I am coming late to the reporting and analysis of the Norway bombing, but allow me to connect current events with some of the themes I have been writing about in recent years.
The Norway bombing in all of its dimensions — the initial false assumption and reporting that it was Islamic terrorism; media reliance on experts with an anti-Islamic bias; the specifics and complexities of the ideology; the evolution of terms we have already used to describe the episode and the suspect — and how the assumptions that the terms we choose reflect on us, have surfaced rapidly since the bombing and mass murders in Norway.
How we understand violence and underlying issues of ideology can be particularly fraught, particularly in heated political environments in which name calling and dubious forms of political “messaging” tend to predominate over well informed analysis and more considered uses of terms.
What follows is a brief, revised discussion of terms and issues related to religiously motivated violence, from last year.
Many challenges face those who think about, analyze and report on the Religious Right (let alone those who want to take appropriate political action.) One problem is acquiring some foundational knowledge. Another is finding generally agreed upon terms and definitions of those terms. These matters are running themes at Talk to Action — where we have taken the view from the beginning, that labeling, demonization and epithets are poor and often counterproductive substitutes for terms that allow for actual discussion and help us all to better understand the Religious Right in its many, and ever evolving, factions, leaders, ideologies and so on.
Chip Berlet and I posted essays at Religion Dispatches that delved into some of the questions of terminology raised by the 2010 arrest and indictment of the Michigan-based Hutaree Militia.
Our essays were titled, respectively, ‘Christian Warriors’: Who Are The Hutaree Militia And Where Did They Come From?, and The Faith-Based Militia: When is Terrorism `Christian’?
Here are excerpts:
The arrest of the Michigan-based Hutaree Militia has drawn worldwide attention and in so doing, surfaced one of the knottiest issues we face as a culture to which religious freedom and free speech are so central: How do we think about and describe religiously motivated violence?
The Hutaree’s plans to murder a police officer and use IEDs to attack the funeral procession in order to catalyze an uprising against the federal government was shocking and made headlines around the world. Their action plan, while preposterous on its face, is not terribly surprising, and is in many respects a logical outgrowth of the eschatology of a wide swath of the Christian Right. But what has been most striking to me is the media’s high profile use of the term “Christian militia.” This suggests to me that a tectonic shift may be underway in our underlying culture and politics as we continue to struggle with how to acknowledge the realities of actual and threatened religiously-motivated violence in the U.S.
Until now, of course, the elephant in the room has been our double standard, at least since 9/11. We’ve had little difficulty acknowledging religious motivations when Muslims are involved, but it’s been rare to find the word “Christian” modifying terms like “militia” and “terrorism” in mainstream discourse.
In the 90s other terms were used to describe what we might now call Christian militias. The most famous militia group at the time, the Michigan Militia, had views similar to those of the Hutaree. It was founded and led by a Baptist minister named Norm Olsen and a deacon of his church and they’d made an indoctrination video of its chaplain addressing new recruits explaining that abortion necessitated the founding of the militia. Nevertheless, it was typically described as “anti-government.” And while that was certainly fair, (as it would be to describe the Hutaree militia as anti-government), it also tended to obscure the indisputable religious motivations of this and many other militia groups large and small. Reporting on these groups at the time also tended to downplay their religious eschatology.
The shorthand descriptions of such groups and individuals sometimes depends on the context. Some fall under the category of “hate groups,” and their acts as “hate crimes.” While these terms can be useful, they too can obscure religious motivations. For example, the once infamous Aryan Nations group referred to itself as the Church of Jesus Christ, Christian, and its leader was Rev. Richard Butler, a minister in one of the sects generally referred to as Christian Identity.
The uneven evolution of our thinking about these things, and the language we use to describe them, casts fresh light on how we use other shorthand terms in this complex and fraught dimension of public life. The term “faith-based,” for example, we use more or less synonymously with “religious” and as substitutes for such terms as “ecumenical” and “interfaith.” It has become a warm and fuzzy term used for glossing over religious differences, both for reasons of inclusiveness and to conceal exclusion. But we would never describe the Aryan Nations as a “faith-based” hate group or the Hutaree as a faith-based militia, or Clayton Waagner as a “faith-based terrorist.”
The rise of the term “faith-based” is probably closely related to our difficulty in ascribing religious motivations to hate and violence, unless of course it is the religion of foreigners with whom we are at odds or at war. Such characterizations can be taken as highly inflammatory. Terms like “Christian militia” or “Islamic terrorism” can suggest that terrorism and militias are more characteristic of these enormous and highly varied religious traditions than is the case. And there are certainly those who do not hesitate to exploit such opportunities. At the same time, the current use of the term “Christian militia” suggests to me at once a certain inevitability (since the Hutaree feature their religious identity on their web site) and a certain maturity in our collective ability to acknowledge the reality of the situation without hyperbole or inappropriate defensiveness with regard to the use of the term–Christianity–that fairly describes the majority of religious believers in the U.S., for all of their extraordinary diversity.
Finally, what terms we use depends on the occasion. While the media term of choice for the Hutaree was “Christian militia,” federal prosecutors have carefully avoided religious references. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald Waterstreet who summarized the case in court insisted that the charges “aren’t about a religion or the militia. It’s a group of like minded people who decided to oppose the authority of the United States by using weapons and force.” Similarly in the indictment he described the Hutaree as “an anti-government extremist organization” whose members wear a patch on their uniform that includes a cross and the initials CCR. The indictment did not explain that the name Hutaree meant “Christian warrior” and that CCR stands for “Colonial Christian Republic.”
“The Hutaree’s enemies,” the indictment continues, “include state and local law enforcement authorities deemed to be “foot soldiers” of… the new World Order.” Of course, foot soldiers for the New world Order does not help anyone understand that the Christian warriors of the Hutaree saw themselves as fighting an end times battle with the agents of the anti-Christ. For their purposes, they may not need to. But even as the feds sought to elide references to religion, they certainly opened the door to draw on the full palette of possibilities in their vision of end times religious war, since the indictment also said that the Hutaree’s enemies list includes “anyone who does not share their beliefs.”
The government has a legitimate law enforcement role in stopping domestic terrorism, though most dissidents on the political right and left are not breaking any laws and are protected by the First Amendment. The current and volatile right-wing populist movement spans from reform-oriented conservative black Republicans to recruiters for insurgent white supremacist groups, with the Tea Party activists and members of citizens militias falling somewhere between these ideological and methodological poles. It would be sloppy to lump all of these folks into one undifferentiated mass of potential terrorists.
The word “extremism,” which is tossed back and forth by both Republicans and Democrats, is a delegitimizing buzz word used by to demonize dissidents across the political spectrum. It was used in the 1960s, for example, to imply that the white segregationists and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were two sides of the same problem of “extremism.” King addressed being framed in this way in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Today the government uses the tem “extremism” to suggest dissident ideas on the right or left place people on a slippery slope toward terrorism. It’s time to stop using the term altogether.
The dynamic of widespread political demonization and scapegoating is not a problem for the police to solve. Religious, political, business, and labor leaders have to find a backbone and demand an end to the demonization of political opponents as traitors out to destroy America. Republicans need to distance themselves from conspiracist demagoguery and accept some moral responsibility for the nasty polarization in our society while Democrats must stop dismissing the angry right-wing populists in the Tea Party movement as ignorant and crazy. All of us need to stand up and call for a vigorous, thoughtful, and even raucous national debate over public policy while opposing all forms of demonization and scapegoating as toxic to democracy.
Frederick Clarkson is an independent journalist, author and editor who has written about politics and religion for thirty years. He is the co-founder of the group blog Talk to Action, Senior Fellow at Political Research Associates, and lives in Massachusetts.
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