When Slogans Beget Slaughter

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Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

A Muslim woman stands in front of a sea of floral tributes placed outside the Oslo Cathedral July 26, 2011

Last year on Sept. 11, I stood at Ground Zero as hundreds of people shouted obscenities against Muslims and Islam. They were gathered to protest the proposed construction of a Muslim-run interfaith community center nearby, which had earned the inaccurate moniker Ground Zero mosque. The rally was conducted by a motley crew of Islamophobes, among them several European visitors. Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has called for a ban on immigration to the Netherlands from Muslim countries, denounced the arrival of a "new Mecca" on the shores of what was once New Amsterdam. Members of the far-right, anti-immigrant English Defence League unfurled banners voicing support for an American war on Islam.

I mention this because the manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik, the man behind the massacre in Norway, echoed those calls. Multiculturalism, Marxism, the supposed insensibility of Islam to Western values and the appeasement tendencies of a naive liberal elite: such were the grievances raised separately by both Breivik and the riled-up crowd in lower Manhattan. The writings of Robert Spencer — an organizer of that rally and an anti-Muslim polemicist routinely accused of hate speech — were cited 64 times in Breivik's manifesto, according to the New York Times.

Of course, it takes a deeply deranged mind to translate intensely held political beliefs into acts of terrorism. In the aftermath of the Norway attacks, a host of pundits warned against forming too close a connection between the Western far right and Breivik's atrocious deeds. "Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic have an obligation to acknowledge that Anders Behring Breivik is a distinctively right-wing kind of monster," urged New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. "But they also have an obligation to the realities that this monster's terrible atrocity threatens to obscure."

This is where I object. Douthat's argument that we must not lose sight of the supposedly flawed liberal policies that fueled Breivik's rage meshes with a broader Western impulse to cast terrorism by the xenophobic far right as somehow more excusable than the terrorism of jihadists. After 9/11, few Western commentators would have dared dwell on Washington's foreign policy in the Middle East. Yet the argument can be made that this was as much a spur for al-Qaeda as Europe's problems with Muslim integration were for Breivik's killing spree.

Calculated murder is calculated murder — except when the West says it's not. In the wake of 9/11, the bombings in London and Madrid, the Fort Hood shooting and the failed plot of the Times Square bomber, one explanation was frequently offered: namely that Islam is collectively in the grip of a dogmatic belligerence, compelling pious and seemingly sane Muslims to blow things up. Breivik's killing spree, however, and Jared Loughner's attempted assassination of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — in which six died, including a 9-year-old girl — are cast as the demented acts of fringe lunatics, as psychological nightmares, not ideologically inspired ones.

The global alarm over al-Qaeda and Islamism in the past decade belies the fact that only a nanoscopic fraction of Muslims actually take up Kalashnikovs and don bomb vests. Yes, jihadist groups demand constant vigilance and pose a threat to countless Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But in many places they are also in retreat, weakened by concerted counterterrorism operations and the political awakening across large stretches of the Arab world.

Breivik's actions, on the other hand, are rooted in a xenophobic hysteria that seems to be growing in the West. Across Scandinavia, a region once known for openness, the far right has made steady electoral gains. In 2010, the Sweden Democrats became the first far-right party to enter Parliament, winning nearly 6% of the vote despite the shocking statements of a local candidate who said on Facebook that migrants should be shot, put in bags and returned to their native countries. Elsewhere in Europe and the U.S., racist and anti-Muslim rhetoric is finding ready listeners in times of epochal economic woe.

It's wrong to suggest that Breivik is wholly a product of these politics. But it's equally wrong to disregard them altogether. Standing at Ground Zero, I would never have considered even the most foulmouthed Islamophobe there to be capable of what Breivik did, or of inciting it. Yet Islam seems forever on trial, especially in the eyes of the Robert Spencers and Geert Wilders of the world. Why shouldn't they now also be held to account for the terrors incubated by their own appalling ideology?

This article originally appeared in the August 15, 2011 issue of TIME Asia.