Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mass murder: Islam, Europe, and the Middle Ground

Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass-murderer who slaughtered 77 civilians in July, has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, meaning he will probably be put in psychiatric care rather than prison. Insane he may be, but Breivik shares his stated motivation with a wide European anti-Muslim movement. Violence should surprise nobody, for they have been hinting at carnage for years.

When I first encountered radical anti-Muslim sentiment in online discussion forums in 2006 they were predicting a Europe-wide civil war between the nationalist right and a coalition of Muslims and complicit socialists. The most extreme had language that I would recognise in Breivik’s words: warnings about the ‘cultural Marxists’ who were secretly conspiring to build a Muslim-dominated soviet empire – the EUSSR – out of the European Union.

These anti-Muslimists were not part of an old fashioned far right: racist and religious. Most were educated, secular and liberal. They generally supported homosexual rights and gender equality, often crowing about Western sexual liberty by comparison with the repression and supposed perversion of an Islamic East. They relished stories of rape and sexual injustice among the Muslims. Female and homosexual victims became footnotes to a wider case against Islam.

The anti-Muslimists thrived in the presence of Islamist radicals who were also busy on the discussion forums: some simply nationalist and reactionary Pakistani teenagers, others dedicated fundamentalists. Islamists and anti-Muslimists defined themselves in opposition to one another, giving one another a reason to exist.
Both believed in discrete monolithic civilisations of a secular (or Christian) West and an Islamic East. Shades of grey were ignored, centuries of religious repression and nationalist rupture in Christian Europe forgotten, experiments in Arab nationalism, democracy or socialism among the Muslims unmentioned.
Both believed that the West and Islamic East were traditional and inevitable enemies, locked in combat since Muhammad. The constant medieval wars within each religious civilisation were not discussed.

Writing from Ireland, which spent most of the Crusading era being conquered by its Anglo-Norman neighbours, this idea of a unified European Christendom fighting Islam seemed comical. Some of our most determined anti-Muslim members were from Scandinavian countries which were only in the process of being Christianised when the Crusades were launched, and generations of pagan Viking raids on Christendom tended to be celebrated as a welcome part of European heritage, instead of an assault on it.

Yet a Crusader Narrative, pitting Europe forever against Islam, was pervasive and influential. Agnostics and atheists who were normally revolted by Christian theocracy rallied around Rome as a symbol of Europe under threat from barbaric Islam, forgetting Christian Crusades against Cathar heretics in France, or against Baltic pagans.
Islamists were also happy to focus on the Crusades, shifting attention from the internal divisions of medieval Islam, or the more terrible threat of Mongol conquest, emphasising the West-East conflict above all others. Anti-Muslimists and Islamists rewrote history and reinforced one another’s positions, crowding out the moderates, closing in on the middle ground.

They both were also agreed that there are no moderate Muslims. I would shift from friendly chats on one thread where Hindus, Muslims and Westerners were discussing music or economics to bitter quarrels on another where anti-Muslimists warned that millions of apparently liberal Muslims were either secret Islamists, or were not ‘real’ Muslims at all. Islamists would agree, saying that those who befriend the kafir, support secular democracy, favour liberal politics or listen to music are not true Muslims at all. Our liberal Pakistani members looked in bewilderment while others denied their existence.

This restricted definition of Muslims as devout fanatics would reduce the world Muslim population by hundreds of millions, though neither side would admit it. Islamists needed to feel that Islam was about to swamp the world and establish a magnificent pan-Islamic caliphate. Anti-Muslimists needed to feel that the West was already jammed with traitorous Muslims, ripe for jihad. Both wanted Islam to seem an urgent issue.

They were also both convinced that low fertility Europe was facing imminent conquest by fecund Muslims. Imagined statistics of Muslim fertility rates were spread around, the most ludicrous coming from an apocalyptic Youtube video that argued without evidence that while France has a fertility rate of 1.8 children per woman, ‘Muslims’ have 8.1 children per woman. This would make French Muslims more fertile than any other population anywhere in the world: even the world’s most fertile nation Niger manages only 7.07.

Neither acknowledged the fact that Muslims in countries like Tunisia, Albania and Iran already have fertility rates lower than the replacement rate, that Muslims were following all other religions down the demographic transition towards smaller families and population stagnation. A Pew Forum study earlier this year estimated that the total Muslim population of Europe will rise from 6% to only 8% of Europe’s total population over the next twenty years: this is the Eurabia we are meant to fear.

This debate took place against a backdrop of real social and demographic changes, however. There were real integration problems for Muslim communities in some European countries, sometimes ignored by media and politicians scared of being labelled racist. Shortly before I heard about the Norwegian massacre I was reading a document by Britain’s Muslims Against Crusades organisation, which advises Muslims to segregate, reject secular British rule and form Islamic emirates in the UK. For some Muslims, migration to Europe really was an invasion.

Also true was that some of the Western liberals and far left were blind to these issues, trying to silence debate about immigration with complaints of Islamophobia or fascism. Some forgave oppressive tendencies in Hamas or Hezbollah to score points against the US and Israel. Some were personally attached to multicultural ideals and presumed without reason that Muslims and other immigrant groups would form friendly minority groups even without integrating. Others blamed terrorism on Israeli or American provocation, without exploring the violent heart of Islamist ideologies.

Yet the anti-Muslimists I encountered were not shedding light on a hidden problem, they were confusing it further by spreading ridiculous conspiracy theories that strengthened the hand of the Islamists. Like Breivik with his self-aggrandising nonsense about being a Knight Templar, our anti-Muslimists often used grand historical comparisons to make their struggle seem more impressive and urgent.

In some conversations Islam was given the role of Nazism. Bin Laden or Ahmadinejad were depicted as new Hitlers, hesitant politicians in France or Germany as new Chamberlains seeking appeasement with the enemy, and George W Bush as the decisive Churchill. As with World War II they expected that nothing but total military victory could end the War on Terror and dismissed completely any suggestion that American foreign policies could inspire new terrorism.

In others Europe was a rotting Roman Empire about to be swamped again by the barbarian hordes; the United States was Constantinople, surviving the collapse.
Oddly, those most convinced that Muslims were too barbaric to form functional democracies were often the most enthusiastic supporters of American democracy-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also clamoured for more war in Iran, Palestine and Pakistan, delighting Islamists with their insistence that the War on Terror was in fact a war on Islam.

The bitterest opponents of the Islamists were the liberal Muslims, horrified by terrorist attacks and by the oppressive tendencies of Islamist groups in Pakistan. Some defended Islam to foreigners but complained among themselves about the sexism, intolerance and violence promoted by the mullahs. I saw Muslims agree that liberal Western countries were more in keeping with Islam than any Islamist theocracy, and Muslim denunciations of Islamist terrorism, even in Israel, were quite common.

Similarly the anti-Muslimists spent much time attacking Western moderates. When some of us poked fun at their pompous talk of a new Crusade they called us apologist, appeaser, dhimmi, or ‘halal hippie’. Muslims were presumed to be a lost cause, so barbaric that they were incapable of reform or compromise, but non-Muslim Westerners who rejected the counter-jihad were despised as traitors.

Usually, though, anti-Muslimists did not make explicit their plans for European Muslims, refusing to suggest any final solution to the Muslim question. Perhaps Breivik also noted this tendency, appearing to comment on a Gates of Vienna blog post:
Why havent you or any of the other current authors on the Eurabia related issues/Islamisation of Europe (Fjordman, Spencer, Ye`or, Bostom etc.) brought up the “D” word? I assume because it is considered a fascist method in nature, which would undermine your/their work? Why would it undermine their efforts when it is the only rational conclusion, based on the above argument?
Breivik’s “D” word is deportation, and he references the Soviet Union’s mass-deportation of Muslims from Ukraine after World War II as a useful example. While our online anti-Muslimists tended to make dark, vague insinuations, Breivik had moved on to concrete and traumatic policies.

Despite their enthusiasm for the Crusades, many of the anti-Muslimists I debated were dismissive of Christianity. Lots of them were atheists, glad that the Dark Ages of Christendom were gone and determined to prevent the revival of theocracy under Islam. Only a few were conservative Christians, who blamed the decline of European religiosity for its low fertility rates and abandonment of ethnic nationalism, though debates rarely revolved around scripture, they were not trying to convert Muslims. Neither did their faith preclude alliances with atheists and other non-Muslims.

In Breivik’s manifesto 2083 he discusses struggles with Islam outside Europe, paying particular attention to India, where Hindu nationalists made a stand:
They do not tolerate the current injustice and often riot and attack Muslims when things get out of control, usually after the Muslims disrespect and degrade Hinduism too much. This behaviour is nonetheless counterproductive. Because instead of attacking the Muslims they should target the category A and B traitors in India and consolidate military cells and actively seek the overthrow of the cultural Marxist government.
Our online Western anti-Muslimists also allied with radical Indian nationalists, who were eager to confirm Western fears, telling horror stories both about historical Muslim invasions and contemporary power struggles in South Asia.

Yet a few of the most extreme Hindu nationalists also looked at Christianity and Western cultures with contempt. For them, Hinduism was a peaceful and tolerant religion compared with the violent proselytising faiths of Abraham. Western nationalists turned a blind eye while fanatical Hindu nationalists derided European cultures; the consensus that Islam was a terrible priority helped to keep these strange bedfellows together.

With Islamists and anti-Muslimists closing in on either side, the rest of us defended a middle ground, partly by questioning the consensus that Islam is the central world issue. While Islamists and anti-Muslimists obsessed over conflicts in Palestine, rich with wider clashing-civilisation implications, we would shift debate to neglected issues like the repression of Muslims in China or Burma, or the forgotten wars of sub-Saharan Africa. By discussing conflicts which challenged simplistic narratives about East and West we tried to defuse, divide and deflate the bloodthirsty on either side.

We debated for fun but it felt at times that we were right on the front line of a serious ideological struggle. Some apolitical Pakistanis joining the forums for the first time reacted to attacks on their religion by becoming entrenched and reactionary, embracing assertive Islam as a personal identity in defiance. Anti-Muslimists insisting that the only correct interpretation of Islam was that already followed by violent Islamists only pushed them further from conciliation.

Moderate Westerners who could introspect and criticise our governments’ foreign policies helped those apolitical Muslims warm to the West again, and became more willing to question their own societies. For years, my greatest concern with the anti-Muslimists was that their determination to back repressive interpretations of Islam would undermine the efforts of friendly Muslim liberals, and increase the risk from Islamists. I had seen anti-Muslimists build delusions as grand as those of the jihadists, sinking into their own mess of invented monsters of crypto-Marxists, Quislings and useful idiots, but did not expect them to grow into a major threat in their own right. I did not expect a Breivik.
Norway’s mass-murder shows the need for sensible debate about multiethnic Europe, yet in which Islam need not take an obsessively central role. Disproportionate focus by left and right on Palestine also reinforces a kind of Crusader Narrative: discussion of those world conflicts that do not coincide with civilisational or religious borders can undermine that. And nervous commentators hiding behind political correctness for fear of being branded racist only cede the terms of discussion to the radicals.

The world is more complex than the radicals want to believe. We undermine their simplistic ideologies by challenging them with inconvenient facts. The future must belong to a pragmatic centre, anything extreme means conflict.

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