New Zealand

Racist terror

Print edition : April 12, 2019

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (centre) consoles a woman on March 17 at the Kilbirnie Mosque in Wellington, which she visited to pay tribute to the victims of the Christchurch attack. Photo: AP

Friends of a man gone missing after the terror attack grieve outside a refuge centre in Christchurch on March 17. Photo: Mick Tsikas/AP

The March 15 terror attack on two mosques in New Zealand was made possible by the country’s lax gun control laws, but the pattern fits in with a wide global trend.

The horrific massacre of Muslim immigrants praying in two mosques in Christchurch, on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, by a crazed white Christian fundamentalist on March 15 shows the reach of racism and xenophobia worldwide. The New Zealand authorities have said that only Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian citizen, was responsible for the mayhem in which 50 people were killed, the most severe act of terrorism witnessed in the country’s history.

Tarrant live-streamed a video of the shootings on Facebook for 17 long minutes using a camera mounted on his helmet. By the time Facebook removed the video, it had gone viral. There are fears that it could lead to copycat attacks in other parts of the world, giving incentives, for instance, to the Islamic State, which has been targeting Christian churches for some years in West Asia and North Africa.

Seven people were killed in Linwood Masjid and 43 at Masjid al Noor; the two mosques are located at the centre of the city, close to each other. Many of those taken to hospital are in a critical condition, so the toll may go up. The Bangladeshi national cricket team had a narrow escape. The team members, along with their support staff, were on the verge of entering the mosque for Friday prayers when the shooting started. The Test match that was scheduled to start the next day was immediately cancelled. The killer did not spare children as young as two; whoever crossed his path was mowed down.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described it as “a well-planned terrorist attack” and said it was “one of the darkest days in the country’s history”. In her address to the grief-stricken nation, Jacinda Ardern said that New Zealand was “not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we are an enclave of extremism. We were chosen for the reason because we are none of this thing. Because we represent diversity, kindness and compassion.”

Most of the victims were from the Indian subcontinent. Ten Indians and 10 Pakistanis were among those slaughtered. Naeem Rasheed, a Pakistani, was shot while trying to save the worshippers.

Tarrant, according to the investigators, had travelled to New Zealand with the specific purpose of upsetting the relative social tranquillity the small nation enjoys. Unlike in neighbouring Australia, racially tinged politics and Islamophobia remain relatively dormant in New Zealand. All the same, a small racist and populist party, the NZ First Party, with an explicit anti-Asian and anti-immigrant platform is part of the coalition government under Jacinda Ardern. Without its support, her government will lose its slim parliamentary majority. It managed to get 7.2 per cent of the votes in the 2017 election. Despite its small size, the party was given the key portfolios of Defence and Foreign Affairs. Following the 2017 Islamist terror attack in London, the NZ First Party’s leader, Winston Peters, demanded in Parliament that the Muslim community in the country should “clean house” and name the “potential terrorists” in their own families.

Right-wing politics & Islamophobia

Most counterterrorism experts say that the Christchurch attack should not be viewed in isolation and that it is a result of the overt and covert support that right-wing racial politics has been enjoying worldwide since the beginning of this century. A definite marker would be the 9/11 terror attacks, which sparked widespread Islamophobia in the West and led to the invasion of two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, by the United States. Australia and New Zealand contributed troops for the invasion and occupation of both.

Islamophobic and xenophobic hate crimes are spreading fast globally. The most powerful democracy, the U.S., and the most populous one, India, have been particularly prone to the virus. Social networks spewing fascistic propaganda have proliferated under the protection of state apparatuses in the last decade.

Tarrant had released a 74-page dossier to coincide with the massacre, “The Great Replacement”, in which he claims that he spent two years planning his gory blood fest. The title alludes to the conspiracy theory popular among right-wing Christian extremist groups that the white race is being supplanted by people from Asia and Africa in countries where they are currently in a majority. He even mailed his diatribe against “immigrant invasion” to the New Zealand Prime Minister’s office nine minutes before he went on his shooting spree. The sophisticated firearms and ammunition he had accumulated went unnoticed by the authorities. He had five licensed weapons, including two semi-automatic guns, with him during the attack.

New Zealand has been lax over gun control, though Jacinda Ardern has pledged to introduce stricter gun laws after the attack. Currently, the country, with a population of less than five million, has more than a million registered firearms. Professor Greg Barton, Chair of Global Islamic Politics at the Australian Alfred Deakin Institute of Globalisation and Citizenship, noted that Tarrant brought his ideology of Islamophobia from Australia, which has far stricter gun laws, and put it into practice in New Zealand, exploiting the easy availability of weapons.

The domestic pro-gun lobby is a politically influential one, like its powerful counterpart in the U.S. Jacinda Ardern’s suggestion that semi-automatic weapons should be banned has come in for immediate criticism from the gun lobby, which has the support of key mainstream parties. The country’s Attorney General has already backpedalled on Jacinda Ardern’s initial pledge. Although Tarrant was active on right-wing social networks advocating hate crimes, he managed to operate under the radar in both Australia and New Zealand for more than four months. His travel history includes trips to Pakistan, the Balkans and North Korea. Prof. Barton said that Tarrant was not on the “terrorism watch list” because “of the large cloud of right-wing extremism” online.

Among the rambling statements in Tarrant’s dossier, there was praise for the policies of U.S. President Donald Trump and the Norwegian white supremacist Anders Breivik, responsible for the killing of 77 people in 2011. Tarrant even claimed to have the “blessing” of Breivik for the attack when he visited Norway and had a “brief contact” with the Norwegian mass murderer. Breivik had targeted a Norwegian Labour Party holiday camp full of children and teenagers.

Trump’s ascendance on the political scene, the dossier said, “was a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose”. The U.S. President, who has been scapegoating Muslims even after being elected to office, was quick to condemn the terror attack but refused to blame the rise of white supremacist movements for the surge in terror attacks in the West. While defending his decision to ban people from a few selected Islamic countries from visiting the U.S., Trump had said: “Islam just hates us.” He said that Muslim terrorists from West Asia were in the migrant caravan that was moving towards the American border from Central America. Many of his top political associates and advisers belong to the fundamentalist Christian alt-right movement. During a trip to the United Kingdom, Trump had said that Europe was losing its “identity” and “culture” because of mass immigration.

In February, the U.S. authorities arrested a Coast Guard Lieutenant, Christopher Paul Hasson, on charges of plotting to carry out terror attacks against socialist groups, prominent Democrats and media personalities. Hasson is a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi who has also said that Breivik is his role model. The Anti-Defamation League in the U.S. reported that 50 people were killed in that country last year in terrorist attacks. An “overwhelming” number of attacks were perpetrated “by right-wing extremists”.

Tarrant’s dossier contains a litany of rants against immigration and multiculturism and laments the “decaying” culture of the white and European world. The killer also threatened “Antifa/Marxists/Communists”, saying that they were in “his sights” and ready “to be crushed under my jackboots”.

An Australian Senator, Fraser Anning representing Queensland, seemingly provided a justification for the Christchurch massacre. “The real cause of the bloodshed on New Zealand’s streets today is the immigration system which allows Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place,” he said in his statement.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose right-wing government has many Islamophobic members, was, however, quick to criticise Anning’s statement. He described the Senator’s views “as disgusting” and emphasised that they did not have “a place in Australia, let alone the Australian Parliament”. Such Islamophobic views, unfortunately, are now widely prevalent all over Europe.

Countries like Hungary, Poland and the Slovak Republic have governments run by openly xenophobic leaders. In France, the U.K. and Germany, the ruling parties have introduced legislation or encouraged policies that openly discriminate against Muslim citizens. The Conservative Peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi has said that her Tory party “is institutionally Islamophobic”. Boris Johnson, the former British Foreign Secretary now bidding to succeed Theresa May as Prime Minister, had compared “burqa-clad” women to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” in an article he wrote last year.

Strain on tolerance?

New Zealand was the last place where one would expect a massacre of this scale to happen. It was a nation known for its tolerance and easy-going way of life. Unlike neighbouring Australia, its immigration laws are more relaxed. Located at the “bottom of the earth” and being a long distance away from most of the population centres of the world, it was an attractive place for immigrants, especially from Asia. Some very rich Americans have even bought property in the country, hoping that it would provide them relative security from radiation fallout in the event of a global nuclear war.

Both Australia and New Zealand opened up to non-white immigrants in a big way only from the 1970s. Even today, though Australian immigration policy claims to be non-discriminatory, there is an inbuilt bias in favour of the white race. Australian media have reported that South African whites wishing to emigrate have been allowed to jump the queue ahead of other racial groups. The notorious and inhumane immigration policies that Australia has implemented against people from war-torn countries seeking to come to the country by sea have been well documented and condemned internationally. Australia has put thousands of people in brutal internment camps in neighbouring countries like Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

The aboriginal population continues to be at the bottom of the heap in Australia. The native Maori population in New Zealand got a better deal. The 1840 treaty of Waitangi that the British signed with Maori chiefs gave the indigenous people more protection by recognising their sovereignty over large tracts of land. But New Zealand’s Race Relations Commissioner, Dame Susan Devo, admitted two years ago that the nation “always had a problem with racism”. She also said that the rapid growth of ethnic diversity was putting a stress on the country’s reputation for tolerance. A survey conducted two years ago by researchers at the University of Auckland, based on interviews conducted with 20,000 respondents, revealed that many New Zealanders had a negative view of Muslim immigrants.

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