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Is there really such a thing as a sane terrorist? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Is there really a distinction between rational terrorism and insane terrorism? How can it be that the prosecution of a Muslim terrorist rapidly transforms into a trial of his religion, as well as his ethnic and cultural roots, but if he is a Christian, Jew or follower of any other doctrine, then he is seen as an anomaly who committed an awful crime, and there is a rush to undertake a profound analysis of his motives and mental state?

These questions came to mind as I watched the trial of Anders Breivik, a Norwegian man who killed 77 mostly young people in cold blood. He conducted a two-fold operation whereby he first detonated a car bomb outside a government complex in central Oslo, using a huge cargo of explosives, with the aim of diverting the authorities’ attention away from his main target, a youth summer camp held by the Norwegian Labor Party, where he committed a horrific massacre, shooting dead the majority of his victims. Breivik’s trial came to an end on Friday, 13 months after his crime that horrified Norway, provoked a major debate and attracted widespread interest across the world, especially in Europe which is currently witnessing vibrant discussions on Islam, extremism, terrorism and racism. Islam here has served as the scapegoat once again, whether through the usual premature speculations that arise whenever a terrorist act is committed, with fingers instantly pointed at so-called “Islamic terrorism”, or through Breivik’s self-confessed motives that he put forward during his prosecution. Breivik launched a fierce tirade against Islam and Muslims, considering them to be the real danger to Europe and a threat against Western civilization. He claimed to have been influenced by the ideology of the radical or racist Christian right that extends from America and through Europe, as well as by the abundance of anti-Islam literature that criticizes Muslim immigrants in Europe. Breivik considered Muslim immigrants to be people seeking to adopt “a parallel culture”, refusing to integrate into their new societies and trying to impose their own ideas and customs.

Breivik was given a 21-year prison sentence, the maximum punishment in Norway. Yet the door has been left open for the authorities to demand an extension to his jail term if he is still deemed a threat to society when he is due to be released. This sentence, which seems light considering the horrific nature of the crime and the number of victims, would not even have been possible had the controversy surrounding Breivik’s mental competence – to determine whether he was sane or mentally ill – not been resolved. If the court had considered him insane, he would have been sent to a mental hospital instead of prison to serve out his sentence. The final decision entailed considering whether Breivik was a terrorist and a killer whose crime was premeditated, or a criminal who was not liable for his actions because he suffers from insanity or schizophrenia.

Controversy erupted after two psychiatrists, who the court had assigned in November 2012 to determine Breivik’s condition, came to the conclusion that he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and lives in his own world of illusions, which paved the way for his crime. As anticipated, the decision was met with a wave of objections and outrage in many circles in Norway, because it would mean that the terrorist killer would be “acquitted” on account of his mental state that did not render him fully liable for his actions or able to make responsible decisions. It was noteworthy that the decision infuriated Breivik himself who objected to it, claiming that it labeled him as a madman whilst he saw himself as a rational individual who did what he did to awaken Norway and Europe, and draw attention to “the creeping Islamic danger.”

In light of this fierce controversy that dominated discussions, rather than looking into the dangerous thoughts and atmosphere that produced Breivik and which could also produce others on account of the rising right-wing extremist and racist trend, and the climates of hostility towards immigrants and Islam, the court ordered another report on his mental condition. This time the result was different, and the report came to the conclusion that Breivik was not insane, neither at the time he committed the crime nor at present, hence paving the way for his trial and subsequent sentence. The decision was a source of comfort not only to those who had sought to prosecute and punish the man who committed the most awful crime in the history of Norway, but it was also a source of relief for Breivik himself, who had refused to be labeled a madman or as someone not capable of making sound decisions. He wanted his trial to be a purely political spectacle with emphasis laid only on his motives and ideas on how to rescue Norway, Europe and Western civilization on the whole from the “creeping Islamic danger”, and also from the “cancer” of Muslim immigrants that he said is tearing apart European values.

The problem amidst all this debate lies in the fact that the prosecution required a great deal of time, and sometimes discussions neglected to focus on the motives or the danger of these thoughts that have been produced by a climate of extremism. Rather, discussions centered upon whether or not the terrorist was liable or responsible for his actions; portraying him as a madman whose crime was the product of his own fantasy world, rather than a product of rising hostility towards immigrants and Islam. An observer, especially from the Islamic world, can clearly see that any terrorist act committed by a Muslim anywhere in the world is immediately followed by a prosecution of Islam, with calls for Muslims to uproot and address all inherent causes of terrorism and climates of extremism. However, if the terrorist is an extremist Christian, as was the case in Norway or in the Oklahoma City bombing in the 1990s, then he is looked upon as an abnormal individual who does not represent a wider phenomenon. Here there is no need for an ideological remedy or a sweeping prosecution of the beliefs of his religion, even if it seems as though the terrorist was influenced by the thoughts of the extreme right or by radical Christian slogans.

Here I am not calling for the trials of non-Muslim terrorists to transform into trials of their religions as well. Rather my aim is to warn against transforming each terrorist act committed by a Muslim into a wider condemnation of Islam and Muslims. This anti-Islamic atmosphere has helped to foster Breivik and others like him, and sometimes politicians, writers and media figures escalate these sentiments, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and this is madness in itself. However, this is a separate issue to be discussed at a later date.

Osman Mirghani

Osman Mirghani

Osman Mirghani is Asharq Al-Awsat's former deputy editor and senior editor-at-large.

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