On Bruce Bawer and Islam criticism after 22/7

26 July, 2011

After 9/11, many pundits revealed themselves to be out of touch with their time by the way they misapplied their old pet models to new events.  Often, these models were legacies of the radical left of the 60′s and 70′s, post-colonial and anti-Western frameworks that simply offered no way to comprehend a conflict where the perpetrators were fanatical Muslims, and the victims were Americans.  The most interesting thing you can ask about someone’s worldview is often which decade they formed it in.  These ideas were long past their expiration date.

The new models many of us embraced, ideas that were more in touch with the post-9/11 world, were often right-wing, and often critical of immigration and Islam.  The people who promoted them prided themselves in their honest approach to reality, and their well-adjusted moral compass.

Now, after the terror attacks in Norway on July 22, perpetrated by a fanatical opponent of multiculturalism and the Islamization of Europa, it happens again.  The wheel turns.  We won’t pretend that everything has changed, no more than everything changed on 9/11.  The threat from Islamist terrorism is the same.  The immigration challenges of Europe are the same.

But reality has shifted sufficiently that you cannot mindlessly apply the same old models to the new situation.  And, this time, the pundits who reveal themselves to be most out of touch may well be precisely those right-wing critics of immigration and Islam who took the lead after 9/11.

The problem that confuses them is that the terrorist came from their side of the spectrum.  The 32-year old Norwegian man who detonated a bomb in central Oslo and gunned down nearly 70 children and youths on Utøya island identified himself with the online counterjihad movement.  His 1500 page manifesto, published online immediately before the attacks, is largely a compendium of counterjihad thoughts.  His favorite author, a writer he identifies as to a large degree sharing his own analysis of the current world situation, is the pseudonymous Norwegian blogger Fjordman.  But the book also namedrops a large range of anti-Islam and anti-immigration writers, of various degrees of reasonableness and extremity.

I don’t want to apportion blame here, not now.  Clearly none of these writers have ever advocated violence.  But it is equally clear that there are parts of the anti-Islamic ideology that are compatible with violence, and use rhetoric that, although non-violent, carries the obvious implication of violence.

Consider the rhetoric that paints Europe’s political elite as traitors who have pushed Europe towards the brink of destruction with their multicultural policies, leading us inevitably towards a civil war with the Muslims.  Now, the people who say these things do not encourage violence.  But, ask yourself, what do countries normally do with traitors in wartime?  They execute them.  What does one normally do in a civil war?  One picks up a gun, and joins the side one agrees with.

The responsibility for July 22 rests with the terrorist who carried out these attacks, Anders Behring Breivik.  But what we see here is a relationship between words and action that we are familiar with from other brands of terrorism and ideological violence through history: Anarchists, Communists, Nazis, and Islamists.  There are, or were, in these movements, some who use words, and words alone, as they warn of the Great Conspiracy and the Coming Crisis.  And then somebody else comes along, a true believer, a martyr to the cause, and takes these ideas to their natural, bloody consequence.

There is, the wordsmiths argue, an Enemy that poses an existential threat.  What does the true believer, the man of action, do with such enemies?  He attacks.

The Enemy of today’s anti-Islamists is the political elite of Europe.  It poses, they believe, an existential threat.  The Civil War is coming, or has in fact already started.  This is what the non-violent counterjihadis argue over and over again.  And they really are non-violent.  But the rhetoric implies violence, is compatible with launching an attack on precisely this political elite, in order to recruit soldiers for this inevitable civil war.

The point isn’t necessarily that the wordsmiths are to blame, but that this is a tricky situation to untangle.  It requires a steady hand, as you attempt to find the line where legitimate criticism of political opponents turns into implicit justifications for violence.  You need to have a clear head.  You need to apply objective criteria that are equally appropriate for all ideologies, all forms of rhetoric.  If you condemn critics of Islam for painting a picture of a world in crisis where violence appears the only solution, then you must condemn Islamists who do the same.  If you instead exonerate the Islam critics, you must do the same with the non-violent Islamists.  The same standard must apply to all, whether you otherwise sympathize with their ideas or not.

So here’s the first test for right-wing critics of immigration and Islam.  The test is: Are you able to do this, fairly?  Are you prepared to either acknowledge the implicit violence in ideas you sympathize with, or forgive it in ideas you despise?

Another test, which is being applied at this very moment, is: Are you able to discuss the attacks that actually took place, attacks that at the very least put your own ideas in a bad light, without changing the subject back to evil leftists and Muslims?

Judging from the immediate reactions to the attacks, Islam critics on the right may have a hard time doing this.  The approach from many is: “Well, this is a tragedy, and I absolutely condemn it, but of course it wouldn’t have happened if Norwegians could discuss immigration openly.”  Or: “Let’s not let the deeds of this evil madman distract us from the real issue, which is that Europe is being overrun by Muslims.”

Rewind a decade, and the same out of touch sentiments would sound like this: “Well, the 9/11 attacks were a tragedy, but of course they wouldn’t have happened if the Americans weren’t such evil imperialists.”  Or: “Let’s not let the deeds of this evil madman distract us from the real issue, which is that America is the greatest threat to world peace.”

There’s also a defensiveness in many of these reactions that is disgraceful in the way it assumes that this is all about them, that the important thing now is to rescue the reputation of their own particular brand of Islam criticism, so that they can continue where they left off on July 21.

If you don’t have the empathy to realize how inappropriate this is right now, you should keep quiet.

As an example, I’m going to single out a writer I actually admire, and who is nowhere as radical as some of the counterjiadis the terrorist most sympathized with: Bruce Bawer.  Bawer has lived in Oslo for years, and is a critic of Norwegian multicultural naivety.  At least half of his book While Europe Slept is a stinging criticism of this naivety that I either agree with, or at last respect.  (The other half is a paranoid Eurabia fantasy, for which there is no excuse.)

Bawer has been mentioned a few times by the terrorist, both in comments on blogs and in the manifesto.  Although most of the mentions are in articles Behring Breivik copied from Fjordman, Bawer is clearly someone he is familiar with, and approves of, but also distances himself from, as Bawer is too liberal for his taste.

How does Bawer react to this?  In the Wall Street Journal he writes that, during the first hours of the attack, when he and everyone else thought it was an Islamist attack, “I wept for the city that has been my home for many years”.  But then, when it became apparent that the attacker was a non-Muslim, in fact an anti-Muslim, “it was immediately clear to me that his violence will deal a heavy blow to an urgent cause”, the cause of exposing the Muslim threat to Europe.

He dedicates the rest of the article to reminding us why we need to fear a Muslim takeover of Europe.

So, although he’s horrified to discover that the terrorist approves of his writings, what really frightens him is the thought that people will now take his warnings about Muslims less seriously, and will censor criticism of Islam and immigration even more than today.  Yes, that was awful, but, anyway, let’s talk some more about Muslims.

And this is what I mean by being out of touch, of remaining stuck in old models.  The problem is not that Bawer believes that immigration poses serious challenges to Europe.  I do.  This attack does not remove those challenges.  The problem is that a writer who lives in Norway during the worst terrorist attack of our history, an attack carried out by a Muslim hater who is at least somewhat in sync with Bawer’s own views, does not have the common sense, the decency, to shut up about Muslims even for the length of a single article.

Now, here’s what other Norwegians have been doing for the last few days: We have remained glued to the television screen.  We have asked ourselves if we may have lost anyone we know.  We have cried.  And tried to sleep.  And cried again.  We have gathered in solidarity with the victims  – 200 000 in Oslo alone, filling the streets with flowers.  And those of us who have criticized immigration and Islam over the years have thought long and hard about whether anything we’ve ever written could have encouraged the terrorist in his efforts.  (The honest answer?  Probably.)

Bawer has often written about the challenges of integrating immigrants into Europan society.  I wonder how well he himself is integrated in Norwegian society today, or whether he, like the immigrants he criticize, considers it disdainfully, from a distance, enjoying its hospitality but standing aloof, alone.

Norwegians have, and will continue to have, different views on immigration.  But today, to be a Norwegian is to agree that, although we may at times be naive, sanctimoneous and politically correct, there is also an innocent beauty to these ideals.  To be a Norwegian today is to acknowledge our flaws as a nation, but forgive them, because we have seen what can happen when one doesn’t.  To be a Norwegian today is to shake in frightened humility in the face of pure evil.

And yes we’ll get back to discussing immigration.  But when that happens, there will be a divide, as there was after 9/11, between those who truly felt and understood what have just happened, and those to whom it has all been one big distraction from the old debates and the old models that they knew so well.

(Post comments here or here.)

Correction: Bruce Bawer has lived in Oslo for many years, but apparently now lives in New York(?)

Update: A shorter, Norwegian version of this essay was published in VG.


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