Oslo Attack Highlights the Dangers of Islamophobia

Oslo, Norway - The mass-murder in Oslo last Friday was tragic. At least 90 innocents -- many of them youth -- are already dead, and authorities fear that the death toll may continue rising.

Evidence is mounting that a right-wing extremist, Anders Behring Breivik, carried out the attack at least in part to spark a "civil war"against Muslim migrants to Europe and the left-wing governments that, in his view, willfully enable their immigration. In his mind, the attack was a defense against immigrants who hold different values -- and the start of a much bigger fight for Christianity against Islam.

In a 1,500-page manifesto, Breivik reportedly claimed, "The time for dialogue is over. We gave peace a chance. The time for armed resistance has come." The New York Times also reported that

Mr. Breivik was also believed to have posted a video on Friday, calling for Christian conservatives in Europe to rise up violently as a modern-day version of the Crusades-era Knights Templar to save Europe from Islamic totalitarianism. In its closing moments, the video depicts Mr. Breivik in military uniform, holding assault weapons.

If ever a dark, twisted irony existed, this may be one: Breivik claims to be saving Europe from Muslims (whom he denotes as violent and autocratic) by violently attacking an event convened by a democratically elected government. He struck at Norway's government in the name of protecting the country it serves. Islamophobia, it would seem, blinded Breivik to the horrors and contradictions of his own deeds.

While I pray that those in mourning from the loss of loved ones are granted peace and that the entire country of Norway is blessed with solace in its grief, I believe that there is much Americans can and must learn from Breivik's attack, as well.

The first is that Islamophobia is not merely confined to a war of words against Muslims. Islamophobic words, of which Breivik shared many in his 1,500-page document, often spiral into deeds.

We have already observed this within the United States, though thankfully in largely non-violent ways. (Hate crimes against Muslims stand as an egregious exception to this rule.) As we saw in protests against a Muslim community organization in California this March and attempts to block the creation of New York's Park51 community center last summer, among others, Muslim communities have been repeatedly impeded from engaging in their ordinary communal functions. Protests against Muslim communal organizations and gathering places have become the physical manifestations of Islamophobic disdain and even hatred.

The second is that an Islamophobia of words and limited actions has the potential to turn violent. The Manichean notion that Christians (or Jews or Hindus or Atheists) are good while Muslims are intrinsically bad is volatile and can spiral from misapprehension to misinformation to misdeed to truly terrifying acts of violence. Words count and must not be ignored. Islamophobia, we now know from Oslo, can itself be a starting point for unthinkable brutality.

When we read of American Islamophobes, we must no longer deny the potential they have to undermine the societal values that we hold dear. Religious freedom is jeopardized when Muslims are singled out. But Islamophobes may come to threaten more than religious freedom -- perhaps even our very security.

My prayers right now are with the people of Norway. Yet my thoughts are with my own country and the potential for the Islamophobia we are coming to know too well in words to manifest itself in senseless acts of violence like those we saw last week in Oslo.