According to Henry Srebrnik, a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island, many in the media appear more obsessed with untangling the roots of Islamophobia than criticizing Islamic extremists. That may be because a valuable lesson has been learned in media ethics. Since 9/11, the press has certainly played a role in promoting Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis. This theory depicts "us" — meaning the West — as the guardians of democratic principles, such as freedom and equality, versus "them" — Muslims globally, who are caricatured as uncivilized heathens. This kind of polemic has allowed another prevalent thesis to flourish, that being, "Arab exceptionalism," whereby Arab nations run counter to modernity, democracy and progress.
After a decade of reading about Islam's threat against the West, in 2011 someone took those concerns seriously. Upon being fed a diet of anti-Islamic hysteria, Norway's Anders Breivik decided to murder 77 of his fellow citizens, specifically those he called traitors, for facilitating the Islamization of Europe and Islamic demographic warfare. In other words, those in power became too tolerant of Muslim immigration, so Breivik decided a corrective was in order.
He set off a van bomb in a government quarter, which killed eight, and then gunned down 69 Labour Party youth who were on a retreat at a summer campy on the island of Utya, Norway. His goal was to eliminate a generation of "overly tolerant" liberals. In his research online, he did not learn to despise multiculturalism and Muslim immigrants from the propaganda of crazed right-wing neo-Nazi groups. It was certain members of the mainstream media who provided the real ammunition for his killing spree.
Take, for instance, conservative columnist and Maclean's magazine writer Mark Steyn. In 2008, when speaking to Steve Paikin on The Agenda, he told viewers Muslim immigrants would soon "outbreed" the West, implying "Muslim values" would eventually overrun "western beliefs," leading to what Steyn termed the West's "civilizational exhaustion." When Steve Paikin suggested, "The vast majority of people, I think it's fair to say, who move to the West, they westernize," Steyn appeared hesitant. That is because the question was too obvious.
First, there is no such thing as "homogenous Muslim values." Muslims are as diverse in thinking as any religious or cultural group. Moreover, Muslim immigrants also become highly secularized once they enter their host countries. In Unlikely Utopia: The Surprising Triumph of Canadian Pluralism, Michael Adams notes Muslim Canadians share the same core values as all other Canadians, especially pride in freedom, democracy and multiculturalism.
Yet Steyn has not changed his mindset. Apparently, 69 children being pulled from a Norwegian lake is not enough proof of the impact of Islamophobia. After the Nov. 13 shootings in France, Steyn took the opportunity to say "I told you so." In typical polarizing fashion, he wrote a column in the National Post entitled, "The barbarians are already inside. There's nowhere to get away from them." Once again, he used his position with the mainstream media as a platform to reinforce the clash-of-civilizations mentality: "What it is (the Paris shootings) is an attack on the West, on the civilization that built the modern world — an attack on one portion of "humanity" by those who claim to speak for another portion of "humanity." Steyn simply ignores the fact the Middle East — the cradle of civilization — was instrumental in influencing western culture, technology and education.
Not to be outdone, however, Steyn felt compelled to define what the "typical" Muslim mindset represents: "Most of those people (Muslims) don't want to participate actively in bringing about the death of diners and concertgoers and soccer fans, but at a certain level most of them either wish or are indifferent to the death of the societies in which they live." That's odd, because according to the research presented by Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders in his book The Myth of the Muslim Tide, Muslims overwhelmingly rejected terrorism. When asked if "attacks on civilians are morally justified," only two per cent of Parisian Muslims answered "yes." In fact, Muslims gave a "95 per cent overall favourability rating to France and its institutions."
And then there are those other inconvenient truths that counter Steyn's hypothesis Muslims fail to integrate. In a 2005 survey, eight out of 10 Muslims in France were "comfortable with people of different religions dating or marrying." In fact, a quarter of French Muslim women are married to non-Muslim men, and 50 per cent of young Muslim men are cohabitating with a non-Muslim woman. Moreover, fewer than five per cent of Muslims attend a mosque in France during Friday (Juma) prayer. In other words, no Islamist ideology is setting out to dominate France or any other western nation. Steve Paikin's suspicions were, in fact, correct: immigrants "naturalize" to their host countries. For practical reasons, they have to. This is bad news for Steyn and his ilk because that means there is no "stealth jihad" undermining the West's secular culture or values.
Too bad Anders Breivik could not have seen past this kind of smokescreen. If he could have, 77 people would still be alive today. We should remind ourselves of that unfortunate fact rather than worry over some members of the press's so-called present obsession with Islamophobia. That said, there are crucial lessons we have learned since the Norway massacre. First, any extremist ideology — right/left, secular/religious — can lead to violence. As international bestselling author Åsne Seierstad noted in her account of the massacre, Breivik was "one of us," not "one of them."
Second, Islamophobia is not just a politically correct word used to stifle debate, as political science Prof. Henry Srebrnik seems to imply. Although completely irrational, Breivik's fears were certainly real to him. Third, certain pundits in mainstream media played a specific role in shaping a moral monster. They fed Breivik a narrative of paranoia that only reinforced his prejudices, and his reaction was to internalize such nonsense as gospel truth and then append his own violent conclusion. To answer Prof. Srebrnik's inquiry, perhaps why there are those in the media obsessed with Islamophobia today is because they were guilty of spreading so much insanity only a few short years ago. Does Islamophobia exist? Just ask Anders Breivik.
Stuart Chambers is a professor in the faculties of arts and social sciences at the University of Ottawa, who currently teaches a course in media ethics.