On Friday morning, March 15th 2019, at least 49 people lost their lives in the hands of individuals that could be described as, for the lack of a better word, cowards. 49 people with their life stories, families, beliefs, and values; 49 New Zealanders looking to wrap up their hectic weeks in places of solace and religious comfort, silenced in the hands of malicious, radicalised terrorism.
It would be easy to typecast these atrocities as a singular event, one that would never happen again, a tragedy that caught us out of the blue and in shock, but that would never repeat itself. Yet to do so would be neglecting the root causes of the violence today – the structural Islamophobia that has been allowed to be propagated, the media who prioritise sensationalising the life of the perpetrator over the public’s interests, and, finally, our public inertia to calls for help from the most marginalised communities who are confronted with racism on a daily basis.
First, Islamophobia has been on the rise in both New Zealand and, in general, Western Liberal Democracies. Crafty, manipulative far-right politicians have found a political space in constructing and demonising the Other, so as to develop the so-called mandate for their continued existence. From stereotyping Muslims as allegedly culturally backwards or associated with terrorism, to designating Judeo-Christianity as an alleged religion of peace and harmony in response to the ostensible militarism of Islam, political and cultural figures in the West must be held accountable for their continued propagation of misbeliefs about Muslims, which have spurred substantial animosity and paranoia in response to the presence of Muslim migrants in particular countries.
In the UK we have seen the rise of UKIP and the roster of alt-right media sources, framing Muslims as systemically antithetical to the what is commonly referred to as “British values”; in Australia we see politicians – indeed, including one particular Senator who turned to framing today’s events as justifiably expectable in light of “rising immigration” – spinning immigration into an issue of national security; in the US we are witnesses to an ongoing cultural war waged asymmetrically by the Trumpian administration against disempowered members of the Muslim communities. The West has actively taken to alienating Muslims, and the events today are merely the tip of a far more insidious iceberg of inflamed, artificially engineered conflicts.
Second, the media are to blame. From reporting on past shootings with elaborate emphasis upon the lives, testimonies, and alleged ‘justifications’ of the shooters, to engaging in ornate deconstruction and analysis of perpetrators’ motives – mass media have transformed mass shootings into public spectacles, consumed as breathtaking calamities, internalised as some sort of ‘natural outcomes’ of intercultural tensions. The privacy of victims is set aside as the media aim to maximise views and shock value – even from today’s events we have seen repeated attempts from media outlets to distribute the ‘first-person video’ and ‘manifesto’ of the terrorist, until a recent statement from the New Zealand government called for its cessation. The attention, glamour, and discursive power embodied by media reporting provides many a terrorist with the incentives to act, and to act perversely indeed – to seek to maximise their extent of damage, to terrorise, to lend their ideology an even greater platform. The public’s right to know may well be important – but it is both a conditional right, in that what is delivered to them must be accurate, true and de-sensationalised; and a limited right, knowledge does not and must not come before the rights of victims to privacy or public safety.
Finally, we are all collectively responsible for the atrocities perpetuated in our communities. For far too long our governments have treated the cries for help from migrant communities as “less important” than the long roster of agenda items they employ to deprioritise select agenda. For far too long we have taken to accepting the ‘naturality’ of terror and acclimatised ourselves to a new normal that should never have been the normal. For far too long we have remained apathetic to the calls for more resources to facilitate security, protection, and greater cultural cohesion from marginalised communities.
Instead of acting, we allow the festering of dangerous, xenophobic rhetoric that attributes shootings like today’s to migrants; that upholds the view that migration is, as Fraser Anning argues in his frankly obscene statement, to blame for violence against migrants.
Make no mistake here – whom we blame, how we blame, and what we blame migrants for is itself a political act, driven by ideology. When we choose to blame migrants for the backlash they face, we are undertaking the active decision of neglecting the racist beliefs, bigoted egoism, and fundamental misconceptions that drive such backlash. When we engage in the worst forms of victim-blaming, we become perpetrators of another kind of violence ourselves – the kind of violence that deprives victims and their communities, the Muslim community in New Zealand, in the United States, in Western Europe, of the right to speak out. We cannot afford to forget that it is our society’s failure to deradicalise white terrorism, and our gleefully racist interpretations of who is or isn’t a terrorist, that has led to where we are today.
That today’s shootings were propelled by Islamophobia is perhaps of no surprise. What is perhaps more surprising about the violence, however, was its location – New Zealand has historically been a refuge and safe country for migrants, known for its relative openness both in terms of cultural and immigration policies; the integration of Maoris into the New Zealand community, whilst incomplete, remains a paradigm that puts the track record of its neighbour, Australia, and its appalling handling of Australian Aboriginals to shame. Finally, New Zealand’s progressive politics is perhaps best exemplified by its election of Jacinda Ardern as its Prime Minister, a pioneering political figure who has shattered the glass ceilings for young women (mothers in particular) seeking careers in politics.
All of this is relevant – in that it highlights how Islamophobia could pervade even the most ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ of states; that the Cerberus of terrorism could rear its head in the most unexpected of places, and that we must not and cannot conflate progressivism in general with religious tolerance, which has been under threat from the increasingly normalised fringes of the political spectrum, particularly from those in the nationalistic, fascistic right.
In face of structural injustice, let us not shirk our responsibilities and scapegoat the least privileged in our society.
In face of terror, let us not succumb to the cowardice of the terrorists.
In face of violence, let us not retaliate, but we must also stand firm and tall.
Because what happened in Christchurch could just as well happen in any other Western democracy, any other progressive state tomorrow. White, Islamophobic terrorism is real, and it falls upon us to address it.