On the morning of the 2005 London subway bombing, I found myself among a group of journalists who were struggling to make sense of it. Having spent considerable time researching radical Islam, I suggested that it would likely prove to have been the work of homegrown Islamic terrorists -- as indeed it was -- and that we journalists should pay more attention to the role of Western imams in radicalizing Muslim youth.
"Why do we always focus Islamic leaders and terrorism?!" barked a journalist at the table. "Why don't we ever write about Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the hate they inspire?"
It was a stupid point made by a man whose cultural matrix required the enemy to always and everywhere be right-wing Christians. When it comes to reporting on the complex reality of contemporary Islam and violent extremism, this is a mindset one finds far too often in American journalism.
My jaundiced view, informed by 20 years of newsroom experiences, is that journalists see their job more as managing the story to protect Muslims from imaginary redneck lynch mobs than to report with critical intelligence on the world as it is.
It's not hard to imagine the vindication many of these mainstream journalists must feel because of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Bering Breivik's 1,500-page manifesto. In the rambling document, Breivik calls for a new "crusade" against Islam, and quotes from the work of journalists and commentators (including, briefly, me) who have spoken out against Islamic extremism and the refusal of our liberal institutions -- including the media -- to hold Muslim leaders to account.
When details of Breivik's motives emerged last Friday, a headline on the New York Times's website trumpeted that the killer was a "Christian extremist" (it was shortly changed to "Right-wing extremist"). Andrew Sullivan, eager to tie Breivik's ideology around the necks of American Christian conservatives, quickly took to calling Breivik a "Christianist" -- Sullivan's term of opprobrium for politically engaged conservative Christians. And so it goes.
But readers of Breivik's manifesto will see that he is not a Christian in any meaningful theological sense. Rather, he sees the faith much as the Nazi leadership did: as a European tribal religion that can be instrumentalized to provide the basis for an ethno-cultural war against the Other - in this case, Muslims. Breivik writes:
If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian. 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.
Though al Qaeda, Hamas, and other Islamist organizations advocate Islam as the basis for the political and cultural organization of society, they do so because they believe Islam is true. Not so with Breivik and Christianity. He explicitly identifies himself as against "Christian fundamentalist theocracy" ("everything we do not want"), and says he welcomes atheists and even Norse pagans into his neo-Crusader fold, because their beliefs are culturally significant to Europe.
But why let facts waste an opportunity to smear the blood of dead Norwegian kids on one's culture-war adversaries?
It is unlikely that the "blame Christianity" meme will survive for long in the mainstream media, as it's difficult to argue credibly that it's the fault of a religion that the killer himself rejects, except in an eccentric, non-theological way. But the "blame Islamophobia" canard will be far more durable -- and, in the long run, more harmful.
"Islamophobia" is a weasel word designed not to enhance understanding, but to prevent it. It implies that skepticism or criticism of Islam or its followers derives from irrational fear. It is, of course, possible that people can harbor an irrational fear and loathing of all things Islamic. It is also possible that in some instances, their animus may be justified, or at least rational, if ultimately erroneous. The problem with the term Islamophobia, as with its companion term homophobia, is that they are intended to disarm critical discussion by stigmatizing it as a mental disorder.
Europe really does have a significant problem assimilating Muslim immigrants, and with Islamic extremist networks that hate, even to the point of violence, the same liberal secular societies that have given them refuge. European cultural elites have dealt with this by blaming the messenger, typically by demonizing them as, yes, Islamophobic.
The late Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, an openly gay hedonist whose politics were to the left of the Democratic Party's, was routinely denounced in European and American media as a member of the "far right" because he criticized Muslim extremists on secular liberal grounds. In the US, nearly a decade has passed since 9/11, and the media still haven't seriously examined the paramount ideological and organizational role the hardline Muslim Brotherhood plays in institutional U.S. Islam - a role that in 2007, Muslim scholars Zeyno Baran and Husain Haqqani (now Pakistan's ambassador to Washington) outlined in great detail.
As Haqqani explains, the Muslim Brotherhood teaches that we should all live in Islamic theocracies. Because of various historical factors, including the influx of Saudi money, their highly politicized, radical version of Islam came to dominate institutional American Islam, silencing or otherwise suppressing Muslims who disagree.
This is an enormously important story that has never been given the attention it deserves. Now, thanks to the crimes of a pseudo-Christian Norse monster, who, in the simple-minded logic of our media, represents the inevitable consequence of taking Islamism's Western critics seriously, it won't be for a long time.