mean) for the current political climate, and for the criticism of ideologies were expressed in a much clearer and poignant style than I could have managed, by the Norwegian blogger Bjørn Stærk. Many other bloggers and commentators have expressed similarly important points over the last few days, and I do not intend to repeat them.
Instead, there are some reflections related to the whole tragedy which are relevant to this blog. Although I have only very rarely written about political aspects, Heterodoxology is also concerned with the heterodox in politics. What that means exactly is not altogether clear, but let me use it as a pretext to introduce some reflections on the relation between the ideology expounded by Anders Behring Breivik and some of the religious and even esoteric esthetic and rhetoric baked into it.
First, the by now well-known basics. Right before the attacks, Anders Behring Breivik (writing under the pseudonym Andrew Berwick) issued the manifesto called 2083: A European Declaration of Independence. Although the author copied liberally from various sources, he claimed to have spent nine years and 300.000 Euros preparing the text. That price, however, was nothing “compared to the sacrifices made in relation to the distribution of this book, the actual marketing operation”. The bloodiest marketing operation in the history of publishing, no doubt, and clearly an effective one.
Substantial parts of the manifesto have been copied directly from blog posts and articles written by “counterjihadist” writers and ideologues, particularly by the anonymous Norwegian blogger Fjordman. Ideologically, the manifesto places itself within a broader configuration of ideas and worldviews expounded on blogs such as The Brussels Journal, Gates of Vienna, and Jihad-Watch. Additionally, there is a continuum here to political understandings and views of the world that are expressed also, and increasingly, within the political mainstream of the European parliamentary systems – through parties such as the Dutch PVV, the Sweden Democrats, the Norwegian Peoples’ Party (FrP), the True Finns, and most extremely perhaps, the Hungarian Jobbik party. In this sense, at least, the core elements of Breivik’s ideology are not “heterodox” in the sense of falling far outside the limits of what’s considered legitimate political expressions in Europe today. The violent conclusions to which he took it, on the other hand, are clearly without parallel today, and we (and our governments and law enforcers) should fight vigilantly to make sure it stays that way.
The basic tenets of the ideology, shared by spokespersons deep inside the political mainstream, are simple. 1) Islam is equated with Nazism/Fascism, and seen as an existential and formidable threat to European civilization. 2) The political establishment, and particularly the Left, is blamed for allowing “the Islamization of Europe” to happen, and typically considered to be “traitors”. 3) Hence, the twin enemies of European culture are identified as socialist and social-democratic politics on the one hand, and Islam on the other.
Breivik’s radicalism consists in taking up arms, and directing his ideologically motivated strike against what he sees as the “cultural Marxists” and “Quislings” of the Norwegian Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet). Breivik is a radical revolutionary conservative (it is natural to think about the conservative revolutionary movement in Weimar Germany to find ideological kinship, although highly differing contexts need to be accounted for), and it is the revolutionary part which truly sets him apart from the numerous non-violent proponents of similar worldviews and ideologies.
It is precisely in connection with his militant revolutionary stance that symbols, mythology, and planned social structures which may offer some superficial suggestion of Western esotericism start popping up. In Book Three of the manifesto, Breivik builds his revolutionary strategy around a revived Order of the Knights Templar, PCCTS (Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici; the official name of the historical Knights Templar). He poses in full Freemasonic regalia, indicating a 3rd degree of the local St. John’s Lodge of the Norwegian Order of Freemasons which he was a member of until getting expelled once his actions became public knowledge.
There is even an initiation ritual which, “as you obviously do not have access to the Temple of Solomon (as it currently lies in ruin bellow the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem)” will have to be performed with “the second best option, a solid rock (shaped somewhat as a cubic altar) resembling an actual stone altar”:
“Prior to the rite, you, as a Justiciar Knight candidate, are described as a “poor candidate”, in a burdened state of darkness, which is figurative of being in a state of the darkest ignorance surrounded by negative influences (chains/burdens) preventing you from being a Knight and doing the right thing. The properties of stability and strength of the stone altar is being communicated to the oath contributing to making it inviolable. Furthermore, you are to print out the text (the oath) and sign it with your own blood, and subsequently burn it on the “altar”.”
What do the references to Freemasonry, initiation rituals and Templarism mean in this context? Is there an “esoteric connection”?
The initial answer should be: Not really. Breivik in fact states explicitly in the manifesto that the Order is a fictitious one, which only illustrates how a revolutionary campaign could look like. In that scheme, which he is obviously doing everything he can to bring from fiction to reality, the Knights Templar seem little more than a fancy name for a guerilla military/terrorist organisation, with the intended symbolic force of medieval Christianity and crusade rhetoric. It obviously looks nothing like the historical Knights Templar, but neither does it resemble in any substantial or even structural way the countless neo-Templar esoteric orders that have formed out of esoteric currents over the last couple of centuries. Any connection seems purely esthetic, purely superficial, and we find no obvious trace of any direct and thought-through engagement with esoteric discourses.
But that is, perhaps, a superficial response to a superficial use of the esoteric. May this esthetic and thematic overlap signify something else, something which has perhaps less to do with Breivik’s own conscious motivations, but is still linked to deeper structures in Western culture and identity? Maybe.
This is not the first time that Templarism gets connected with right-wing politics – we have, notably, Lanz von Liebenfels‘
Ordo Novi Templi (founded 1907), with its racist and “ariosophical” Theozoologie. The connection between esotericism and right-wing politics has lived on in the public imagination throughout the post-war era, and there do obviously exist several groups and spokespersons advocating views that rest on this fusion. From radical traditionalists to esoteric Hitlerists, esoteric imagery, ideas, themes, symbolism and related mythology have provided motifs in certain right-wing movements and philosophies. Sometimes in more substantial ways, but mostly, as with Breivik, not beyond the esthetic level.
Why is this so? I would turn to some of my colleagues in search of the beginnings of an answer. Wouter Hanegraaff once proposed the notion of a “Grand Polemical Narrative” at play in Western culture, which has, through various historical periods created a category of “rejected” and often quite stigmatised knowledges (a more updated version will be available in his new book). It starts with the rejection of Paganism and magic as dangerous and perverted religions, a process which is still strongly present during the Protestant Reformation. It continues with the rejection of “occult sciences”, and related things like Rosicrucianism and secret societies, as ridiculous and irrational fantasies, during and following the Enlightenment. Crudely put, what was at stake was the construction of Western cultural identity, first as monotheistically Christian, then as rational and scientific, and arguably in our own days, as secular, humanistic, and tolerant.
The point here is that the esoteric in Western culture in large part has emerged from and been connected to - almost to the extent of being coextensive with - everything in the world of thought that has been rejected in these successive struggles over the identity of the European mind and culture. But the irony is that, following the Enlightenment especially, the “waste basket” has become a natural place to start for opposing voices. Whether the discontent be preoccupied with religion, science, philosophy or politics, exotic “alternatives” are plenty in the reservoir of esoteric ideas and motifs.
Given this structural affinity between rejected elements of the past, and given that what we call esotericism is somehow baked into these modes of cultural change and innovation, we may have a reason why “the esoteric” may surface in revolutionary conservative ideologies. These are, after all, movements which are built on something of a reversal of the “GPN”, at least up to a point. A version of this argument is advanced by Jacob C. Senholt, in his article for the forthcoming volume on Contemporary Esotericism.
Perhaps this does not explain much, but it does provide a nuanced answer to those who might want to start talking about a right-wing “esoterrorism”: No, we should not consider Brevik’s neo-Templar terrorist fantasies a “proper part of” Western esotericism as such. But neither is the presence of esoteric motifs entirely coincidental, and in fact we do find other traces of this within segments of the European New Right (Nouvelle Droite). In fact, however, when the esoteric links with politics in modern history it is almost always connected with various “countercultural” movements, and these may very well be on the left as on the right. Consider for example the utopian Socialist Spiritualists of the 19th century, and the connection between esoteric ideas culled primarily from Theosophy and Anthroposophy on the leftist counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. It is as if an ideological critique of (or revolt against) modernity which seeks to incorporate a religious dimension hardly ever escapes the esoteric – whether the revolt comes from the left or the right.
This has taken us pretty far afield from the blood-splattered horrific realities in Oslo and on Utøya last Friday, and even from the explicit motivations and influences of Anders Behring Breivik. But it is not escapism. As so many other commentators have explored all possible and impossible aspects of ideology, psychopathology, social networks etc. over the last few days, the possible esoteric connection does also deserve scrutiny.
It also sheds some light on the question of religion in Breivik’s motivations, a topic which, among others, Massimo Introvigne has written about over at CESNUR. As Introvigne shows, the “Christian Fundamentalist” label which was tossed around quite a lot does obviously not fit at all. Instead, the strong Judeo-Christian element of Breivik’s ideological discourse is itself motivated by identity politics. One only has to read from the manifesto to confirm this. Breivik does not hide the fact that he considers himself a “cultural Christian” rather than a “religious” one:
“Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.”
In fact, the existing institutions of Christendom are all seen as corrupt, weak and “suicidal”, and a thorough reform of Christianity is another of Breivik’s revolutionary aims. This would be a different church indeed, and it would include much of what has been “rejected” through earlier phases of European identity politics. Including “Odinism”:
“as a Norwegian, I am extremely proud of my Odinistic/Norse heritage as it is an essential aspect of my culture and my identity. However, things aren’t black and white. Supporting the Christian cultural heritage does not automatically mean you hate Odinism or vice versa. … The Odinists needs to understand that the Church they hate is the cultural Marxist Church and not the real Church. The Church I love doesn’t exist anymore because it has been deconstructed. However, I know that it can be reformed and that it again will embrace and propagate principles of strength, honour and self defense. Instead of abandoning the Church we will save it and re-create it as a nationalistic Church which will tolerate and allow (to a very large degree) native cultures/heritage/thought systems such as Odinism.”
Odinism is another reconstructed religion of the 20th century, aiming to revive something (Norse paganism) which got rejected and stomped out of Western identity centuries ago. It is another construction of elements from the wastebasket of European culture which has been intimately tied to right-wing politics, and which does exist in other segments of the European New Right as well. Putting pre-conceived ideas of theological consistency aside, then, we should not be too surprised to find that Breivik has a place for it in his new, cultural Christendom of the post-civil war “new European renaissance” that he fantasises about.
So, finally, what do these connections tell us about esotericism as a context for cruelty of this magnitude? Can we expect slippery-slope arguments of the “from esotericism to esoterrorism”-type to start cropping up? Not likely. In this case, the esoteric elements are after all relatively vague, unsubstantial and seemingly unimportant, at any rate overshadowed by much clearer ideological elements.
This also goes for the strange connection with modern LaVeyian Satanism which Introvigne tries to construct in his otherwise well-informed article:
“interestingly enough [the manifesto], was first made publicly available on the Internet by Kevin Slaughter, an ordained minister in Anton LaVey (1930-1997)’s Church of Satan which, by the way, has a sizeable following in Norway.”
No, it really hasn’t, and there are no references whatsoever to Satanism or LaVey in the manifesto itself. Neither is the spurious link strengthened by stuff like this:
“In a way, it is not surprising that Breivik had friends even in LaVey’s Church of Satan. The latter became popular in Scandinavia by flirting with right-wing extremists with an anti-immigration agenda and, rather than occultism, emphasized a “rationalist” approach to a celebration of freedom and capitalism largely based on the writings of the Russian-born American novelist Ayn Rand (1905-1982). Rand is listed by both LaVey and Breivik among their favorite authors (of course, this is not to suggest that the Church of Satan had anything to do with the Oslo tragedy).”
Hardly very convincing, and I cannot see why it is so important for Introvigne (a sometimes Satanism expert, who now seems very shaky on the geographical spread of the current he has researched) to link Breivik to LaVey. There is more than enough to talk about in the actual material.
I, for one, find Breivik’s Odinism-friendly counterjihadist initiatic Templar terrorism bizarre enough.
This work by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.