Terror in the Mind of Who? A response to Mark Juergensmeyer on Breivik’s Christianity (and much besides)

The question of whether or not, or in what sense, the 22/7 Oslo terrorist Anders Behring Breivik is a “Christian”, and to what extent his Christianity had anything to do with his motivations to kill, has stirred up some debate. In my first post on Breivik I referred to sociologist of religion Massimo Introvigne’s refutation of the “Christian Fundamentalist” label, a label that really makes very little sense. More recently, however, other scholars of religion have insisted on emphasising Breivik’s Christianity, although refraining from categorizing it as Fundamentalism. At the University of Chicago the well-known American historian of religion Martin E. Marty writes about Breivik the Protestant. Meanwhile, another American scholar of note, Mark Juergensmeyer, insists that we see Breivik as a “Christian terrorist”.

Mark Juergensmeyer, expert on religious violence, and former president of the American Academy of Religion.

Juergensmeyer’s analysis, which was published in the Huffington Post and in an extended version at Religion Dispatches, has received much attention online, in official media channels and on blogs. It was also recently translated into Norwegian, after which it has attracted some criticism in the Norwegian blog circuit. Seeing as Juergensmeyer is an influential and well-regarded scholar, an expert of religious terrorism and violence, it becomes all the more important to engage seriously with the ideas he has put forward and raise some points of criticism. In what follows, I will take Juergensmeyer’s reflections on the “Christian terrorist” as a starting point for offering some further reflections of my own on Breivik’s religion, particularly the role of Christianity, the Counterjihadist context, his flirtation with Odinism, and end with a reflection on the broader right-wing lunatic fringe in which these and other ideas circulate. So let’s get on with it.

In his article in the Huffington Post, Juergensmeyer argues that  Breivik, like Timothy McVeigh, is essentially a “Christian terrorist”:

“Many Christians cringe when Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik is described as a “Christian terrorist.” But that is what he is.

It is true that Breivik was much more concerned about politics and history than about scripture and religious belief. But much the same can be said about Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other Muslim terrorists. … So if bin Laden was a Muslim terrorist, Breivik is a Christian terrorist”

Since labelling al Qaeda an “Islamic” or “Muslim” terrorist organisation has become something of a convention, despite central ideologues being arguably just as much interested in global politics and a rhetoric of cultural hegemony, the logic goes that Behring Breivik’s terrorist acts, legitimated by a similar mixture of religion and politics, are justifiably labelled “Christian”.

So far so good, although one could just as well use the same argument to deconstruct the “Muslim” qualifier of terrorist attacks that are legitimated (among other things) by references to Islam, or for that matter the “Jewishness” of terrorism justified by narratives derived from Judaism.

Less convincing is Juergensmeyer’s strangely picked example of just how “Christian” Breivik really is:

“The symbol that Breivik designed for his movement, and that was made into a medallion in India, portrays a cross penetrating a skull on which are scrawled the crescent symbol of Islam, the Marxist hammer and sickle, and the Nazi swastika. How much more Christian can you get?”

Breivik's "Badge of the Justiciar Knight".

The symbol referred to is Breivik’s “Badge of the Justiciar Knight” that he had designed by an artist in Varanasi, India. I fail to see what’s so essentially Christian about a cross-shaped dagger crushing a skull with symbols of Islam, Communism, and Nazism on it. One would need something quite a bit more substantial to make a convincing argument for a straight-forward Christian connection.

Instead, we seem left with a particularly militant expression of symbolism derived from the Counterjihadist movement.

These faults aside, one shouldn’t dismiss the relevance of Juergensmeyer’s general approach to religion and violence to the events of 22/7 entirely. Consider, for example, that a  major point of his acclaimed book, Terror in the Mind of God, was that a religious background never monocausally leads to, nor fully explains, specific acts of violence. What religions may do, however, is providing the “mores and symbols” through which such acts of violence are understood, legitimated, even seen as necessary and good. The religiously symbolic dimension of such acts of violence often take place within a preconceived state of war, typically a Manichean struggle between forces and agents of Ultimate Evil and the righteous soldiers of Go(o)d – what Juergensmeyer calls “cosmic war”.

This may at first sight fit Breivik much better, as he believes himself to fight a lonely war against the roots of evil that he identifies with the internal enemy of Marxism/multiculturalism/feminism and the external enemy of Islam. At least that is  the case Juergensmeyer attempts to make, and fleshes out in some more detail in the Religion Dispatches version of his article.

Another concept for which Juergensmeyer is known is the notion that religious terrorism is “performance violence”:

“like religious ritual or street theater, they are dramas designed to have an impact on the several audiences that they affect. Those who witness the violence – even at a distance, via the news media – are therefore a part of what occurs.” (p. 124)

That there is a performative aspect to Breivik’s attacks is without doubt. It is mythologised and fictionalised through the narrative of a secret Templar terrorist organization drawn up in the manifesto. The trial ensuing after getting caught alive is even described as a stage, through which the terrorist can reach a worldwide audience. It’s performance all the way down.

For Juergensmeyer, “performance violence” is closely linked with empowerment. Through perpetrating carefully scripted acts of violence against highly symbolic targets, which are given meaning in terms of a war of cosmic proportions, the individuals and groups involved create an illusion of control and power.

While this aspect may be important for many religiously motivated terrorists, it seems less of a fit when applied to Behring Breivik, something which, again, questions the usefulness of labelling him a “Christian terrorist” fighting a Christian flavoured “cosmic war” in the Juergensmeyeran sense. A curious feature of the Counterjihadists is that, while they in reality represent demographical groups which are dominant and in all relevant ways empowered in Western societies (politically as well as socioeconomically and culturally), they have nevertheless created a discourse in which they cast themselves as disempowered (i.e. by “Marxist” elites and a “tsunami” of Muslim immigrants), and their own existence as being under threat. An act of performance violence on this background can, perhaps, be seen as an act of empowerment, but in that case it is based on a completely paranoid distortion of reality and of one’s own relative power.

In addition, a discussion of empowerment also has to take into account psychological aspects of the perpetrator. With Behring Breivik it seems like low self-esteem or feelings of disempowerment have never been any issue. Instead, speculations that he might be a severe case of narcissistic personality disorder seem not entirely out of place.

A final problem with this reading of Breivik concerns Juergensmeyer’s concept of a Manichean “cosmic war”. While a state of war is certainly imagined and used for all it is worth in Breivik’s manifesto and by the many who agree with his views on multiculturalism and Muslim immigration, the war is “Manichean” only in the sense of representing a grossly dualistic attribution of evil, but not at all in the sense of being a cosmic war with truly transcendent goals and rewards. Behring Breivik’s war, like the war of his fellow Counterjihadists, is here and now (even though the “now” gets extended until 2083 in his self-professed fictional account of the future). It’s about the identity of Europe, not about salvation or the ultimate fate of the cosmos.

So, we are back with radical identity politics, and Christianity as a cultural marker. In that regard it is worth mentioning that Behring Breivik explicitly sympathises with groups fighting for similar monocultural values in their own regions, and that this some times leads to arguments against the spread of Christendom. For example, Breivik expresses deep respect for the Indian Hindutva movement (Hindu nationalists), not only because they share a common enemy in Islam, but also because their agendas of identity politics are structurally very close to each other.

Breivik even comes out against Christian conversion efforts in India, as a shameful crime against the Indian nation. From the manifesto:

“The UPA (incumbent government) relies on appeasing Muslims and very sadly proselytising Christian missionaries who illegally convert low caste Hindus with lies and fear alongside Communists who want total destruction of the Hindu faith and culture. … India will continue to wither and die unless the Indian nationalists consolidate properly and strike to win. It is essential that the European and Indian resistance movements learn from each other and cooperate as much as possible. Our goals are more or less identical.

The PCCTS, Knights Templar support the Sanatana Dharma movements and Indian nationalists in general.”

The priority of nationalist identity politics over religion “for its own sake” doesn’t stop there. In the imagined European war, Christianity is only one cultural marker among other possible ones. We should remind again that Breivik discussed at some length his respect for ostensibly pre-Christian European identities, such as Odinism.

As mentioned briefly in my first post on this topic, Odinism denotes a particular approach to reconstructionist Norse neopaganism (otherwise Åsatru) that has often been linked with right-wing politics in the past, and particularly with racism/racialism. This is an issue which has been highly controversial within pagan communities, where it has sparked intense internal polemics over the years. In Norway, this sort of racist neopagan religion, which main goal is to expound extreme (and often vulgar) right-wing political ideas, have had several expressions, of which the most well-known are probably the now defunct Odinist group Vigrid, led by Tore Tvedt, and the various efforts of black metal pioneer, arsonist, and murderer Varg Vikernes.

In his manifesto, Breivik explains why Odinism simply wasn’t good enough for his uses.

“Odinism is significant for the Nordic countries but it does not have the potency to unite us against such a devastating force as Islam, cultural Marxism/multiculturalism and capitalist globalism.”

This is precisely where Christianity comes in:

“In order to protect your culture you need, at the very minimum, strong, uniting symbols representing your culture. In this context, the cross is the unrivalled as it is the most potent European symbol. I have had this discussion with many Odinists, and even they understand this.”

In the Q&A section which follows, Breivik continues this thoroughly pragmatic and instrumentalist line:

Q: Why did you choose an allegiance to a group with Christian values and pan-European goals instead of a purely national/regional group?

A: Many have asked this question. My choice has nothing to do with the fact that I am not proud [sic!!] of my own traditions and heritage. My choice was based purely [on] pragmatism.”

While he had considered an Odinist outlook, Breivik continues, he chose Christianity instead, the basic argument being that it provides a broader and better platform from which to launch a cultural war on behalf of his imagined monocultural Europe.

All of this makes Juergensmeyer’s reading of Breivik as a Christian terrorist seem problematic and somewhat simplistic. Religion for him is explicitly a tool to achieve worldly ends – not a provider of references for “cosmic war”. The script for the battle was rather found in a certain political and cultural discourse (Counterjihadism, islamophobia, etc.), built around defining “European culture” and fighting perceived internal and external “threats”. Religion is built over this, as superstructure (ironically, in a somewhat cynical Marxian sense) – and it is just as much the Pagan forebears as the later Christian cultures of Europe that fascinate. Breivik’s hero, the until recently anonymous blogger Peder “Fjordman” Jensen, made this clear enough in the article “Christianity, Pros and Cons”, later reused in the terrorist’s manifesto:

“Yes, medieval Christianity had no qualms about resisting invaders, but medieval Christians (as Protestants love to point out) had adulterated their faith with pagan beliefs. Over the past few centuries, Christianity has stripped itself of its pagan accretions. In the process, it has become as much a threat to ourselves and our loved ones as Marxism used to be, if not more so.”

As European Christendom gradually extirpated its Pagan roots and elements, it, too, gradually became a threat to European identity and culture. In this light, it is less of a surprise that the future church Breivik fantasises about would include Pagan traditions.

Varg Vikernes

As if just to bring the right-wing lunatic fringe full circle, Varg Vikernes personally entered the scene last week with a damning criticism of Behring Breivik, from his own “heathen” perspective. Reading Vikernes’ short reply, it is clear that the two disagree mainly about one thing: The Jews. Where Breivik is a pro-Israel pragmatic cultural-Christian Zionist, Vikernes is a classical anti-Semite.

Quote Vikernes:

 “[Behring Breivik’s] manifest is vast, some 1500 pages, and he is pretty thorough in both what he says and what he did. There are a few facts that doesn’t [sic!] make sense to me. How can he list all the problems caused by different Jews in our history and yet fail to mention even one of them with a single word in his manifest? He attacks the symptoms of the disease Europe is suffering under, but not the cause of the disease.”

The cause, of course, is a worldwide conspiracy of Jews (*yawn*). Vikernes then goes on to attack Breivik’s involvement with Freemasonry, or “international Jewry at it’s worst”:

“they too are working for a de-construction of all nations on Earth, and to build a global Hebrew temple, enslaving us all under the will of the Jews and their servants, the Freemasons”

and, of course, his Christianity:

“The Jews created Christianity as a religion for non-Jews to follow, so that they too would become worshippers of their Hebrew false “God”, so that the unruly Pagan Europeans would become servants and a powerful tool for the Jews.”

Nevertheless, the affinity that Breivik had felt towards the Odinists is recognized by Vikernes as well, who admits that most of Breivik’s paranoid ideas are “true”, although the “right” interpretive key (i.e. classical anti-Semitism and conspiratorial anti-Freemasonry) is missing:

“What Mr. Breivik has said is largely true, in all except in what he doesn’t say; he doesn’t tell us that the Jews are the origin to all these problems, and that they were created by the Jews to hurt us. All we have to do to make this act of violence favourable to us is to make this clear to everyone; the Jews created Marxism, feminism, Christianity (need I tell you that Jesus and not least Paulus/Saul were both Jews?), so-called psychology, banking (“money lending”), the hippie-movement and all other ideologies and movements which are aimed to destroy and de-construct all nations in Europe. Behind each and every one of them you will find a Jew (or some times a Freemason)!”

Vikernes’ conclusion is thus predictable: 22/7 was either a “false flag” operation, or Breivik had been misled by conspiratorial forces, become a marionette in the hands of the Elders of Zion.

Sadly, Vikernes’ conspiratorial reasoning and even the anti-Semitic ground it is built on has cropped up other places in the Norwegian parts of cyberspace as well. The Norwegian conspiracy site Nyhetsspeilet was early with their reports on an “inside job” in Oslo, with suspects ranging from Mossad to Norwegian PM Jens Stoltenberg himself. Readers of Norwegian should check out the comment by John Færseth in Dagbladet on the conspiracy theorists’ reception of 22/7, which is now starting to look like a Norwegian 9/11 also when it comes to spawning paranoid and potentially dangerous political fantasies entirely out of touch with reality. Bizarrely, many of the conspiratorial interpretations dismissing Behring Breivik as the “real” man behind the attacks carry frighteningly similar ideas to Breivik’s own, often in much more radical forms than his.

Let’s hope that we do not have to discuss the whys and hows of a conspiracy terrorist next.

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This work by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] yes, but terrorism no. Egil Asprem revisits the religious beliefs of Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik and picks apart the claims that he was a Christian fundamentalist. […]

  2. A curious feature of the Counterjihadists is that, while they in reality represent demographical groups which are dominant and in all relevant ways empowered in Western societies (politically as well as socioeconomically and culturally), they have nevertheless created a discourse in which they cast themselves as disempowered (i.e. by “Marxist” elites and a “tsunami” of Muslim immigrants), and their own existence as being under threat.

    That is not a “curious” feature of counterjihadism, but rather a nigh-universal feature of reactionary movements as well as revolutionary movements both before and after they achieve power and success. Look at the way the Nazis used the Treaty of Versailles, or the way any number of long-independent governments use the specter of colonialism, or Fox’s fantasy of a war on Christmas.

    In the modern era, the narrative of the oppressed minority struggling against tyranny is so powerful and desirable that every actor in the discourse will attempt to cast themselves in that role, regardless of how far they have to reach to see themselves as disempowered.

    Psychologically, the enduring power of this meme comes from our powerful emotional response to situations of perceived threat, and the easy at which we justify any and all violence and oppression against the Other with reference to that sense of threat.

    I think that the most successful technique in promoting this sense of oppression among those that are in fact empowered is to ignore the importance of proximity on the power of a given discourse. Israel justifies its oppression of the Palestinians by stoking the fear of the billions of people in the world who don’t like them much, while ignoring their fantastic preeminence in military, economic, technological, and diplomatic spheres over actual Palestinians.

    From the other end, pressure groups at universities often justify their more rigid exercises in political correctness with reference to the empowerment of sexist/racist/classist voices in the broader society — ignoring the fact that within the walls of the university, their perspectives are very much empowered, and that power is every bit as capable of being wielded in a bullying way as is that of their opponents.

    • That’s a great comment. Amen! In the post, a reason for pointing this out was that it diverges somehow from Juergensmeyer’s vision, in which religious groups that turn violent may often be under actual social pressure. What we see here is however a classic example of a subversion myth, so common in conspiratorial worldviews, in which one’s own power is cast as threatened or actually weak because of an unseen corrupting force somewhere amidst us all (be it communists, jews, terrorists, liberals, arabs, aliens, or feminists).

      Btw, I am also happy to have discovered your blog. Looks great; love the way you take off the glove against denialisms.

  3. […] Europe”. The invitation was inspired by some of the things I wrote on this blog concerning Behring Breivik and religion last summer, and my role would be to compose a “heterodox” component for the conference. […]

  4. A well written article. Thanks for putting the time into it. I must confess though, that until I read your breakdown of Juergensmeyer’s background, I had no idea he was an academic. Reading his article in the Huffington Post, it read to me as if he was just another blogger with an axe to grind against Christianity. Nothing of the academic came through.

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