By Sunanda K Datta Ray
18 March 2019
It’s revealing how the tragic shooting in New Zealand appears differently to different people, depending on where they stand. Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan sees it as an explosion of Islamophobia. Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu also complains that Muslims are being demonised. But many Europeans and North Americans — as well as Sangh Parivar diehards — probably quietly agree with Queensland's Senator Fraser Anning, 70, that “it highlights the growing fear… of the increasing Muslim presence”. He blames “the immigration programme which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place”. That coupling of “Muslim” with “fanatics” is bound to resonate in many non-Muslim circles.
Senator Anning is the only mainstream politician to extend even qualified approval to the motives that supposedly inspired the Christchurch bloodbath. Claiming to be a strong advocate of traditional Christian values, he came to the world's attention by demanding a return to Australia's whites-only immigration policy and a ban on Muslim and black African migrants. He is a strident critic of the United Nations which he accuses of usurping many of Australia’s national rights, and a fervent follower of the former Australian Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies (1894-1978), whom Morarji Desai had also admired. His mention of “Muslim fanatics” recalled brutalities like Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorism in India, Taliban depredations in Afghanistan, Boko Haram’s ruthlessness in Nigeria, or the now dwindling killing fields of the so-called Islamic State.
Since it’s the exception that shapes opinion and is remembered, these barbaric phenomena gnaw at the public consciousness while millions of ordinary law-abiding Muslims who struggle peacefully to make ends meet or try desperately to escape to a better life in leaky tubs across the Mediterranean are submerged in the gory spectacle of the 2002 Bali bombing. Few of those who mourn that outrage remember — or even know perhaps — that three Indonesian Muslims were executed for the crime. What will never be forgotten in Australia, New Zealand and expatriate circles of Southeast Asia is that 88 Australians were among the 202 dead.
Not that Brenton Harrison Tarrant, the 28-year-old Australian who has been charged in Christchurch with murder, mentions the Bali bombing in his rambling 74-page manifesto posted on the social media. Instead it refers to Rakhmat Akilov, 40, an Uzbek sympathetic to the Islamic State who carried out a lorry attack in Sweden last year killing five people and is now serving a life sentence for terrorist crimes. The document also says the author found the sight of immigrants in the French cities he visited in 2017 offensive, and indicates that Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist and killer of 77 innocent children and adults, had approved of his murderous plan. In a giveaway phrase, Tarrant's manifesto also lauded Donald Trump (who denounced Friday’s “horrible massacre”) as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose”.
President Trump’s own condemnation of the crime was unambiguous, but he is over-optimistic in denying that white nationalism is a rising global threat and in dismissing the shooting as an individual incident. The small and isolated groups that indulge in such brutality reflect a school of thought that is spreading and could seriously challenge peace and stability some day in the not too distant future.
Thomas Klau of the European Council on Foreign Relations holds that just “as anti-Semitism was a unifying factor for far-right parties in the 1910s, 20s and 30s, Islamophobia has become the unifying factor in the early decades of the 21st century”.
Ruth Wodak, an Austrian academic working in Britain, takes the analysis further. She divides Europe's rising populist parties into four groups. Some in Austria, Hungary, Italy, Romania, and France “gain support via an ambivalent relationship with fascist and Nazi pasts”. Some Polish, Romanian and Bulgarian parties “endorse a fundamentalist Christian conservative-reactionary agenda”. Some parties, particularly in Hungary, Greece, Italy, and the United Kingdom, “restrict their propaganda to a perceived threat to their national identities from ethnic minorities". And some, especially in the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland, “focus primarily on a perceived threat from Islam”.
Inevitably, there is considerable overlapping among the four categories. For instance, the perception that their national culture is under threat, which is the main attraction of far-right parties in the Scandinavian countries, according to an article in The Economist, could also include Islamophobia and anti-Semitism as well as residual or vestigial fascism. The common plank is the rise of a dangerously vicious form of right-wing extremism that has already shed blood in Britain, France and the United States — to say nothing of India — as the world seems to be hurtling towards a grim realisation of Samuel Huntington’s prophecy.
Westerners are so horrified today because New Zealand, remote in the Pacific, slumbered in their consciousness as a kind of Shangri-la. It may have been so in those halcyon days when the then Prime Minister, Robert (Piggy) Muldoon, proudly told me that his was a multiracial nation. He had in mind the 15 per cent indigenous Maoris. But Asians, with their baggage of pride and prejudice, will soon outnumber Maoris if they haven’t done so already. At the same time 4.6 million New Zealanders had 1.2 million registered firearms last year. The mix could be explosive.
Christchurch looks like a pleasant English country town. But appearances can be deceptive. Paul Buchanan, a strategy analyst, was quoted as saying that it “has a very active white supremacist community, a community that has attacked refugees and people of colour on multiple occasions over the past 20 years”. Tarrant says he chose his victims because he saw them as invaders who would replace the white race. He predicted chillingly that he would feel no remorse for their deaths. It would be a mistake to ignore the anti-
Muslim phenomenon that he represents.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.