How Do You Label a Mass Murderer?

The other night, my dad was reading an article online about the recent massacre by Norway killer Anders Breivik. Either my father, the article, or both were complaining about the New York Times’ labeling of Breivik as a “fundamentalist Christian.” He thought their bias led them to use the fundamentalist label and thus give Christians a bad name.

It made me curious to see how the overall media world is covering the religious angle on the story, so I hit up Google news and pulled up a few articles, mainly analysis pieces. From what I found, it wasn’t that bad.

First is a article in the Washington Post’s On Faith section by Mathew Schmalz. He makes a clear distinction between a fervent, Christ-centered Christianity, and the glories of the Crusades and the old Christendom that Breivik sought to reinstate. In Schmalz’s analysis, if Breivik invoked Christ at all it was only as a symbol or tool by which to repel Muslim invasion.

Tony Norman’s article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette harps on the hypocrisy and shame of Breivik’s actions, noting that even the Norse warriors of Breivik’s heritage would despise his actions. Also, Norman compares him to radical Muslims, writing:

Like the mirror image of the Islamic terrorists he fears, Mr. Breivik has proven himself more adept at killing his own kind than his shadowy enemies. He subscribes to the ethic that if you’re going to go to the trouble of inciting a war between civilizations, then you might as well begin your own personal Ragnarok in your own backyard.

Most importantly, Norman is careful to note that Breivik only defended a type of “cultural Christianity,” and even that is “just a part of his contradictory and inane mission” (emphasis mine).

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What Happens When

This post will hopefully be the first of several that describes what happens when a young American male, born and raised in California and a studying at a conservative Christian college, reads the Koran (hereafter to be referred to as the “Qur’an).

Ever since spending a semester interning with Religion and Ethics Newsweekly in Washington, DC, where I ran into higher-ups from the Islamic Society of North America as well as Muslim hip-hop group Native Deen, and spending a few subsequent weeks corresponding with a Muslim by email, I’ve wanted to read the Qur’an. With the waves of “Islamophobia” sweeping across the U.S., at the Qur’an burning and Manhattan mosque controversies last fall, I’m curious. I’ve heard a lot about Islam, but I don’t have much experience engaging with the religion directly.

Now that summer is in full swing, I finally have a good chance. As time and inspiration allow, I’ll try to jot down some thoughts about the Qur’an every once in awhile. Before I say any more, though, or even open the Qur’an, a couple disclaimers:

  • I have a bias against this book. No denying it. Islam gets a lot of bad press and people love to quote the most unsavory passages of the Qur’an. I’m not a fan of Islam. From what little I have seen, it strikes me as the great “anti-Christianity,” or basically Christianity without the gospel, and I find that very dangerous and disturbing. Now, maybe some of that is deserved. Maybe most of it is. Maybe almost none of it is. The point is that I will be predisposed to criticize and tear down Islam through the Qur’an, so I might as well say so up front.
  • Even though I’m biased, the goal here is understanding first. Saint Augustine said, “Never judge a philosophy by its abuse.” I know that people do this all the time with Christianity, and I suspect we often do it with Islam too. I want to take Islam for what it’s worth, find out what it’s all about, and then judge it accordingly. Even if I end up tearing it down and rejecting it, I want to at least be accurate in my critique. It does no good to learn a caricature of a false position.
  • I know I’m going to get a lot of things wrong. I’ll try to be careful about that. I’ll try my honest best to understand what the Qur’an is really getting at. However, if someone read through the Bible once and started making all sorts of judgments about it, I wouldn’t trust much of what he had to say. My ignorance about most of the history of Islam and the context in which it emerged will handicap my understanding, just as it would with any other sort of historical account or ancient religious text. When I get through, I expect to learn a lot and gain a new, more accurate perspective on what Islam is all about, but I invite any Muslims who happen to stumble across this to gently correct me should I misrepresent your faith.
  • I know a lot of Christians will read this. I hope it doesn’t bother you too much that I keep comparing approaches to the Bible and the Qur’an. There’s definitely a danger in doing this. But, well, I guess I believe that in a time where Islam is taking an increasingly larger place in the western world,  reading the Qur’an is one way to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The Christian testimony is often bolstered when believers take as much time understanding someone else’s beliefs as they do preaching and explaining their own. Many times, I think, we would do well to make more of an effort to listen. And besides, if Scripture really is God’s word, then it’s going to stand up under scrutiny and under comparisons. It’s going to stand out from all other religious books. It will prove itself.