Leveraging the Christchurch Massacre to Marginalize Concerns About Islam and Immigration

The 15 March 2019 attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which Australian neo-Nazi Brenton Tarrant shot to death 50 persons and injured 48 others, is an act of rightwing terrorism that demands government action across a range of fronts. Those who planned and perpetrated this action should never again freely move about society and governments must redouble efforts to teach their publics about the problem of ideologies that teach division and hate.

Unlike the 12 June 2016 Pulse massacre (Pulse was a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida), in which media sought to obscure the ideology that inspired Muslim Omar Mateen to murder 49 people and wound 53 others (see Orlando and Religion), mainstream media is readily identifying the ideology that inspired Tarrant’s actions. However, the same agenda that instructed the media to gloss Mateen’s motives is giving a platform to those who reach far beyond the actual causes of the Christchurch killing to implicate rational concern over Islam.

Attorney and playwright Wajahat Ali, writing in The New York Times (15 March 2019), declares: “All those who have helped to spread the worldwide myth than Muslims are a threat have blood on their hands.” Ali, backed by the New Democrat Center for American Progress, produced the documentary Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America (2011). In his NYTimes op-ed, Ali claims the Islamophobic network, made up of think tanks, media personalities, grassroots groups, and right-wing politicians, is global.

In his op-ed, “The Islamophobia that led to the Christchurch shooting must be confronted,” published in the (15 March 2019 edition of) The Guardian, HA Hellyer goes further, arguing that the massacre reflects an broad antipathy that “runs throughout the west.” Recalling the mass killing in Norway perpetrated by ultranationalist Andres Breivik, Hellyer also characterizes anti-Muslim sentiment as “Islamophobia,” a form of hatred with “a long pedigree in western societies,” one he insists “is not restricted to the political fringes.”

Then, today, Nosheen Iqbal, writing for The Guardian, insists that Islamophobia is an “ugly form of racism” and complains that Mark Rowley’s statement that conflating Islamophobia and racism is “clumsy thinking” reflects how “it is far game to diminish the lived reality of Muslims.” She goes on to present two completely irrelevant facts: (1) “the majority of Muslims are not white” and (2) they “have roots in formerly colonized countries.” That there are Muslims that are not white doesn’t make Muslims a race. And, while most Muslims have roots in formerly colonized countries, those countries were colonized by Muslims. It certainly wasn’t Europeans who brought Islam to Indonesia which boasts of the largest population of Muslims in Southeast Asia.

I should pause for a moment and remind the reader that the term “Islamophobia” is an invention of Iranian fundamentalists who designed the term specifically to shame women who refused to submit to the practice of hijab and, more generally, “to declare Islam inviolate,” as Pascal Bruckner put it in his 2011 essay, “The Invention of Islamophobia.” By manufacturing the perception that loathing of a hateful and divisive ideology are racist in character, this despite the obvious fact that “Muslim” no more connotes a member of a race (or even an ethnicity) than “Christian” or “Fascist” does, the term “Islamophobia” is rhetorical weapon used to smear those engaged in irreligious criticism as bigots. “This term,” writes Bruckner, “is worthy of totalitarian propaganda.” Indeed.

It is crucial in our response to rightwing terrorism that we in the West don’t get bogged down in hyperbole or allow ourselves to be sucked into a political project that does not have our interests in mind. To be sure, the threats of rightwing ideology and violence are very real and I take these matters very seriously. In my college course, Freedom and Social Control, I devote a series of lectures to the problems of authoritarianism and hatred, taking to heart UN General Assembly resolution A/RES/43/150 (8 December 1988) calling “upon all governments to pay constant attention to educating the young in the spirit of respect for international law and fundamental human rights and freedoms and against Fascist, neo-Fascist and other totalitarian ideologies and practices based on terror, hatred and violence.”

However, is it more than unhelpful to suggest, as Ali and Hellyer do, that concern over the character and spread of Islam is responsible for mass murder. The argument implicates those who criticize Islam consistent with their opposition to authoritarian and hateful ideology in the actions of Christian nationalists. It is obvious and despicable that Ali and Hellyer are attempting to leverage the Christchurch massacre to marginalize and delegitimize concerns over Islam and Muslim immigration.

There are powerful forces behind the presence of Ali and Hellyer. I have already identified Ali’s backers (the Center of America Progress spends nearly $50 million a year influencing opinion). Hellyer is no less well-connected, affiliated with the Atlantic Council, an elite planning body associated with the globalist project to transform the interstate system into a transnational capitalist order backed by a global security apparatus. The Atlantic Council receives millions of dollars in donations, including from several foreign countries, to advance their agenda. Hellyer also has a history with Demos, a New Labour organization closely associated with the neoliberal politician Tony Blair. There is a lot wrong with arguments hailing from these quarters and understanding their agenda, which is shared by the media outlets in which these writings appear, sheds light on the motives behind pro-Immigrant and pro-Muslim rhetoric and the frame that reduces criticisms of immigration and Islam to racism and xenophobia.

To be sure, Muslims are not uniformly bent on Islamization of the West, but there are some who are, and Islamization is the overall effect of mass immigration in the same way that European colonization of the world involved the Christianization of societies across the world. Put another way, there is a reason so much of the planet (frighteningly, about half) is Christian or Muslim: these groups have spread their irrational and divisive ideologues worldwide and, on balance, while they have not carried the same effects everywhere, the proselytizing and oppressive traditions of the Abrahamic faith have been bad for human freedom and forward-marching societal development. There is a history here. Religion is not just a personal choice. Religion carries consequences that have proven devastating to humanity.  

This is particularly true for Islam. Islam, when fully embraced, is an extreme worldview that sees all human thought and action properly driven by deceit and violence under divine command. As such, it is a threat to individual rights and liberties, democracy, and the open society. It is the right of freethinkers to express opposition to the spread of Islam in the same way they openly express opposition to the spread of Christianity. I trust it is obvious to all the absurdity of leveling the charge of “Christophobia” against opposition to the Christianization of society. Indeed, a westerner can go on record dedicated to the proposition that Christianity should be marginalized and hardly expect to suffer accusations of bigotry. Yet westerners find themselves attacked relentlessly over consistently holding themselves to the same standard of critique with respect to Islam.

The attacks on the critics of Islam, are not merely rhetorical. In 1988, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was met with protests from Muslims in several countries and death threats made against his person. The British government had to place Rushdie under constant police protection. In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was assassinated for his film Submission, the killer leaving a note pinned to van Gogh’s chest threatening Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the author of such works as Heretic and Infidel, with death. Like Rushdie, Ali required constant police protection for many years. In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons depicting Muhammad. Violence erupted in many Muslim-majority countries and in the West, including attacks on the Danish and other European diplomatic missions. Christian churches and Christian were targeted with violence. In 2015, men raided the offices of the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed a dozen people for publishing cartoons offensive to Muslims.

An authentic progressive attitude is instantiated by an explicit desire to see the world leave to history superstition and supernatural belief systems and take up a humanist and scientific worldview. This attitude is sorely missing on the left, a politics that has come to be defined instead by postmodernist and deep multiculturalist attitudes towards human freedom and morality. Until the left stands up for free expression and represents the interests of working families, until governments eschew neoliberal restructuring of developed economies, return to a social welfare orientation, and defend religious liberty, the political and cultural right will continue to gather strength. Data show that one of the major sources of new devotees to rightwing populist groups and parties are disaffected social democrats. Rightwing populism thrives in the vacuum left by a impotent left and government failure to meet the needs of its citizens.

It is well known that concern about immigration, especially Muslim immigration, is mostly associated with rightwing populism. This is not because immigration concern or opposition to Islam are intrinsically rightwing. Rather it’s because the left, having substituted for the politics of class the politics of identity, is not speaking to the problems that immigration generally and Islam in particular pose to working class communities in the West. Mystification surrounding the origins of these problems notwithstanding, people know when things aren’t right, and a percentage of them will seek answers to explain their anxiety. When they find rightwing and neoconservative voices to be the only ones speaking to their concerns, they gravitate towards those politics.

To seek a world in which rationalists resist criticizing Islam for fear of being smeared as bigots is to clear the way for further Islamization of the West. A moral people have an obligation to oppose irrational and hateful ideologies. Islam is an ideology with this character. Anti-theism expresses a deep concern for all of humanity — that individuals should be free of the chains of religious doctrine and practice. The attacks on mosques in Christchurch are the projection of the ideology of Christian nationalism, not an expression of anti-theism. Christian nationalism is a hateful ideology analogous to the ideology that drives the Islamic State. It is not analogous to popular concern for, or reaction to the project undermining the material, political, and cultural interests of national proletariats through globalization.

Hellyer’s op-ed in The Guardian is a propaganda piece that seeks to exploit the massacre of human beings to push a pro-Muslim politics. Ali’s NYTimes op-ed, albeit a bit more restrained in substance, nonetheless seeks the same ends. The agenda is keeping the West open to mass immigration and to mischaracterize opposition to Islam. It is wrong to accuse, as Ali does, those who express concern about the problem Islam poses to the West of having “blood on their hands.”

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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