By Sunanda K Datta-Ray
March 23, 2019
The Christchurch resident who was quoted as saying “I’m really scared for our future” wasn’t speaking for Muslims or New Zealanders alone. Without knowing it perhaps, she was speaking for the entire world. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s valiant prime minister, may expunge Brenton Harrison Tarrant’s name from her vocabulary, but the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, comprising more than 24.1 per cent of the human race, will not forget him or Anders Breivik if they are convinced they are being demonised and must be avenged.
Given present-day India’s majoritarian policies and its muscular, militaristic actions in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir, India has special reason for concern about this potential backlash. Islam is India’s second largest religion, with 172 million Muslims forming 14.2 per cent of the population according to the 2011 census. It is uncertain how many of them approve of persistent Indian attempts – at last partly successful under Narendra Modi – to get a foot in the door of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
The Rajinder Sachar Committee’s finding that their abysmal educational, social and economic condition places Indian Muslims even below the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes is blamed on discrimination by the majority community’s caste elite. Sociologists say Muslims are used to being the dominant power in any country and their minority position in India is a unique experience.
Grievance feeds on the belief that Muslims ruled India before the British. Even Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, liberal founder of Bangladesh, wrote what a shock it was to see the Indian tricolour flying over that bastion of Mughal and thus Islamic power, Delhi’s Red Fort. Today’s lynchings of Muslims and the so-called Ghar-Wapsi ritual drives home a sense of vulnerability.
At the same time, the mention in Tarrant’s rambling 74-page manifesto of “Muslim fanatics” nourishes the preconceived Sangh Parivar image responsible for bloodshed in Gujarat and elsewhere. The global situation is equally grim. The shadow of 9/11, the series of al-Qaeda’s four coordinated terrorist attacks against the United States on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, has never been exorcised.
The attacks killed 2,996 people, injured over 6,000 others, and caused at least $10 billion in infrastructure and property damage. Others died of 9/11-related cancer and respiratory diseases in the months and years that followed. If Tarrant had “hate in his heart”, so has the non-Muslim world since that fateful day when four United Airlines and American Airlines passenger airliners were hijacked by 19 Islamist terrorists.
Two of the planes were crashed into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan. A third, American Airlines Flight 77, was crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, while the fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, was initially flown toward Washington, DC, but crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after passengers thwarted the hijackers.
This is still the single deadliest terrorist attack in human history and the single deadliest incident for fire-fighters and law enforcement officers in US history. But there have been other such outrages. The 7 July 2005 London bombings, for instance, were a series of coordinated terrorist suicide attacks which targeted commuters travelling on the city’s public transport system during the morning rush hour.
The four radical Islamic terrorists killed 52 people and injured more than 700, making it Britain’s deadliest terrorist incident since the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 near Lockerbie in Scotland, which killed all 243 passengers and 16 crew, as well as 11 people on the ground. It was never established, however, if the perpetrators were driven by Islamist fanaticism or the Libyan regime’s political extremism.
No such doubt shrouds the 2002 Bali bombings killing 202 people and injuring 240, the 2004 Madrid terrorist attacks that killed 193 people and left around 1,700 injured, or the bombing in 2015 of the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 from Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt which crashed over Sinai, killing all 224 passengers and crew. The Manchester Arena bombing two years later was the handiwork of a radical Islamist suicide bomber whose homemade bomb killed 23 (more than half of them children attending a concert) and wounded 139.
The grim list could go on. I have deliberately excluded murderous sprees by the Boko Haram group in Nigeria, the horrendous doings of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Taliban murderousness or terrorist attacks in India because, however vicious, each claims to be tied to a cause. Religious conversion, creation of a new caliphate, control of Afghanistan, or the future of Kashmir lend a semblance of validity to their operations.
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 are forgotten. The tragic shooting in New Zealand appears differently to different people. Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, called it an explosion of Islamophobia.
Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister also complained that Muslims are being demonised. But many Europeans and North Americans – as well as Sangh Parivar diehards – probably quietly agree with Queensland’s 70-year-old Senator Fraser Anning, the only mainstream politician to extend even qualified approval to the motives that supposedly inspired the Christchurch bloodbath, that the carnage “highlights the growing fear…of the increasing Muslim presence.”
He blamed the massacre on “the immigration programme which allowed Muslim fanatics (implying all Muslims are fanatics) to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” By giving Hindus a right of return, Mr Modi is obviously trying to balance the Muslim element in India’s demography.
Tarrant’s manifesto refers to Donald Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose”. The US president vehemently rejects the intended compliment and denounces the “horrible massacre” in Christchurch. But his insistence that it was an isolated event flies in the face of historical evidence. There is no doubt that resentment is building up on both sides of the divide.
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” says Thomas Klau of the European Council on Foreign Relations. The rise of the political right in Europe is partly explained by a perceived threat from Islam.
Muslims are now in the majority in 49 countries. They come from diverse ethnic backgrounds and speak innumerable languages. It is difficult to think of them as a coherent unified force in international affairs. But there is the money and manpower for guerrilla tactics. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State failed. Their successors may not. The Taliban is partly successful. Well might the Christchurch survivor fear the future.
Sunanda K Dutta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.