It is hard to find words to do justice to events as tragic as what happened in Christchurch last week, but there are some words that we should insist on using: “far-right terrorism”, “white supremacy”, “Islamophobia” and “racism” among them. And we should call out those who neglect to use such words when they express their shock and sympathy, especially when they venture to explain how something like this could have happened, or when they try to shift the blame onto Muslim communities themselves.
When Theresa May and Donald Trump express their sympathy, for example, we should pause to question why they finally seem capable of referring to ‘Muslims’ as ‘people’, yet can’t quite bring themselves to refer to such people as Muslims in this particular instance. Referring to “#Christchurch” in such tweets of solidarity is self-explanatory and uncontroversial, but the place name is both aptly religious and simultaneously ‘erasing’ of Islamic connotations, and thus ‘othering’ of the victims who were not just people in this instance; they were Muslims at prayer in a mosque, and they were killed for being so. Their Muslimness is hardly irrelevant.
When national broadcasters respond to the attack by giving a platform to far-right Islamophobes, by questioning Muslim representatives on whether their communities have done enough to distance themselves from Islamist terrorism, and by inviting right-wing journalists to keep score on the number of victims of terror attacks against ‘them’ and those against ‘us’, we should be rightly outraged.
It is legitimate to contrast such editorial decision-making with that which follows terror attacks by or against other communities, and it is legitimate to highlight the influence that such ‘critics’ of religion and political correctness have had on this terrorist and on many others. But we should also spare some outrage for the more insidious and corrosive influence on public opinion of such people and such arguments being paraded uncritically before us on a daily basis throughout the rest of the year – not just in the hate-filled, right-wing tabloid press, but on publicly accountable broadcasters that feign credibility and sincerity, and which have a duty to earn the trust of the publics they serve.
For once, politicians and the media have been less reluctant than usual to use the word “terrorism” to describe an act of mass violence that is not even potentially Islamist. Nevertheless, the usual suspects in the right-wing press have still been eager to humanise the ‘lone wolf’, to disingenuously wonder how such a wholesome and ‘homegrown’ individual could possibly have turned so bad, and to pursue the ‘mental health’ line of inquiry, while words like “shooting” and “attack” have still often been favoured over “terrorism”, despite the obviously ideological motivations of the assailant.
When attacks are done in the name of Islam, of course, such media outlets are much less interested in the lifestory of perpetrators, even when the links to terrorist networks and ideological literature are tenuous. The word “Muslim” seems to say all that needed to be said about the killer’s motivations. That the murderer in this case, however, is white and influenced by far-right, white supremacist literature is treated as somehow exceptional to the rule, and in no way symptomatic of anything of wider significance.
The consequences of being too quick to name “terrorism” as “Muslim”, and too slow to acknowledge the ideological motivations of white mass murderers, are that both Muslim ethnic minorities and the white majority in countries of the global north are essentialised, with the former being intrinsically coded as a potential ‘threat to the west’. The hijabs and beards of ‘others’ become triggers to remind us that such people don’t share ‘our’ values, and burkinis and sports hijabs strike as much fear into the public imaginary as Kalashnikovs. Islamophobia is thus normalised, banalised and legitimised in mainstream media, politics and everyday life, while the alarming rise of far-right, white supremacist terrorism goes unchecked, barely even recognised as terrorism or as any kind of threat at all.
The pressure to not talk about Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism is strong, particularly in universities, where speakers on the subject are surveilled and policed by discriminatory state initiatives, and conferences on the subject are cancelled under the weight of pressure from not just the far-right, but from supposedly left-wing, libertarian groups who insist that such words are meaningless or that they stifle legitimate criticism of religion.
The freedom to discuss such issues and concepts critically in the context of academic debates and research is thus crushed by the same free speech fetishists that insist upon their absolute right to come to campuses to make incendiary speeches about the threat posed to western culture by minorities and diversity.
Even though “Islamophobia” may not be the perfect term (neither are “anti-Semitism” or “homophobia” perfect terms for describing what we all know them to signify), it captures the othering, discrimination and hatred of an identity ascribed to certain types of people by virtue of a religion they may or may not follow. This covers both individual acts of violence and structural, systemic and institutional forms of discrimination, prejudice and exclusion that affect such people negatively. And although Islam is not a race (neither is Judaism, nor is black), “Muslim” is a racialised category (like “Jewish” and “black”), whereby Muslims are coded as a problem to be debated by non-Muslims, while the struggles against sexism, homophobia and antisemitism are strategically appropriated to lend a veneer of progressive respectability to this process.
The slaughter of 50 Muslims in a mosque in Christchurch was an Islamophobic act of anti-Muslim racism by a far-right, white supremacist terrorist. Headlines such as “Man kills 5O people” do an injustice to what has just happened, and do nothing to help us learn from this tragedy or avoid another. Quite the opposite in fact.