On Friday, March 15th the world woke up to the news of a terrorist attack in New Zealand, where an Australian man, identifying as Brenton Tarrant, allegedly stormed into two separate mosques and gunned down 51 Muslim worshippers as they prepared for Friday prayers, live-streaming the massacre on his Facebook account.
In his manifesto, which he emailed to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern minutes before the attack began, Tarrant spews anti-Muslim, anti-migration and other white nationalist tropes, re-stating what those who adhere to this ideology see as the need to “crush immigration and deport those invaders already living on our soil” for the sake of the survival of the ‘white race’.
In reference to violent historical episodes such as the Crusades, the Reconquista of Spain and the 1683 Ottoman siege of Vienna, among others, Tarrant states: “The present is a gift from the those in our past”, as he goes on to condemn what he sees as the liberal political orientation of Western states by writing: “Your ancestors did not sweat, bleed and die in the name of a multicultural, egalitarian nation.”
Tarrant’s terrorism was not committed in a vacuum. Increasing in intensity following the September 11th attacks, years of institutional and governmental discourse in the West, fuelled by the multi-billion dollar security industry, has fed into the re-emergence of an ethno-nationalism that is ultimately rooted in the national mythologies of Europe and its settler-colonial successor states and stimulated by a perceived economic and social malaise.
New Zealand and Australia, where the alleged shooter called home, are no exception. As Jason Wilson wrote recently in the Guardian, “Australian racism did not, of course, begin in 2001. The country was settled by means of a genocidal frontier war, and commenced its independent existence with the exclusion of non-white migrants. White nationalism was practically Australia’s founding doctrine.”
In New Zealand’s case, historian WP Morell’s interpretation of the history of New Zealand’s growth of national consciousness and ‘manhood’ as being rooted on the ‘bloody slopes of Gallipoli in 1915’, is indicative of the fact that New Zealand’s founding sense of self, is itself rooted in bloody battle against ‘the Turk’ and has a deep sense of racism embedded within its national mythology.
In Australia’s case in particular, we have seen the emergence of a discourse, not only from the extreme fringes but increasingly from the mainstream, that is centred on the notion of the discourse of ‘our land’.
Much of orientalist scholarship has more often than not framed Muslims as dogmatic, potentially violent and inherently unreasonable. One particular orientalist trope that is relevant here is the positing of religion – Semitic religion in particular (i.e. Judaism and Islam) – as the antipathy of progress and therefore of modernity.
This plays very much into the hands of those who have sought to securitise and surveil Muslim communities because of what they view as the essential threat that they pose.
Furthermore, in perpetrating this discourse, mainstream Muslim voices are ignored in favour of so-called Muslim ‘reformers’ such as Maajid Nawaz, Ali A. Rizvi, Ayan Hirsi Ali and others, who are embraced with open arms by media and civil society organisations of a particular persuasion as examples of what ‘good’ Muslims should be.
Beyond the condemnations from the halls of power, serious questions need to be answered at an institutional and policy level as to where counter-terrorism resources are being focused. Looking a New Zealand’s list of ‘Designated individuals and organisations’ designated as terrorist entities, it becomes clear that white nationalism and its propensity for violence has received a fraction of attention that the exaggerated threat that Muslim groups pose to the small South-Pacific nation.
It is most appalling that nearly every Western government has a counter-terrorism strategy that disproportionately targets Muslims, whilst white nationalist extremism, which has accounted for the most deadly attacks in the US in the last two years, as per the Global Terrorism Database, are often treated as one offs and not seriously considered in the counter-terrorism strategies of most Western countries.
As one Twitter user put it, “The Muslims at Christchurch mosque were not the victims of a single shooter. They were the victims of an entire Islamophobia industry that vilified them.”
It goes without saying, the often exhausted but ever relevant argument that Muslims in the media are demonised and vilified, while white nationalist terrorists are given the space to be analysed and ‘understood’.
If we truly seek to have an honest conversation, it is absolutely necessary that the lens through which we view these events moves beyond the rhetoric of a hateful fringe of right-winged militants towards a serious critique of the roots of white nationalism and the uncomfortable truth that it is inherently linked to the settler-colonial project upon which these states are founded.
Only then can real change begin to be realised.
Beyond the evident trauma and the emotion of the day, the key is in addressing the issues in terms of institutions and real policy. Moving forward it is essential that discussions move towards ensuring that state institutions in places such as New Zealand, Australia and beyond enact policies that are designed to root out systematic Islamophobia and racism more generally and make it clear that there is no room for this ideology to breath.