Colombo Telegraph

Christchurch Massacre, White Supremacism & Islamophobia: Some Pertinent Reflections!

By Mohamed Harees

Lukman Harees

A monument will never change how she feels. It’s unfair that victims should have to forgive those who raped, tortured, and killed, or burned villages to the ground. On an Island of World Peace, shouldn’t those who inflicted terrible harm on others be forced to confess and atone, and not make widows and mothers pay for stone monuments?― Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women

For Muslims specially in the West, Friday Prayer is a day of community prayer, where families also travel to their local mosques – their religious sanctuary, where they gather in the early afternoon to pray as a community while their kids run through the halls as the imam recites the Quran in Arabic. On this fateful Friday just gone, the Muslim families in Christchurch in the idyllic New-Zealand were, on the contrary, preparing for funerals. As a shocked world awoke to the nightmare of the toll of New Zealand’s most deadly shooting and massacre at two mosques in Christchurch, in a carefully planned and unprecedented atrocity, with at least 49 people being gunned killed in cold blood and 20 being seriously injured, there were prayers around and political leaders across the world issued laudable statements of condemnation appearing as front line news. But a perplexed world began to ask: Is it mere the vile machinations of a deranged white supremacist terrorist or is it hate rhetoric of the politicians and media who has enabled anti-Muslim prejudice to become mainstream leading to their self-interested words helping to slay?

Massacre by its definition means ‘an indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of many people’. Many  parallels could be found in the recent history all over the world. As Sri Lankans, who lived through the 30 year old civil war in the Island , we are quite familiar with these types of massacres. However, this deplorable mosque massacre in Christ-church will definitely bring back sad emotional memories of  another which occurred in the East within the hallowed precincts of mosques in Kathankudy in 1990 carried out by the Tiger terrorists, killing 141 and injuring many. In fact, more than others, those fortunate ones who survived this Kathankudy massacre and experienced those deadly moments while prostrating in prayer to their Lord, could realistically empathize, and feel the fear and agony of those in the Christchurch mosques  who were in a similar situation even 28 years later. They did not spare even a kid in the congregation, as some survivors then recounted. All of this type of hate attacks came from the brand of Fascism and Nationalism upheld by the Tigers, whose movement preached segregation and hatred rather than brotherhood, and that anyone different has “colonized” (a key Tiger nationalist code word for pointing out who to hate) the “Tamil Homeland”. Politics of division!

Writer and television co-host Waleed Aly in a recent Aussie TV discussion on the Christchurch tragedy captured the feelings in these types of massacres which happens within places of worship, quite succinctly. He said ‘’And I know the people who did this knew well enough how profoundly defenseless their victims were in that moment. This is a congregational prayer that happens every week like clockwork. This was slaughter by appointment. And it’s scary because, like millions of other Muslims, I’m going to keep attending those appointments and it feels like fish in a barrel’. 

Hate-based attacks are never spontaneous because hate is something constructed, learnt, and normalised and based on raw extremist ideologies and political expediencies. It is a reality that those who committed these dreadful acts came to believe what they were doing was right, that they were protecting their group, their country, their loved ones from an outside threat, which makes acts of identity-based violence different to other forms of violence. In fact, the Christchurch killer clearly was a white far right supremacist who held extremist views about immigration and bore anti-Muslim hatred, as the manifesto he laid bare proved and showed no remorse in respect of his crime against humanity. In fact, he felt it was part of his life mission to do what he did. His role models and patrons included Trump and few other Western prominent Islamophobes and the likes of Australian Senator Anning who blamed the victims for the tragedy in horrid language. He was inspired by Anders Breivik, the far-right Norwegian terrorist who murdered 77 people in 2011, He live-streamed his  despicable killing spree as he knew that he had a captive audience out there in the social media who were enthralled, motivated and enthused by his vile antics. He also played a song praising war criminal Karadzic as he drove to one of the mosques. To many youngsters and kids who were so used to video war games, this live streaming would have been sheer entertainment giving a sense of realism, rather than raising any remorse. 

The New Zealand Massacre was thus made to go viral and the attack marked a grim new age of social media-fuelled terrorism. The horror was designed specifically for an era that has married social media and racism — a massacre apparently motivated by white extremist hatred, streamed live on Facebook and calculated to go viral. How well the online community worked in the gunman’s favour was quite scary! By providing oxygen by allowing this on their platforms, the many TV stations and internet platforms too became accomplice to the Christchurch killer.

The world is witnessing an era of worsening social disintegration, political polarisation, and rising prejudice. It’s clear that the dangers of white nationalism are growing and aren’t limited to the US as seen in the Trump era. This attack is a reminder that this dangerous ideology also threatens immigrant communities worldwide, and that it’s fuelled by leaders around the world. As Waleed Aly further echoed in the aforesaid Aussie TV discussion, ‘There’s nothing about what happened in Christchurch today that shocked me. I wasn’t shocked when six people were shot to death at a mosque in Quebec City two years ago. I wasn’t shocked when a man drove a van into Finsbury Park mosque in London about six months later and I wasn’t shocked when 11 Jews were shot dead in a Pittsburgh synagogue late last year or when nine Christians were killed at a church in Charleston. If we’re honest, we’ll know this has been coming’. Thus, there is an imperative need to tackle a growing and globalized ideology of white nationalism that must be addressed at its source, of which the Christchurch tragedy is only the latest manifestation.  — which includes the mainstream politicians and media personalities who nurture, promote and excuse it. Thus, many have blood in their hands and should equally bear responsibility  for this unforgivable tragedy. 

Among white nationalists’ major motivators is “the great replacement” conspiracy theory. They fear that Jews, blacks and Muslims will replace white people and eventually subordinate them. Jews are often viewed as the diabolical head of the cabal, the nerve centre, who use their infinite wealth and power to reduce and weaken the white man. Standard white supremacist and far-right nationalist tropes, like fears of a “white genocide,” are sprinkled throughout the manifesto the gunman owned. There are also references to centuries-ago battles between Christians and Muslims ,which is certainly for a wider reach.  The primary goal of the manifesto’s author was to prevent Muslims and non-whites from taking over Western society, calling on white-majority countries to “crush immigration,” deport non-whites and have more children to stop the decline of white populations. 

In US, anti-Muslim hate has always existed and 09/11 was only a further catalyst. Coupled with the rise of political leaders with extreme views, the US witnessed in recent times a remarkable shift to the right when dealing with people of other faiths or colour. Politically motivated outbursts against Muslims in America have given rise to physical and verbal abuse. In Europe, the situation is not much different. In many European countries,  there has seen a surge of anti-Muslim sentiments, much of which is fuelled by far right politicians to gain votes and Media outlets to increase sales, by whipping up anti-Islamic rhetoric. By creating an atmosphere of hate and distrust, demonising Islam and the Muslims has become such an art with them and Islamophobia has become an industry but widely ignored and downplayed by the decision makers. As a result, Islamophobic crimes have often been broadly classified as hate. As we discuss the roots of the Christ church killings, we therefore also need to discuss how accepted the Islamophobia that underpinned the attack actually is! As President Erdogan said the Islamophobia that motivated the attacks “has rapidly started to take over Western communities like a cancer”. I would add that this cancer has grown beyond the West too, as we have seen in Myanmar and many parts of Asia. 

Moving on in the Post- Christ church period! Of course, New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern  rose upto the occasion and said ‘New Zealand is united in grief’. ‘This is not the New Zealand they know. This is not the New Zealand we know.They are us. We will continue to stand by them “referring to the victims, not long after the mass murder. It is however not merely giving protection to the mosques on Fridays as it is not practicable in the medium to long run. As Trudeau said in a statement,” Far too often, Muslims suffer unimaginable loss and pain in the places where they should feel safest. To move forward as a world, we need to recognize diversity as a source of strength, and not a threat.” Unfortunately ,the West appears to defend demonization of Muslims as ‘freedom of expression and adopts double standards in dealing with Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism as we saw in the case of US Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. In fact, in January 2015, protocol went out of the window as the 60 world leaders congregated in Paris to show their support and solidarity with France after a week of terrorist bloodshed that left 17 dead. ‘We are walking together, as one Europe, Africa, the Middle East against terrorism’ was the message. Today, as Christchurch with tears streaming down faces, riven with the grief and shock of the last few days, weeps for its’ victims of terror in a hallowed place of worship in larger numbers, I wonder whether those leaders will make a similar show of solidarity. Perhaps not ,as the political hypocrisy and double standards always governs their conduct and policies.   

Hate for Muslims, refugees and migrants doesn’t “just happen.” As stated earlier, terrorism against marginalized and the ‘other’ is a direct outcome of bigotry and hate that has been mainstreamed in our public discourse by many media organizations fanning the flames and our own democratically elected politicians. Across the globe, we are witnessing the growth in white nationalism and so-called populist leaders taking power, and their calling cards look the same. They talk tough on “clamping down” on migrants and refugees as they demonize Muslims and migrants generally. Terrorism, they say is an equal-opportunity employer. Heads full of putrid ideas and hearts full of hatred can take root anywhere. As Muslims, we saw this in ISIS. The only way to counter white-supremacist ideology and terrorism and extremism in general, is to tackle it head-on as a society at the grass root levels and civil/religious organizations through public activism. This starts with everyone understanding that these acts of terrorism are not one-offs. White supremacy is, of course, a growing and present danger in the lives of Muslims and other marginalized people and communities, but as said, as long as the hate can be dismissed as a rarity and the internet remains a pillar in our lives, it also threatens every single one of us. We each have a role to play in countering the narrative and the resulting ideologies. 

One of the positive signs which emerged rising from the rubbles of this tragedy  was the genuine outpourings of sympathy and support from many other communities. Within hours of the Christchurch mosque attacks, people of various faiths rallied around Muslims.The New Zealand Jewish community decided to shut its synagogues on Shabbat for the first time ever in an act of solidarity with the Muslim community. Chief Rabbi Mirvis tweeted, that “there can be few acts of greater evil than the massacre of peaceful people at prayer”, calling it “terrorism of the most despicable kind, callously planned & motivated by the scourge of Islamophobia”. Churches began opening their doors after mosques were told to close for security issues in the wake of the tragedy. A fundraiser for the victims reportedly topped $400,000. Overseas too, there was much anger against the perpetrators and sympathy for the victims too. A UK-based national forum for Christian-Muslim engagement was reportedly calling on Christians to go along to Friday prayers at their local mosques — a call the archbishop of Canterbury endorsed. Likewise, in the past, Muslim communities have stepped up to help in different ways when such hate disasters struck other communities, like it happened many times in the US and Europe. We know that Christchurch was not an exception; If the people want to ensure that such tragedies are not repeated, it’s time to start for all, irrespective of religious and racial differences, travelling in the same direction together, and take on hate and bigotry in every corner where it lives whether online or offline.

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