Global Extremes

Why words matter: mainstreaming anti-Muslim discourse

It is no surprise that right wing extremists use similar language, it is however alarming that this language is found in the mainstream media.

H.A. Hellyer
27 October 2019
The christchurch Mosque shooting. 21 March 2019.
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Picture by MICK TSIKAS/AAP/PA Images. All rights reserved.
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As part of my work, I pore over extremist literature a great deal – often written by extremist Islamists, but also often by white nationalists. Having examined the manifesto of the suspect in the New Zealand mosque shooting, I see clear parallels between it and the hodgepodge of nonsense found in the manifesto of Anders Breivik, the white supremacist behind the massacre in Norway in 2011. It’s hardly surprising that there would be similarities in the language used by Breivik and the Christchurch suspect. The shocking thing is how much of their rhetoric can be found in the mainstream media and political discourse.

Phrases similar to those used by both the suspect in the Christchurch massacre and Anders Breivik are found in the writings and speeches of US President Donald Trump (‘I think Islam hates us’) and his former political advisor Steve Bannon (Islam is ‘the most radical’ religion in the world). They echo the words of popular talk show hosts like Bill Maher (the Muslim world ‘has too much in common with ISIS’) as well as noted writers like Melanie Phillips of The London Times (‘Islamophobia is a fiction to shut down debate’) and Rod Liddle of The Spectator (Islam is an ‘illiberal, vindictive and frankly fascistic creed’).

The point is this: while all of those writers and personalities aren’t the equivalent of the terrorist who carried out the outrageous attack in New Zealand on March 15, their rhetoric makes the discourse of the terrorist that much more possible.

Unfortunately, the caustic language used to describe Muslims of the West is not that rare. In fact, it’s been mainstreamed in ways that we have been ignoring. Take for example the Australian senator Fraser Anning, who, in the immediate aftermath, said that the attacks highlighted the ‘growing fear over an increasing Muslim presence’ in Australian and New Zealand communities. If that is not blaming the victim, I am not sure what is.

In response to his statement, much of the Australian political spectrum broke out into a collective condemnation. That was good to see. But the fact remains, as Australian talk show host Waleed Aly pointed out in the aftermath of the attacks, that: ‘Everything we say to try to tear people apart, demonise particular groups, sets them against each other. That all has consequences, even if we’re not the ones with our fingers on the trigger.’ More than a few western politicians and public figures have tried to benefit from trading in identity politics where demonising Muslims is considered a vote getter.

Just a week before the Christchurch attack, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro berated a Muslim congresswoman for wearing a Muslim headscarf – declaring that doing so meant she wouldn’t be loyal to the US constitution. Pirro isn’t a terrorist: but can we truly deny that the rhetoric she uses about Muslims and Islam in this fashion does not make the discourse that underpins the New Zealand shootings more palatable and possible?

Can we truly continue to pretend that as we see the rise of white nationalism, it has no link to far more extremist and far more violent manifestations? Do we not recognise that there is a cost to this sort of willful ignorance: that such rhetoric becomes more and more mainstreamed, but we only notice when catastrophes like Christchurch take place? When this manifesto, for example, calls Donald Trump a ‘symbol’ of ‘white identity’, can we really afford to ignore that?

We cannot pretend any longer that the rabidly anti-Muslim discourse that we have allowed to become mainstream has no real impact on the actual lives of our Muslim communities. This rhetoric creates a new, much higher threshold for what is considered to be beyond the pale of normal discourse – and that in itself gives succour, even if indirectly, to the extremist who carried out this abysmal attack in Christchurch. Make no mistake: there is indeed a war going on. But it’s not a war between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West. It’s a war between extremists and all the rest of us.

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.

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