The massacre at the Christchurch mosques on March 15, 2019 in New Zealand brought home very difficult memories of terrorism and violent extremism in Europe, both far-right and jihadist in nature. It’s been only 18 months since a far-right supporter shot and killed a Senegalese man in my former hometown of Florence, Italy. The victim, Idy Diene, was killed just because he was black.
It happened on March 5th, 2018. A year later, on March 20th, 2019, an Italian citizen of Senegalese origin hijacked a school bus in Milan, threatening to kill the 50 children on board. His apparent aim was to ‘vindicate’ the people who have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in search of protection or simply a better life. The two children who alerted the carabinieri who managed to stop the bus and arrest the driver, were themselves of immigrant parents. Many called in favour of their naturalisation by merit but the then Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini refused.
Europe has grown increasingly polarised in recent years. This polarisation is both socio-economic and political-ideological. The 2008 financial crisis and a decade of austerity have increased economic insecurity, precarious work, welfare gaps and most notably, anger among both working and lower middle class people across Europe. This has combined with a growing mistrust towards political elites and discontent with parties that have dominated the post-1989 political landscape.
The influx of refugees from Asia and Africa during the last 5 years in particular has further increased popular anxieties. These were quickly manipulated by far-right and populist parties for electoral gains, leading to a significant rise of xenophobia, racism and overall anti-immigrant and particularly anti-Muslim hostility. We have thus witnessed the mainstreaming of far-right ideas and racist discourses offered to the electorate as a new version of ‘sincere’ political discourse or telling the ‘truth as it is’.
While these parties have not invited people to take the law into their own hands directly, many statements of political leaders – such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini or Hungary’s Viktor Orbán - have expressed disrespect towards the rule of law and democracy. These vital principals are deemed less important than a presumed ‘national interest’ of ‘defending’ the country from ‘invaders’ and ‘Islamisation’. These parties argue that there is nothing wrong in violating the law if the reason for it is ‘defending one’s own people’.
Unfortunately, such discourse fosters polarisation in society, breaks down social cohesion and eventually provides a breeding ground for violence and terrorism. Such discourse also produces legislation that undermines democracy and the independence of the judiciary, as witnessed recently in Poland, Hungary and Italy. It also breeds both far-right and jihadist extremism and leads to tragic events like those of Paris in 2015, Brussels and Berlin in 2016, and like those of Christchurch in March of this year.
The victims are always normal citizens, of very diverse backgrounds, of different religions and ethnic origins and of different nationalities. Indeed the enemy of extremists is neither Islam, nor Judaism, nor Christianity nor the West nor the East for that matter. The enemy is democracy, the rule of law and social cohesion, justice and solidarity.
Killings like those at Utøya in Norway in 2011, at the nightclub in Orlando, Florida in 2016, at the Quebec city mosque in 2017, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, or the bombs and shootings in Paris in 2015 and in Brussels in 2016, the lorry massacres in Nice and Berlin in 2016, the bombings at Sousse in Tunisia in 2015, and the recent tragic shooting at the mosques of Christchurch in New Zealand – all have one thing in common. It’s not about opposing or supporting a religion or culture, it’s the desire to kill. To impose one’s will through violence. To spread panic. To attack democracy.
When such events take place, we should make no mistake. What we need is not to keep minorities under surveillance or to create a climate of mistrust and prejudice. The answer to these events is to build strong and resilient communities that prevent young people from falling prey to extremism, communities that channel discontent into democratic participation and regular political action. And that is what the New Zealand government has tried to do. Let’s hope others, in all corners of the world, will follow suit.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).
The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.