Islamophobia on the March: Preliminary Conclusions from the Tragedy in Christchurch, New Zealand

On the morning of March 15, the world's leading news agencies spread breaking news from the distant town of Christchurch in New Zealand, where a group of people (their exact number has yet to be established), broke into the Al Noor and Linwood mosques after prayers and went on a random shooting spree, which they broadcast live on social media. The attack left 50 people dead and as many wounded. March 15, 2019, is likely to go down in history as “one of the darkest days” in New Zealand, where the number of homicide victims in 2017 (35) reached its lowest number over the past 40 years.

A New Zealand citizen, Brenton Harris Tarrant, 28, was arrested in connection with the terrorist attack. The search for his accomplices continues. It’s interesting to point out that Tarrant himself has never come to the attention of the law enforcement agencies as someone holding extremist views, despite the fact that even during the court hearings he was making Nazi gestures.

Tarrant posted online an 87-page manifesto with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant messages, which he emailed to the government just minutes before the attack.

The next day, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, arrived in Christchurch and, among other things, met with the Muslim community and assured them that they would be provided with all the necessary help and support they needed.

Tightening up small arms ownership legislation is a measure which will likely be taken very soon. Currently, New Zealand gun owners need only a license. Unlike, for example, in neighboring Australia, gun owners in New Zealand are not required to register their guns with the authorities. 

Who is guilty?

The Christchurch tragedy is further exacerbated by ensuing discussions about the causes of the attack, including the attempts to justify what Tarrant did. In the case of Islamist terrorism, widespread condemnation and comprehensive support of its victims has already become commonplace. This is not the case with right-wing terrorism, though.

A member of the Australian Senate, Fraser Anning, went further than anyone else by directly accusing the New Zealand leaders of the fact that their migration program let “Muslim fanatics” into the country. He believes that what happened in Christchurch highlighted a “growing fear over an increasing Muslim presence” in Australia and New Zealand.

Prime Minister Ardern indirectly argued with Fraser Anning. Indeed, her government is in favor of greater numbers of immigrants. She strongly condemned the attempts to use the migration crisis and the actions of Islamic extremists as the root cause of the tragedy and assured that New Zealand was and will remain a country with no place for intolerance or xenophobia.

Unfortunately, it must be admitted that the activities of Islamist terrorists and the European migration crisis have greatly contributed to the rise of Islamophobic sentiment in Western countries in recent years. Thus, in the winter of 2017, almost immediately after his inauguration, President Trump unsuccessfully tried to bar the entrance into the country to citizens of a number of Muslim countries that he believed were not trustworthy. Last year, former British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, quipped that Muslim females wearing burkas “look like letter boxes,” which, according to the police, led to an increase in the number of attacks on Muslim females in the UK.

It is only human to apprehend unfamiliar things. Over the past few decades, Islamist terrorists have sown fear and created mistrust towards Muslim communities, which is probably their greatest achievement. The reluctance of many Muslims arriving in Europe to culturally assimilate also played a role, resulting in ethnic enclaves in many Western cities, which are often believed to be hotspots of crime.

Right-wing nationalist parties capitalize full throttle on citizens' discontent with vague migration policies and a lost sense of security. The Hungarian Fidesz-Hungarian Civil Alliance, the Italian Northern League, the Polish Law and Justice, the Norwegian Progress Party, the Swiss People’s Party all either became ruling parties or part of ruling coalitions. The emergence of radicals using guns in their quest for a solution to the Muslim issue was only a matter of time. The most unpleasant thing, though, is that there is still no political consensus about their activities, or any recognition of this problem as a systemic challenge. In fact, fighting right-wing terrorism today is reduced to reproducing tired battle cries to the effect that there is no place for xenophobia or intolerance in modern society. But this does not help resolve the problem in any way.

What is to be done?

From a practical point of view, several interrelated tasks have to be addressed if we want to fight right-wing terrorism.

First of all we need to learn how to promptly find and neutralize single right-wing terrorists. This is especially difficult in a situation where they may not even be part of any extremist organization and generally not manifest themselves for a long time. For example, it was established that Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik actually radicalized himself via the internet and never got in touch with any right-wing radical organization. In the case of Tarrant, it remains to be seen whether there were any dark pages in his biography that could have been a red flag for the special services.

Second, it is important to stop any discussions about justifying the activities of right-wing terrorists. Absolutely all terrorist crimes must be suppressed and unconditionally condemned. Today, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, the Northern League party member, believes that “the only extremism that deserves any attention is Islamist extremism” and refers to right-wing extremism as “nostalgia.” Downplaying or even romanticizing right-wing terrorism to a certain degree does not help fight it, but rather backs it.

Third, it is important not to let the situation escalate into an inter-civilizational conflict. The situation is still hypothetical, but still. After 9/11, President George W. Bush emphasized that war on terror is not tantamount to war on Islam. Right-wing terrorists undermine this thesis when they attack Muslims indiscriminately and thus play into the hands of Islamists, who claim that a war on Islam is underway and alienate moderate Muslims, who are supposed to form the basis of an ideological fight against Islamists, from Western societies. The consequences of such actions are extremely dangerous as well as unpredictable.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.