Anders Behring Breivik, the Norweigan extremist who last week killed 76 people in a bombing and shooting rampage, has claimed that his acts were part of his mission as a member of the Knights Templar, a medieval order whose modern incarnation, he says, is several thousand strong. Thus far, there’s been no indication that his statements are anything other than baseless attempts at self-aggrandizement. But aspects of Breivik’s 1,500-page manifesto are alarmingly familiar. The Daily Beast talked to Heidi Beirich, research director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors the rise and rhetoric of hate groups, about Breivik’s animosity toward Islam, parallels with American anti-immigration groups, and what we all can do to help avoid violence as we approach the 10th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Excerpts:
Is Breivik’s belief system an anomaly? Are similar schools of thought being fostered in the United States?
What the Southern Poverty Law Center has been seeing and documenting over the last 10 years has been an inexorable rise in the number of hate groups. In 2000, we documented 602 hate groups, and by 2010 that number was about 1,002. The changing demographics in the United States, and in particular the rise of the Latino population, have been increasing the ability of hate groups to recruit because there’s a real fear on the part of people who have racist views that whites are going to be pushed into the minority.
Breivik was, of course, concerned about Muslims, but in the United States, most hate groups have focused on Latinos.
Yes, we only added anti-Islamics to our list of hate groups within the last two years. Everything has otherwise always been anti-Latino or anti-Obama. But starting last summer, around the time of the park 51 protests, anti-Muslim bloggers and others began conducting some pretty fierce protests in Manhattan. People mentioned in the manifesto include Pam Geller and Robert Spencer, and others with connections to the English Defense League, which is a real thuggish group. So we got really, really concerned last summer that we were seeing a new kind of hate explode in a big way.
Why would this explode now, almost a decade after 9/11?
Well, George W. Bush did a good job of saying unequivocally that, “all Muslims are not responsible for this act,” and “Islam is a religion of peace.” In many ways, Bush’s actions back then calmed things down and they contrast greatly from political figures on the right, today who seem perfectly willing to beat up on Muslims as a way to troll for votes.
But there were a number of high-profile attacks on Sikhs and others, who were mistakenly assumed to be Muslim immediately after the attacks.
Yes, there was a spate of murders right afterwards, which was part of the reason Bush went out and made those statements. It’s unfortunate we’re not seeing that from political figures today. You can see with Breivik what happens when this kind of demonization gets into the mind of someone who is prepared to use violence. In his case we’re seeing a direct correlation between Muslim-bashing ideology and murder. He’d spent hours and hours on the web reading American anti-islamic writers like Robert Spencer and Pam Geller and he thought, “They’re a threat, I need to do something about them.”
Both Spencer and Geller are American writers. Are you concerned that something similar could happen here?
Look. We’re very concerned that with the 10-year anniversary coming of the 9/11 attacks, somebody who is inculcated in this anti-Muslim and anti-Islam ideology in the way that Breivik was could decide to take some form of revenge action. We’ll be talking a lot about the 9/11 attacks in the next few months. So for someone who is really freaked or worked up about Muslims or Islam, this could be the moment they get set off.
Political figures on the right today seem perfectly willing to beat up on Muslims as a way to troll for votes.
Well so what can we do as we approach the anniversary?
People should to be very careful when they’re talking about sensitive subjects not to demonize everyone that adheres to a certain belief system. We saw with the rise of Hitler what happens when you demonize a religion. It makes it that much easier to hurt people. The same applies here. If you’re going to spend all your time talking about how Muslims are here to kill you and destroy your way of life and so on, you can’t act surprised when somebody decides to take up arms against them.
But short of preventing people from voicing these views, what can actually be done?
Right. You can’t control the rhetoric, but what you can say when given the opportunity is, “I don’t agree with this. I don’t want to have anything to do with this.” At the Southern Poverty Law Center, we’re trying our best to point out where the haters are, why their information is hateful, and why it’s dangerous. We’re trying to fight bad free speech with more free speech.