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After Christchurch, the political class must stop positioning racism as a democratic demand

Politicians, media and some academics have spent years peddling narratives that racism and Islamophobia are the ‘will of the people’, but the facts tell a very different story.

Aurelien Mondon Aaron Winter
20 March 2019
Shoes laid out in memory of the 50 who were killed in the attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand
Shoes laid out in memory of the 50 people who were killed in the attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand
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Xinhua/Guo Lei

Three emotions have hit many of us in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack on Al Noor Mosque and Linwood mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, during which 50 Muslims were killed and dozens more were injured. The first one is incredible sadness at the loss of lives and the pain inflicted on the families, friends and communities touched directly and indirectly by this atrocity. The second is in fact a lack of emotion - a lack of shock. Of course, we did not foresee such an attack in particular, but recent events have made us (and many other experts) convinced that this has become a real risk. Finally, anger. We are angry because this attack is not an isolated, unfortunate happenstance. This attack is the logical deadly conclusion of years of the normalisation of Islamophobia and racism, and mainstreaming and hyping of the far right. Here are just three of the mainstream narratives, commonly pushed by the media, politicians and some academics, which have played a key role recently in legitimising ideas which were core to the attacker’s worldview.

“Racism is a fringe problem confined to mad or bad individuals”

Far right attackers are often framed as aberrations, as ‘lone wolves’, rather than as linked to both a wider movement, and to wider racism in general. The double standards within analyses of terrorism are notable. Attacks involving perpetrators who are Muslim and/or are seemingly conducted in the name of Islam are generally treated as automatically terrorist in nature both by politicians and the media, and Muslims subjected to collective suspicion. But far right attacks, committed by white people (and in the name of whiteness) with a clear and avowedly terrorist intent, have been individualised, pathologised and represented as the acts of mad or bad individuals. In the case of Christchurch, the attacker was described as a ‘mass murderer’ affected by being ‘picked on at school because he was chubby’. This is the case even when far right terrorists leave manifestos outlining where their ideas have emerged.

What is too-often ignored is the role of mainstream discourse and actions in legitimising ideas that were core to the attacker’s worldview. We are invited to believe that racism exists only in the more extreme movements and their spokespeople. In other words, to believe a post-racial narrative that de-emphasises the prevalence of racism across our politics and denies structural, institutional and everyday racisms.

These attacks take place in a context of electoral gains of the far right and its fellow travellers, from the FPO in Austria, the Lega in Italy or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, to the success of Trump, who is referred to in the attacker’s manifesto, and Brexit, as well as a rise in far right street level activism and terrorist attacks.

They take place in a media landscape where the far right is regularly platformed and Muslims, migrants and refugees demonised. In fact, on the day of the Christchurch attack, BBC’s Newsnight gave a platform to Generation Identity, an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim far right group banned on Facebook. The BBC has previously given a platform to English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson and Douglas Murray, of the Henry Jackson Society, who has argued that conditions for Muslims in Europe must be ‘made harder across the board’ and that to fight terror, we need ‘less Islam’. Mainstream governments securitise Muslims, create hostile environments for migrants and hold those refugees that are not lost at sea in deportation centres.

To justify such policies and coverage, politicians, the media, but also some academics often lay the blame on the will of the ‘people’ and ‘left behind’: what they are saying and doing is what the people want.

“The far right is supported by the working class, the left behind, the people”

We’re told the far right, at least in its electoral and street protest manifestations, is symptomatic and representative of the ‘left behind’. A cry of anger and disenfranchisement. Yet the truth is that the far right is not supported by the working class ‘left behind’. That’s merely an ideological attempt to give racism and the far right a veneer of democratic legitimacy. And such attempts end up being used to justify the resentment, hate and violence of the far right.

If we are to take the concept of the left behind seriously, then surely, these should be found in the 50% of Americans who abstained or are not registered or deregistered, rather than in the 25% who voted for Trump. The same goes for Brexit and other far right electoral successes.

Most of those angry and disillusioned about the system simply do not turn to the far right, and this is compounded by the fact that our most precarious communities are also our most diverse ones.

This is not to say that some sections of the working class do not turn to the far right, but they are a minority, and this is nothing new. To be precise, it is usually amongst those who fear they have something to lose that we find far right supporters, rather than those in the most precarious positions. In fact, whether it is Brexit, Trump or the French Front National, this kind of vote comes for the most part from the (lower) middle class, and the middle class. Here again, abstention is conveniently ignored, even though it is a clear symptom of the crisis of our democracies.

Finally, this narrative also conveniently ignores that many far right campaigns are led by clearly elite and elitist people, who have little interest or connections to anything that could be described as the ‘left behind’. It is thus not surprising that they find allies in the powerful, in the middle and upper classes and in the intelligentsia. In a sense, this is a game of divide and rule without concern for who gets hurt.

“Immigration and Islam are a major concern for the people”

Apparent concerns about immigration, Islam or ‘rising ethnic diversity’ have been used far and wide to scapegoat certain minorities and push racist narratives. But these deeply damaging narratives are based on an ideologically skewed reading of pretty simple data. A neat example to show how data can be manipulated and public opinion constructed is to look at the Eurobarometer. This data is publicly available and reading it requires no particular training. In this European wide survey, the same people are asked a series of three questions:

  • What do you think are the two most important issues facing (OUR COUNTRY) at the moment?
  • What do you think are the two most important issues facing the EU at the moment?
  • And personally, what are the two most important issues you are facing at the moment?

When we look at the results, we can see that indeed immigration ranks fairly high in the UK, France and the EU generally when respondents consider their country, although very rarely as a top issue. In fact, in the UK, immigration only came top in the lead up to the EU referendum, then receded to below the EU average. In the EU it rose during the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ before receding.

More interestingly, if we look at which issues respondents face in their own lives, then immigration is constantly positioned at the bottom, with issues such as education, (un)employment, cost of living, health and pensions being considered more important. What can explain such a disconnect between what people think is an issue at the national level, and the same people think is an issue at the personal level?

There is no simple answer to this obviously, but one obvious lead is that, while we have a good understanding of our day-to-day lives, we cannot access the same first-hand knowledge about our nations. This knowledge has to be mediated. While this can take place through family connections, religious practices, unions, schools and so on, it is in modern societies strongly shaped by our media. Of course, it would be naïve to think that the media will tell us what to think, but, as a number of studies on agenda-setting theories have demonstrated, the media can certainly influence us on what to think about.

In a political and media landscape which places great emphasis on Islam, immigration and almost always in relation to horror stories, it is not surprising that for example, people report immigration percentages way above reality. When asked “what is the proportion of Muslim people among your country’s population”, the average guess for respondents in the US is 17% (in reality, it’s 1%). The average guess in Great Britain is 15% (in reality it’s about 5%). And the average guess in France is 31% (in reality it’s around 8%). These are incredible numbers, particularly for France where French respondents think that almost one out of every three people in their country is Muslim.

It is really the chicken or the egg dilemma: Are people concerned about immigration and Islam (which is often used as a proxy) or are they told to be concerned about immigration and Islam? Do our elite (media, politicians etc) talk about immigration because we want them to, or do we think about immigration because our elite talks about it? Who holds power in this situation: the citizen or the people with access to the means to shape public discourse?

These narratives have two major consequences.

They have legitimised the far right, made it look stronger than it is and posited racism as a democratic demand. They have wrongly portrayed it as the voice of the voiceless and positioned it and its ideas as the only alternative to the status quo – particularly pushed under the guise of free speech.

They have delegitimised the people, obscured the contingency of the current political situation and shifted the blame for our systemic racism away from the elite and power.

We must challenge these narratives urgently to what the far right really is:

The far right is NOT supported by the left behind, the working class or the people; whether it is the support for Brexit, Trump or the FN, it comes mostly from the better off who conveniently escape blame and scrutiny.

Immigration is NOT a major concern of the population, and even if it were, the role of the elite in hyping it must be accounted for.

The far right is NOT just populist, if it is at all; it is first and foremost racist. It is also elitist and authoritarian. Do not link them to the people with careless associations to populism.

The far right and its fellow travellers, who have repeatedly defended the platforming of the far right, are not brave defenders of free speech; they are cowards with huge access to public discourse who are scared to lose their privilege. They use this privilege to abuse and demonise the real voiceless and yet constantly whinge and demand safe spaces where they can spew their hatred. They must be held accountable rather than given countless underserved platforms.

Note that we do not simply say that we should challenge the far right. We clearly should, every time and everywhere it rears its ugly head. Yet we also believe that we should challenge the narratives which facilitate the acceptance of far right ideas and embolden its supporters. We should be careful not to direct all our attention to obvious targets such as the most extreme pundits or politicians, but instead take a close look at mainstream media practices, platforming and dogwhistling. Being sorry about the attack is not enough. As Angela Davis famously said ‘it is not enough to be non-racist’. We must be anti-racist, and we must be anti-racist everywhere, always.

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