The horrible tragedy in Norway is a reminder that extremists—Christian and Muslim—both seek a clash of civilizations. They thrive on each other’s hatred, hoping to destroy dialogue and reconciliation to re-create their medieval fantasies.
Jihadist websites were thrilled when the first news came out of Oslo last Friday that a powerful bomb had exploded outside the prime minister’s office in the heart of the city. Internet chat rooms associated with al Qaeda were quick to claim it was the work of Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or the Helpers of the Global Jihad. Some suggested it was a follow-up to a failed jihadist attack last December in Stockholm, in which a suicide bomber prematurely exploded his bomb before he got to his target: a department store filled with Christmas shoppers. As al Qaeda called that the “battle of Stockholm,” this nightmare would be called the “battle of Oslo.” Sweden and Norway would be punished for sending troops to fight in Afghanistan against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
When the terrible news began to emerge that the Oslo bomb was only a precursor to even more horror at a youth camp outside the capital and that the murderer was not a jihadist at all but rather a Christian right-wing extremist, jihadist websites were unfazed. One said, “Let us rejoice regardless of who is responsible” for the death and misery in Norway. Another praised God for "delivering these dark tidings to the Crusaders.”
The jihadist joy in murder reflects the convergence of extremists in both communities in welcoming a clash between Islam and Christianity. Both far extremes want the world to be polarized into warring camps. For them reconciliation between Islam and Christianity is the enemy, dialogue a danger to be thwarted at all costs.
It is no accident that both extremes idolize the medieval Crusades and paint themselves as 21st-century knights fighting a millennium-old war. Anders Behring Breivik apparently saw himself as a modern reincarnation of the Knights Templar, the order of knights who helped lead the Crusades to reestablish a Christian kingdom in Jerusalem. He allegedly attended a 2002 meeting to revive the Templar order.
Al Qaeda has always fashioned its murderers as knights too, or fursan in Arabic. Al Qaeda’s new boss, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote a book titled Knight Under the Prophet's Banner, in which he justifies al Qaeda’s mass murder as legitimate warfare conducted by a small band of heroic knights like those who fought against the Crusaders for Islam 1,000 years ago. In his eulogy for his boss, Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri praised him as a knight who had fought to the end against the Zionist Crusader enemy. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorists’ wing in Yemen, last week published another edition of its English-language Web magazine, also to eulogize bin Laden. This issue of Inspire portrayed bin Laden as a modern Salah al din (Saladin), the Kurdish warrior who defeated the Crusaders and took back Jerusalem from the Templars.
In their terminology, both violent Islamic jihadis and right-wing Christian extremists often mirror each other. Both claim they are empowered by God to do “necessary” evils for a larger purpose. Both despise those who seek to bring together Christians, Muslims, and Jews along with other religions to find common humanity. Al Qaeda was aroused to great anger when King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia organized interfaith dialogues in Madrid a few years ago, and routinely threatens Muslim clerics who engage in cross-cultural dialogue as traitors to the faith.
The extremists on both sides want the world to be polarized. In al Qaeda’s fantasies, Christians and Jews would not live in the world of Islam; America and the West would be driven out of all lands that have historically belonged to Islam, from Spain to Palestine to Kashmir. In the extremist right’s fantasy, Muslims would be driven out of Europe and America.
Of course, the extremists are also better at killing their own than their enemy. Breivik killed his fellow Norwegians by the dozen, not Muslims. Al Qaeda has killed far more Muslims in its rampage of violence over the last decade and a half—many more Iraqis, Pakistanis, Yemenis, and others than Americans and Europeans. That is the other horrible convergence between the extremes.