Should the killings in Norway affect our opinion of ‘islamophobic’ writers more broadly? This question has arisen in several blogs I’ve seen over the last week, and it interests me. So, I will voice some thoughts. To start with, two representative quotations:
“[Anders Breivik] was imbued with some version of an ideology which is widespread on the internet and to some extent in Western societies: nativism, extreme anxiety about Islam, hatred for liberal multiculturalist “enablers” of this, and so on. Ideas to be found on thousands of blogs, in the writings of wingnut columnists and neocons, in the shared beliefs of Tea Partiers and birthers, among the rabble of the English Defence League, and among the further fringes of extreme supporters of Israel…they didn’t pull the trigger, but they helped to build an epistemic environment in which someone did.”
“This hard-right commentariat has bent over backwards to distort any facts it can come across to create an almost entirely fictitious bogeyman… and cannot wash its hands of the matter if a dangerous individual… decides to take this rhetoric to what they see as its logical conclusion.”
A note on terminology: ‘islamophobia’ is a contentious word, but I think it’s exactly right for the set of ideas under discussion. What I take it to mean is the idea that islam is a threat, and that we should be scared – the idea that muslims, by outbreeding, suicide bombing, and introducing ‘sharia law by stealth’, pose ‘an existential threat’ to Western societies.
Of course, ‘-phobia’ adds to this a suggestion of irrationality, but that also seems quite reasonable to me. Some muslims may pose a threat to some people, but there is no plausible scenario in which either muslim immigration or islamist terrorism could seriously threaten any western society as a whole society (e.g. by military invasion, armed insurrection, etc.)
Is Breivik ‘just mad’?
One idea that appears is that Breivik’s acts are ‘the acts of a lunatic’ and as such shouldn’t be connected with any particular social or political group or movement. This article even suggests he shouldn’t be called a ‘terrorist’.
One thing to say is that the category of ‘madness’ here may be an unhelpful or pernicious way to carve things up: most people with ‘a mental illness’ don’t shoot anyone, so ‘he’s mad’ doesn’t seem to do much explanatory term unless we’re implicitly suggesting they do, or might.
But set that aside, and suppose we substitute some more specific phrase like “delusions of persecution”. The more basic point is that this move – the attacks are not political because the perpetrator was delusional – seems to presume something like this idea: ‘causality in the mind of someone with delusions of persecution is disconnected from normal social causality’.
But when stated like that, this doesn’t seem to be true. People may be diagnosed with a mental illness because a particular sort of causality (between evidence and belief, or between desire and action, etc.) is operating in an abnormal or dysfunctional way, but that’s not the same as them being causally isolated from politics and culture.
Indeed, it seems that part of the social character of certain social phenomena might be precisely their resemblance to, or attractiveness to, people with delusions of persecution. Most obviously, social phenomena in which people claim to be persecuted with little cause. And that, arguably, is what Islamophobia is.
Is there an analogy to Islam?
Another talking point has been that if lefties blame Islamophobes in general for Breivik, then they must also accept the reasonableness of blaming Muslims in general for Bin Laden et al. But they don’t, and make a point of denouncing such a maneouvre, so they have no right to use an analogous maneouvre now.
But the analogy doesn’t hold. Islamophobia is a set of ideas about real-world priorities and real-world threats. It directly relates to what needs to be done here and now. Islam is a religion, and thus while it might present itself as having meaningful consequences for how to live one’s life, in practice it doesn’t. It provides a set of texts, symbols, etc. which people can weave into an indefinite variety of theories about what needs to be done here and now.
The right analogy would be to say “left-wingers shouldn’t say that Breivik’s actions reflect badly on everyone who espouses Norwegian patriotism or a love of the Norwegian flag”. And, of course, that would be true, but as far as I know nobody has said that.
What would be reasonable, I think, would be to hold islamist terrorism against some or all versions of islamism, which is precisely a mapping of the symbols of islam onto certain real-world priorities and threats. Even then, there are probably important distinctions between forms of islamism (by analogy, Salvadorean liberation theology and US Christian fundamentalism are not the same creature).
Is there an analogy to socialism?
A trickier question, though, is whether someone blaming, say, Melanie Phillips for Breivik’s actions, even only slightly, would be inconsistent if they didn’t blame prominent socialists for the actions of the Red Army Faktion. Historically, there have been a lot of murderous bastards who have justified themselves by citing Engels, Gramsci, or whoever.
(I’m using ‘socialism’ for convenience, but the strongest form of this rejoinder would no doubt select some narrower and more coherent strand of left-wing ideology)
The validity of this depends what sort of principle is being employed. If it’s of the form:
“When A publicly promotes ideas X, and B subsequently murders 100 teenagers and claims to have been motivated by ideas X, we should regard both ideas X and person A more negatively than before”
Then it seems like it probably will cut both ways. But maybe that’s the wrong principle. Consider that often we seem to employ two different moral principles with a conditionalising relationship.
For instance, we might think that society should adjust its criminal punishments to best serve the goal of deterrence, but only insofar as is consistent with an independent principle of desert – that is, nobody can be punished merely to deter others, they have to have done something to deserve it first.
So similarly, we might think that there are two principles at work here: one of judging people by the effects their ideas have, and one of judging people for flaws internal to their ideas – e.g. for dishonesty, hysteria, double standards, twisting evidence, etc. That is, people are to be blamed for the ways their writing falls short of ideal standards of honesty and wisdom, but how much blame they merit for those flaws can be affected by the contingent outcomes.
This would mean that the actions of ‘socialist’ terrorists could reflect badly not on all public defenders of socialism (or the relevant strand of ideas), but rather on those who wrote dishonest, prejudiced or misleading things. And that seems fairly reasonable.