It has been over 7 months since the mass shootings that targeted Muslim worshipers in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing more than 50 people.
Responses have varied. Among them were outpourings of unity and solidarity from political and faith leaders, articulated in vocabularies more religious (interfaith) or political. For some, such expressions sound too much like hollow talk; what is needed is political action, not words, prayers or symbolic actions, which seem too ineffective. There were also responses that sought explanation and subsequently a source of blame. A notable one of these has been media or politicians’ lack of recognition and action on discourses of Islamophobia.
Amongst inspirations cited by the attacker was Oswald Mosely, a 1930s British fascist leader, and "the person from history closest to my own beliefs". Britain has not faced a white supremacist attack of the same scale, but the fastest growing terrorism threat is now coming from far-right ideologies and in 2017/18 the de-radicalisation programme Channel provided support to a near equal proportion of those referred for right-wing extremism (44%) as those referred for Islamist extremism (45%). Furthermore, whereas overall trends of racism and religious discrimination may show decline, the trend for discrimination against Muslims shows the reverse.
Words have shifted and there has been an increasing shift towards labeling far-right attacks that target Muslims as acts of terror. This is a welcome shift in that it can help loosen the apparent discursive and associational grip that ‘terrorism’ has to Islam and Muslims. And it is on these symbolic and moral grounds that the additional terrorism charges brought against the Christchurch attacker become significant.
Yet, this alone is unlikely to address deeper issues that pertain to Islamophobia as a form of discrimination. It is significant that Islamophobia is based on recognising forms of ‘cultural’ racism, where discrimination is based not on, or not only on, ‘colour’ racism, but perceived traits and characteristics that stem from a culture or cultural background. Indeed, in a recent study, a specifically religious strand has been identified as now inherent to Islamophobic discourse; that is, even when avoiding ‘racial’ or ‘cultural’ forms of discrimination, Islam as a faith is held to be scripturally deterministic and negativised along these lines.
When it comes to action addressing Islamophobia on these terms, however, the British government has a recent history of demurring. While it has suspended party members for posting or endorsing Islamophobic material online, this falls short of the kind of investigation that has been called for by, for example, the Conservative peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi or the Muslim Council of Britain.
Indeed, Boris Johnson, the current Prime Minister, has himself been repeatedly asked to account for comments he made in an article published in The Daily Telegraph in 2018 when he was Foreign Secretary. In the article Mr Johnson referred to women who wear the niqab or burqa as oppressed and said they resemble letter boxes and bank robbers, defending his views on grounds of liberal free speech.
Moreover, the government has also rejected calls to adopt the definition of Islamophobia proposed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims, which has been adopted by other major political parties. Doing so is seen as fundamental to addressing the kinds of discrimination that make such attacks more likely. That is to say that the government lacks words as well as actions. Lack of a definition of Islamophobia holds back action, and a lack of will to adopt a definition indicates a lack of will on action. Words have substance and whatever the precise relation between a word and action, there is no doubt that both are necessary.
There is a further point here related to free speech, especially to the claimed liberal right to unreservedly criticise religion. This creates a curious position for religious minorities not least because these views are in no way confined to right-wing politicians, commentators or journalists, being found across the political spectrum. It is in no small measure because of the religious element in how Muslims are racialised that controversies in relation to Islamophobia arise. This is where apportioning blame across political divides simply will not do. It raises far more profound questions about the place of religious diversity in our societies and our responses to it.
In this light two responses to Christchurch bear a final comment, one articulated as prayer, the other more political. Joint prayers were held between faith groups and The Bishop of Christchurch, the Rt Revd Peter Carrell, in offering support to the people of Christchurch and New Zealand’s Muslims added “We pray, too, for the shooter and their supporters, because for any person to do this, they must have such hatred in their hearts, such misalignment of the value of human life, that they, too, need our prayer”, thus going beyond expressions of interfaith solidarity. This creates an interesting contrast with Jacinda Ardern’s disavowal of the speaker as ‘one of us’. While the New Zealand Prime Minister’s sentiment is entirely understandable and even politically important, the Bishop’s is the harder moral sentiment when it comes to the relation between words and action, but perhaps needs our attention also.
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).
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