Conspiracism and Violence

Image of bombing of government headquarters in Oslo July 22nd

Do the terrorist organization Al Qaeda and Anders Behring Breivik – the perpetrator behind the terrorist attack on the government headquarters in Oslo and the massacre at Utøya that killed 77 people on July 22nd 2011– have anything in common? At a first glance they seem to be very different. With the exception of their use of similar means – mass murder of civilians – their perception of reality and ideological motives appears highly divergent. The world view of Al Qaeda rests on a militant-fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, with a sting toward the Western world and a notion of a Jewish world power as an explanatory model for an imagined moral decline, growing disbelief and cultural decadence. Breivik, on the other hand, views himself as a soldier in the struggle against “multiculturalism” and “the Islamic influence.”

A more thorough analysis of the ideological universes of Al Qaeda and Breivik nevertheless reveals clear structural similarities between the two. One common denominator is their embrace of conspiracy myths. For both undesired developments and events are thought to be staged by a powerful group of conspirators who covertly operate to achieve their undermining and nihilistic objectives.

The Characteristics of Conspiracism

What characterizes conspiracy thinking, or conspiracism as it is often called in academic circles? In short, conspiracism can be defined as a way of talking about and understanding the world that has its basis in the notion that the key events in and the historical course of society are covertly and systematically directed by a group (or groups of) conspirators. Furthermore, these forces are thought to promote values and goals that are diametrically opposed to what the believers perceive as the “true” and righteous social and moral order.

According to historian Geoffrey Cubitt this mode of thinking consists of three overall features. They are dualistic , in the sense that they make a sharp division between “good” and "destructive” forces. They are intentionalist, in the sense that they portray negative events and developments as a result of systematically planned intrigues. And finally they are occultist, in the sense that they believe that social development is shaped behind the scenes, and that the “true power” is placed outside the public purview. As a fourth feature, it can be added that conspiracism is distinguished by the belief that nearly everything is connected. Non-related events and historical developments are tied together in absurd ways and ascribed to the same cause.

A good example of Al Qaeda’s conspiracism can be seen in the Letter to America that was published by British Islamists in 2002 and apparently authored by Osama Bin Laden. The letter listed a series of charges against American society and the U.S. government, and thereby sought to justify the terrorist attacks against the Pentagon and World Trade Center on September 11th 2001. The accusations dealt with everything from U.S. support to Israel and its remaining foreign policy, to the alleged immorality and decadence of American culture. All of these phenomenons were traced back to one common source – the Jews:

You are the nation that permits Usury, which has been forbidden by all the religions. Yet you build your economy and investments on Usury. As a result of this, in all its different forms and guises, the Jews have taken control of your economy, through which they have then taken control of your media, and now controls all aspects of your life […] Your law is the law of the rich and wealthy people, who hold sway in their political parties, and fund their election campaigns with their gifts. Behind them stands the Jews, who control your policies, media and economy.

Breivik and the Eurabia Myth

In the months following the terror attack on the government headquarters in Oslo and the cruel murders at Utøya on July 22nd 2011, much has been written and said about Anders Behring Breivik’s background, political bearings and ideological views. One thing is certain: the atrocities were not accidental. Although serious questions have been raised about Breivik's mental state – he was recently declared psychotic in a highly controversial report written by two officially appointed forensic psychiatrists – there is no doubt that his actions had ideological and political dimensions. Shortly before the bomb was discharged in Oslo, Breivik e-mailed a 1,500 page document entitled 2083 – European Declaration of Independence to more than a thousand recipients. 

The document is a hotchpotch of the murderer’s own thoughts and texts authored by his own political idols – assembled by the cut and paste method. Still, as Norwegian journalist Øyvind Strømmen points out, the “manifesto” – together with Breivik’s posts on different websites – gives a clear picture of the murderer’s political views. Breivik was inspired by a so-called counter-jihadist internet community, where a grandiose conspiracy narrative centered on the fear of Islam and the multi-cultural society serves as an ideological basis. As Strømmen writes: 

This is a milieu that upholds an ideology that hardly can be called Neo-Nazism, but definitely can be called right-wing extremism. It is a milieu with ties to European Neo-Fascism. And it is a milieu where conspiracy theory reigns: Europe is becoming Arabia – islamized and arabized. This is a conscious policy, a policy to which central politicians, media persons and academics are complicit.

The conspiracy myth Strømmen refers to, as it runs like a red thread through Breivik’s document, is often called the Eurabia-theory. The concept of Eurabia was originally coined by Egyptian-born British writer Bat Ye’or (pseudonym for Giséle Littmann) in her book Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis, which appeared in 2005. Ye’or’s conspiracy narrative is centered on The Euro-Arab Dialogue (EAD), which she believes to have been created by an association of Arab and European politicians and bureaucrats. The aim of this supposed dialogue is to enslave the Western world under Islamic supremacy.

A whole Eurabia-genre has emerged in the years following the publication of Bat Ye’or’s book. Among the central adherents to this idea-complex are the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, author Bruce Bawer, Robert Spencer (who is behind the American blog Jihad Watch), and the Norwegian blogger Fjordman (pseudonym for Peder Are Nøstvold Jensen). It is especially Fjordman who emerges as Breivik’s great political idol. As many as 38 of the blogger’s articles are reproduced in their entirety in the “manifesto,” and the title A European Decleration of Independence also stems from one of his essays. 

The Enemy Image

A quick look at Breivik’s compendium – both the sections the killer has written himself and the ones he has picked from his ideological comrades – emphatically demonstrates that conspiracy thinking is a basic component of the murderers world view. In Breivik’s thought universe all undesirable features of social development are “explained” as a planned and secret plot orchestrated by a Eurabian coalition. His way of thinking follows, in other words, Cubitt’s definition point-device – it is dualistic, intentionalist and occultist.

Select examples clearly render Breivik’s conspiracy narrative. Already in the initial chapter of the compendium, the history of the West from the 1950s until the present is described as a process of decay that has led to the disintegration of national and European values. Behind this disintegration is a collation of politicians and intellectuals influenced by “culture-Marxism,” as well as bureaucrats of the European Union (EU) and Islamic leaders. In one of Fjordman’s articles reproduced in the “manifesto,” the forces against native Europe are thus described as a three-headed internal and external enemy:

I've suggested before that native Europeans face three enemies simultaneously when fighting against the Islamisation of their lands: Enemy 1 is the anti-Western bias of our media and academia, which is a common theme throughout the Western world. Enemy 2 are Eurabians and EU-federalists, who deliberately break down established nation states in favor of a pan-European superstate. Enemy 3 are Muslims.

Islamization and the introduction of multiculturalism – and the consequent destruction of European culture and traditions – is portrayed as planned and intended. For example a passage about the EU reads: 

The EU is deliberately destroying the cultural traditions of member states by flooding them with immigrants and eradicating native traditions. This is a gross violation of the rights of the indigenous peoples across an entire continent. Europe has some of the richest cultural traditions on the planet. To replace this with sharia barbarism is a crime against humanity. The European Union is currently the principal (though not the only) motor behind the Islamisation of Europe, perhaps the greatest betrayal in this civilisation’s history.

A couple of pages later it is asserted that the EU has camouflaged itself as a peace project, while the true purpose of the institution is war. In other words, the subversive forces are hiding their intentions: 

Proponents of the European Union claim that it is a “peace project”. But the EU is not about peace, it is about war: A demographic and cultural war waged against an entire continent, from the Black Sea to the North Sea, in order to destroy European nation states and build an empire run by self-appointed bureaucrats.

In line with classical conspiracy myths, Breivik also asserts that the Eurabia-coalition and its “culture-Marxist” marionettes control knowledge-production and the spread of information. In another instance, for example, Breivik claims that 95 % of all journalists, editors, and publishers – and 85 % of all Western politicians – support multiculturalism and the introduction of Islamic rule in Europe. Similar attacks on the academic establishment and mass media recurr throughout the entire document.

A Cry for War and Murder

The struggle between these destructive forces and the opponents of this conspiracy are consequently portrayed in a dualistic manner – as a battle and ongoing war. It is asserted that Islam has been behind a holy war against non-Muslims for 1,400 years and that this jihad has claimed 300 million lives. Furthermore, Western “cultural-Marxist” politicians and intellectuals are characterized as pro-Islamic traitors. In one of Fjordman’s articles included in the compendium, it is said that these collaborators should fear their future destiny:

The political elites implement the agendas of our enemies and ignore the interests of their own people. They are collaborators and should be treated accordingly. The problem is that they currently feel quite comfortable and secure. They fear the reactions of Muslims, but despise their own people. They view us as sheep, existing only to provide them with champagne and nice cars and to be guinea pigs in their grandiose social experiments. Change will only come when they fear us, and the consequences of their own betrayal, more than they fear Muslims.

Breivik himself divides the followers and hangers-on of “culture-Marxism” into fours traitor-categories: A, B, C and D. “Category A-traitors” encompass the leadership in politics, culture, economy and the media. “Category B-traitors” consists of everyone from politicians from “multiculturalist” parties, via media persons, writers and several other groups of professionals, to central figures in the antifascist movement. According to Breivik, persons in these categories shall be punished by death. This constitutes the ideological rationalization of the killings at Utøya. During police questioning on July 25th, Breivik admitted to having committed mass murder but still refused guilt. According to the murderers’ opinion, the killings of future politicians in the Norwegian Labor Party was a necessary act, which would help deliver an indigenous war against multiculturalism and Islam. They were, in other words, an act of self-defense. 

Conspiracism as Political Violence

So what then are the connections between conspiracy thinking and politically motivated acts of terror? Is the mythologic conspiratorial thought-universe, found in both Osama Bin Laden and Anders Behring Breivik, an accident? It must be pointed out that conspiracy thinking does not automatically lead to acts of violence and murder. In Eurabia-believing circles there has been demonstrated distancing from Breivik’s misdeeds, even though this has often been coupled with attempts to transfer part of the blame on to current immigration policies and the political establishment. Breivik’s motives also have to be found in non-ideological factors – among them his personal and social background, his personality, and in the radicalizing dynamic that often arises with hate-rhetoric on the internet.

It is out of the scope of this article to discuss Breivik's sanity or evaluate the report which was written by his forensic psychiatrists. Still, if Breivik is insane, it is important to point out that paranoia in a clinical sense does not necessarily contradict paranoia in a political sense. Rather it shows what fatal consequences there can be when the latter world view is adopted by the former type of individual.

Historically there is a close connection between conspiracy fantasies, terrorism, violence, and outright mass murder. The most well-known and discussed is the Nazi’s murder of the European Jews, which gained much of its ideological nutriment from the myth that the Jews represented a powerful and international conspiracy that threatened the way of life and existence of the “Germanic race.” But conspiracy thinking was also an integrated part of totalitarian, so-called Communist, states, such as the Soviet Union, the Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge, and Hoxa’s Albania. Conspiratorial world-views have also been an underlying motive behind political violence and terrorist acts in recent times, even if we look away from Al Qaeda and Anders Behring Breivik. The perpetrators behind the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which resulted in 168 deaths, were inspired precisely by the right-wing extremist Zionist Occupied Government mythology. 

The danger of conspiracy thinking is that it replaces sober analysis of social and political problems with images of a powerful and diabolic enemy. They rest on a notion that everything that goes wrong in the world can be ascribed to evil intrigues, rather than social structures and historical circumstances.

In their absolute consequences, conspiracy fantasies are therefore hate ideologies. They foster the demonization of a group of people – Jews, Freemasons, Catholics, Muslims, or “Culture-Marxists” – who are perceived to break down the "desired" social and political order. Furthermore, conspiracy myths nearly always contain a strong crisis-consciousness in the form of the belief that the world – at least how it should be – is at the edge of a cliff. According to such a perspective even the most despicable acts, such as terrorism and genocide, can be justified as a “self-defense” against “evil” and “disintegrating” forces.

At the same time, conspiracy myths often appear attractive by offering a (false) compass in a complex world that is rapidly changing. On the one hand they create artificial connections between complex developments and events, and on the other they give the driving forces behind what is feared and unexpected a face. This is why a real danger exists that conspiracy myths can re-flourish on a mass-scale, especially in times of crisis. This is exactly why we must demonstrate a crystal-clear distance from such misconceptions.