An Analysis of the Norway Terror Attacks, the Influence of Islamophobia and How We Label Terrorists by Moein Khawaja

Two very important themes have emerged from the terrorist attack in Norway this past weekend, both of which require analysis and offer some interesting conclusions.  One, some media have demonstrated a desire to jump to the conclusion that if an act of terrorism occurs, then there must be some Muslim involvement.   Moreover, others have shown a clear double standard after learning the attack was committed by someone who is not a Muslim.  Two, the attacker, Anders Behring Breivik, has revealed himself to be a right-wing, extremist Islamophobe.  The question then emerges, why did he attack a government building and a youth camp, and not a mosque or Muslim institution? 

First, let’s look at the troubling reactions of some media when the news of the terrorist attack broke.  FOX News Channel did their best and wasted no time in linking it to Muslims, and then juxtaposing the attack with the New York City Islamic Center near ground zero. Respectable newspapers such as the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal also jumped to conclusions, the latter offering this absurdity: “…in jihadist eyes it [Norway] will forever remain guilty of being what it is: a liberal nation committed to freedom of speech and conscience.”  Ultimately, it was mostly clueless “terrorism experts” who led media to believe it was Muslims.  (’s Glenn Greenwald offers a must-read, step by step analysis of the media coverage of the incident and treatment of the word terrorism.) 

When it became clear that the terrorist was not a Muslim, many media articles switched their terminology to “attack” or “massacre,” while others began calling him a Christian terrorist – which is just as wrong in my opinion.  Displaying open hypocrisy, Bill O’Reilly lamented that the media was being unfair when calling the attacker a Christian terrorist.   

After the attacker’s manifesto was revealed, it became clear that he is a right-wing extremist who has a particular hatred for Muslims and immigrants – a total package of Islamophobia.  He favorably mentions some of the most well-known U.S. based Islamophobes, including Robert Spencer (64 citations), co-founder of the hate group Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA), and Walid Shoebat (more than 15 citations), recently exposed as a fraud by CNN’s Anderson Cooper.  Breivik’s world-view includes the belief that Europe is about to be overrun by Muslims and that such an overrun is being aided and abetted by liberal governments.    

This is where the question is answered of why he chose to attack a youth camp and government buildings.  Islamophobes are known for their hatred of liberal governments, particularly the Obama Administration, and their belief that Israel is the front line of defense against a barbarian Muslim horde.  Even the Anti-Defamation League has warned supporters of Israel to be weary of anti-Muslim bigots who may use Israel as part of their philosophies.  The youth camp, where scores of innocent teens were killed, was organized by Norway’s ruling Labor party – which is pro-immigration and by extension tolerant of Muslims.  Norway’s government recently hosted the Palestinian President in Oslo to discuss a possible statehood bid at the United Nations.  But most importantly, the attacker’s manifesto reveals that he believed the government and liberal parties were “enablers of Islamization” and that they should be punished for such “treasonous acts.”

With the radicalization of some elements of the Republican and tea parties, increasingly hostile political discourse and a sharp rise in Islamophobia in the U.S., the question is, can such an attack occur here on American soil?  The answer is yes and they already have occurred, we just don’t call them terrorism because they are committed by those who aren’t Muslim.  Last year, an anti-government right-wing extremist flew a small plane into a Dallas, TX IRS building in a suicide attack.  Last January, an American white supremacist attempted to detonate a bomb along the route of a Martin Luther King Day parade.  Jared Loughner, though determined to be mentally ill, still targeted Democrats during his Arizona shooting spree and was influenced by conservative extremism.  Another man has lead law enforcement on a wild chase in Montana after shooting police officers and threatening terrorist attacks against the government,yet no one has talked about it.  These types of right-wing terrorists exist and many attacks have occurred or have been attempted.  Do they merit our attention, or is it only Muslim terrorists who do?  Will our law enforcement and policy makers do their job in keeping us safe by creating strategies that effectively track and prevent all types of extremism? 

It’s time for a more sophisticated, nuanced look at radicalization and extremism and the psychological processes behind it.  Yes, Al-Qaeda is still dangerous and perhaps still the most potent terrorist organization.  But the world is full of people bombarded by extremist, over the top rhetoric and paranoid ideologies.  When such ideology filters down to a twisted mind ready to act on it, we get terrorism.  So that we may all be safer, let’s take a closer look at extremism and radicalization of all people, including anti-government Islamophobes, and not just Muslims. 

Moein Khawaja is the Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Philadelphia Chapter.