A Spade Is a Spade: Why a Western Terrorist Is No Different from a Muslim One

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An image of Anders Behring Breivik, accused of carrying out a bombing in Oslo and shooting at a youth camp (Photo: Reuters)

Last year on Sept. 11, I stood by the site of Ground Zero amid hundreds of people shouting obscenities against Muslims and the religion of Islam. They were gathered to protest the proposed construction of a nearby Muslim-run interfaith community center, which had earned the inaccurate moniker “Ground Zero Mosque.” The rally was conducted by a motley crew of Islamophobes, all railing against the supposed creeping Islamization of Western society. There were visitors from across the pond. Controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders loudly denounced the arrival of a “new Mecca” on the shores of what was once New Amsterdam. Members from the far-right, anti-immigrant English Defence League unfurled banners voicing their support of an American war on Islam, chanting darkly about how the West should never surrender to a leftist-Islamist tide.

I mention this now for obvious reasons. The lengthy manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik, the man behind last Friday’s awful massacre in Norway, was a page (well, many pages) out of the same set of song sheets sung here. Multiculturalism, Marxism, the supposed insensibility of Islam to Western values and the appeasement tendencies of a naive liberal elite — all were among a catalog of grievances raised both by Breivik and the riled-up crowd in lower Manhattan. The writings of Robert Spencer, a key planner of the anti-mosque rally that I attended, were cited in 64 instances in Breivik’s manifesto, according to the New York Times.

(PHOTOS: Explosion and Shooting Rock Norway)

Of course, there’s a line to be drawn between inflammatory, irresponsible rhetoric and actual violence. I don’t expect anyone standing around me a year ago to be capable of the sort of murderous terrorism that Breivik inflicted upon his countrymen. It takes a particular and twisted sort of conviction to translate strong political feeling into bloody action. A host of pundits, conservative and otherwise, have already weighed in to warn against tarring and feathering the West’s far-right groups just because of the deeds of one man. Times columnist Ross Douthat urges:

Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic have an obligation to acknowledge that Anders Behring Breivik is a distinctively right-wing kind of monster. But they also have an obligation to the realities that this monster’s terrible atrocity threatens to obscure.

This is where I must object. Douthat’s last sentence — arguing that we must not lose sight of the supposedly flawed liberal policies that fueled Breivik’s rage — communicates a larger reticence among many in the Western media to call a spade a spade. Somehow, terrorism by the xenophobic far right is still more excusable than the schemes of jihadists.

After 9/11, the bombings in London and Madrid, the Fort Hood shooting and the failed plot of the Times Square bomber, few Western commentators would dare point to what motivated the perpetrators or excuse them as lone fanatics. Those who did were pilloried. The narrative that has become dominant — and which is trotted out almost always whenever a Muslim blows something up — tends to harp on the collective pathologies troubling Islam.

Breivik’s killing spree — and, for that matter, Jared Loughner’s attempted assassination of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — is cast as an isolated, even random act of a fringe lunatic, yet Islam as a cultural bloc seems forever on trial. And it’s on trial especially in the eyes of the Robert Spencers, the Geert Wilders and the Daniel Pipes of the world. Why shouldn’t they now also be held to account for — or compelled to “refudiate” — the terrors incubated by their own ideology?

My point is not to draw a simple equivalency between types of terrorism. Cold-blooded murder is cold-blooded murder, no matter who commits it. But after nearly a decade of global hand wringing over al-Qaeda and terrorist networks of its ilk — a decade in which the capabilities of that most notorious of outfits has demonstrably dwindled — it’s time to treat extremists like Breivik and the clandestine organizations and factions with which many of them dwell with the same intolerance. That, of course, is a harder political sell. My colleague Eben Harrell charts the rise of the Scandinavian far right:

Norway’s Progress Party, of which Breivik is a former member, won more than one-fifth of the national vote in the latest parliamentary election, in 2009. Last year, the Swedish Democrats became the first far-right party to enter Sweden’s Parliament when it captured nearly 6% of the vote despite a furor that erupted when local candidate Marie-Louise Enderleit posted a comment on Facebook that migrants should be shot in the head, put in a bag and sent back to their home countries. Denmark’s Folkparty, which recently ran an anti-immigrant campaign under the slogan “Give us Denmark back,” secured 14% of the vote in a 2007 election and has since been an influential coalition partner in government. And the True Finns became the third largest party represented in Finland’s Parliament after winning 19% of the vote in elections in April.

The trend is up elsewhere in Europe as well. One shouldn’t deny that there are genuine (if perhaps misguided) grievances fueling this xenophobic surge and that it’s a small blessing that many of these extremist groups get incorporated into the democratic process. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Breivik’s actions are still rooted in an apocalyptic and wide-reaching hysteria that is arguably becoming more mainstream in the West than al-Qaeda’s brand of puritanical hate ever was in parts of the Muslim world. This ought to prompt a healthy dose of introspection among some commentators. But instead, the grotesque finger pointing at those whom Breivik sought to purge from Europe continues.

MORE: Interview with a Madman: Anders Behring Breivik Answers His Own Questions

Ishaan Tharoor is a writer-reporter for TIME and editor of Global Spin. Find him on Twitter at @ishaantharoor. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.