Unpacking Christchurch

Seeing the full picture

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Words || Ilhan Abdi

On Friday March 15, a gunman opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand  during the weekly Jummah prayer, killing (at the time of writing) 50 people including children, with another 50 hospitalised with injuries from the attack.  

It was a carefully planned massacre, the likes of which New Zealand has never seen before, and it was one of the worst mass murders targeting a marginalised group in over 70 years.

The attacker was an Australian, a 28 year old named Brendon Terrant, and by his admission, the massacre was a hate-fuelled white supremacist attack. Before the attack, he published a lengthy manifesto on his reasoning for the attack on 8chan – a breeding ground for budding white supremacists and recruiters – and linked a livestream of the attack, streamed on Facebook. Facebook was slow to take it down, by the time the original stream was deleted, it was too late. Terrant had already ended 41 lives in the span of 17 minutes, injuring scores of other people, and the footage was duplicated on all the main social media platforms for all the world to see.

Here is a description of the 17 minute video, as told by AP News:

“In the video, the killer spends more than two minutes inside the mosque spraying terrified worshippers with gunfire. He then walks outside, where he shoots at people on the sidewalk. Children’s screams can be heard in the distance as he returns to his car to get another rifle. He walks back into the mosque, where there are at least two dozen people lying on the ground.

After going back outside and shooting a woman there, he gets back in his car, where a song can be heard blasting. The singer bellows, “I am the god of hellfire!” and the gunman drives off before police even arrive.”

I saw a clip of the attack on my Twitter timeline hours later and it was traumatising. I couldn’t shut off the autoplayed video fast enough. The AP News description, horrifying as it is, humanises the victims in a way that the actual terrifying film of the attack does not. There is a sense that it was like playing a video game to him, all those lives meant absolutely nothing; their deaths were completely futile.  Ben Elley of the NZ Herald said it best, ‘I wish I didn’t have to watch that video, and nobody else should. The video is terrorist propaganda, and no matter what perspective we view it from, to view it is to give oxygen to his message.”

The language and descriptions of the terrorist’s forum posts and the sounds used in the video seem senseless. But the use of outdated memes, apparent irony and shitposting is a white supremacist propaganda tactic to slowly lure angry, young, white boys into supremacist ideals.

This puts the video into context. It was supposed to be a shitpost in video form. No doubt a way to condition followers to view non-white people as subhuman and the violent acts perpetrated against them as simply shooting characters in a video game.

White supremacy is a violent, genocidal ideology that will always end in violence. But law enforcement does not adequately respond to this ideology. White supremacists fearlessly share their ideas and confessions online, without the concern of government surveillance. Law enforcement has the capacity to take these types of online forums seriously and respond appropriately. They could have obstructed these attackers. But instead the discourse surrounding terrorist prevention focuses on Muslim communities, particularly the youth, and protection against their ‘potential’ for radicalisation and terrorism; although it is important to note that the suspicion mostly stems from the fact that they practice Islam. These hyper-surveillance programs usually disguise state violence as the prevention of radicalisation. They observe Muslim communities through telephone taps, and the planting of government informants into mosque communities; most of their work constituting of what can only be called entrapment. In the US, and perhaps here as well, people are tracked through their engagement with social justice causes, activists who are rightfully critical of state violence are branded as “extreme-leftists” and are kept on the radar of intelligence agencies, which brings to light how law enforcement singles out people on the basis of religion and race. Last year, a Black American activist was jailed, and his home raided in the middle of the night after he made a Facebook post where he was critical of police violence.

It was no accident that he chose that specific day. A Friday. The day where the mosque would be the most packed, thus offering him even more victims. For Muslims, every Friday is a day of holiday, of celebration, and on midday to early afternoon, parents get ready and dress their infant children and toddlers to go assemble at the mosque and pray the Jummah prayer.

Children too young to pray usually run screaming and laughing with their playmates in between the throngs of the men and women praying in the mosque. Every Muslim who has has ever been to a mosque knows the sound of the imam’s recitation and personal introspection is always peppered with the comforting chatter and giggle of little children too young to understand the earnestness of prayer. For them, the mosque is a playground. No doubt, he knew that there would especially be children; in his manifesto he mentions that part of his goal was to secure a future for white children.

You cannot begin to imagine how the probability – and the fear – of an attack is so apparent to visibly Muslim people. It is an understanding that was ingrained to me from childhood. The discomfort of fearing and anticipating a violent death at the hands of others whenever you so much as step out of your own home is incredibly jarring. It is not weak to say this, to be aware of the consequences of existing in a space where you are seen as a constant threat.

Mosques, wherever they were, were always meant to be a safe place to be Muslim, away from the outside world. There you would be free from the cloying islamophobia that burned through every stranger’s suspicious glances. For a long time though, going to the masjid has been a gamble. Sure it always has been so in the West, but after reports of attacks and murders in mosques in recent years, there is always the fear that the person shuffling through the door behind you is a potential threat and you’ll never know until they strike. White supremacy is intent on destroying the very fabric safety and comfort that holy spaces provide to Muslims.

Islamophobia and the dehumanisation of Black and brown muslims doesn’t just come in the form of brutal and public violence. The shock and outpouring of vocal support and condemnation of the attack is because it was so savage, intense and public. It wasn’t the kind of violence towards Muslims that is accepted. Condemnation came from all sides. From former US President Barack Obama, who, during his run as President, had overseen the drone related deaths of thousands and thousands of civilians. Most, if not all, of them Muslims from many of the same countries as the victims of the Christchurch attack. Murdoch media, who, in a recent study was found to have published around 3,000 anti-muslim articles a year, began to publish as if they were and are not complicit in this type of violence. Other publications in the media sphere such as the ABC, who uncritically provided a platform for white supremacists like Jacqui Lambi and Pauline Hanson to generate hateful discourse in the name of free speech, have refused to acknowledge their role in legitimising such ideologies with minimal pushback.

Scores of tributes and baffled statements came from people worldwide, people were shocked that such a thing could happen in a peaceful country like New Zealand, the public sentiment was that this was very unlike the nation. But the thing is, this is New Zealand. It is Australia. White supremacy and violence are the very foundations both countries were built on. And while New Zealand’s brand is to sell itself as Australia’s sensible and peace loving cousin who has created a kind of two-state solution with its original inhabitants, the racism and islamophobia is still very much there. Because it would not be New Zealand if it had not brutalised, massacred, and forcibly stolen the land of the Maori peoples.

White supremacy seeps into every aspect of political life in the West, and thrives through its legitimation. I won’t do him the service of posting his words. But mere hours after the attack, while the bodies of the victims were still warm, Senator Fraser Anning of Queensland somehow managed to spin the attack and blame the victims, for the attack on them and cited ‘mass immigration’ as the reason for the attack.

Politicians from all parties rushed to condemn his statement. The following Monday, Sunrise host David Koch, along with Derryn Hinch, interrogated Pauline Hanson and confronted her for her complicity in allowing Fraser Anning to be a member of her party, and for One Nation’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigration policies. She was shaken to her core but the gesture was hollow, since it is Sunrise and Channel 7 who have always given the likes of Hanson a platform for their white supremacist beliefs.

While Australia twiddled its thumbs and the media and its politicians scrambled to cover up the role they played in normalising islamophobia, New Zealand pledged to pay for the costs of the funerals of all 50 victims, regardless of their immigration status. And PM Jacinda Ardern moved to changed the country’s gun laws.

That is not to say of course, that New Zealand is a saintly country, but they are taking responsibility. That is something Australia should have done, and there is no doubt that the surge of racism, islamophobia and anti-immigration discourse that has been flashed on our screens and newspapers since the 90’s contributed to the attacker’s radicalisation, as well as the white supremacy that has reigned supreme since colonisation.

Had he been a Muslim immigrant the response would have been different. In this country, and the West in general, our status as citizens is dependent on our compliance. We are second class citizens; subhumans. Our lives are a disruption and our deaths are minimised. The main focus of this event was the way it was carried out, and in the aftermath, the people centred were white folk.

This whitewashing was echoed in news coverage of the attack as they focused their cameras on well meaning white allies. The story and the attention was centred around the fact that it happened in a peaceful country of kind, non-racist people. It reduced the actual victims – and over a billion mourners worldwide – to a death toll. Muslims were expected to prove their humanity by inviting the very people who incited anti-Muslim sentiment, and were complicit in the spread of such hatred into their mosques and communities so they could temporarily assuage their guilt.

We were expected to be forgiving and welcoming, ready with a statement of peace and harmony, and an eloquent response to the violence many of us were still processing. We were not expected to be angry, grief-stricken, and critical of the people who were instrumental in spreading anti-Muslim and racist rhetoric. This was in spite of the fact that many victims were still fighting for their lives in hospitals, and the dead were yet to be buried. It became a thing to focus on the few good white people doing minimal acts to pay tribute to the victims, rather than asking the tough questions about what and namely, who enabled white supremacy to grow in Australia.  

Australian racism, xenophobia, and the discourse surrounding it is years and years behind every other prominent Western settler-state. We’re going to continue seeing this erasure of complicity and a lack of introspection into the nuances of this attack. The media and the most senior politicians’ roles in the spread of these ideologies will continue to be minimised. Because these are foundations that are built on normalising white supremacy and othering.

They are incapable of being open to introspection or inciting change. And change is what is clearly so needed.