The shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, on the afternoon of April 17 were unquestionably one of the most violent examples of religious extremism in recent history. On a Friday afternoon, a single white man walked into Al Noor Mosque with weaponry he had modified and was able to murder dozens of peaceful, innocent people while they were in prayer. He continued the attack some minutes later at Linwood Islamic Centre and was allegedly moving to a next target when he was located and arrested. The event was labeled an “act of extreme and unprecedented violence” by New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the event has officially been labeled a terrorist attack.
There are some facts we must remember: The attacks were a premeditated strike, aimed at a place of religious worship. Fifty people between the ages of three and 71 were murdered. Eight more victims, including 4-year-old Alen Alsati, were hospitalized and in critical condition.
The shooter openly and proudly identified himself as a white supremacist.
He deliberately chose to attack during Friday afternoon prayers, a day sacrosanct to the Muslim community and host to the largest regular congregation in mosques.
It is concerning enough that something so vile occurred at all. And yet, the fact is that not only did the Christchurch shootings happen, but they were also born from a politicized racial hatred that has been fostered into white supremacist ideology over decades. The perpetrator live-streamed the attack and published his manifesto openly on the internet, repeating hateful rhetoric we have heard time and time again from people in power and those around us alike. Many of the horrible, ignorant things the terrorist easily published on the internet included a judgment that has been passed against Muslims and immigrants by white people. This constant verbal assault has gone on for years before the Christchurch incident, continues in its midst and will most likely continue in the future. Unfortunately, the only problem a lot of people have with Islamophobia is with actually using the word for their racial hatred.
The fostering of openly Islamophobic rhetoric and legitimizing it with political statements and actions, however, is not solely responsible for the rising rate of white terrorist action. Other factors contribute just as much: including how easily white terrorists are humanized and their easy access to both firearms and ideology that can be easily weaponized.
Gun laws remain lax enough to allow mass shootings with semi-regularity. National protest groups like Reclaim Australia and even individuals like the shooter in question spread the white supremacist manifesto, insisting that people of color are ‘invaders’ and the white colonizers are the land’s rightful owners. In media, the word Islamophobia often symbolizes a phenomenon lesser than the unadulterated hatred and bigotry it actually represents in an attempt to dilute it into a justifiable fear.
None of that means that there aren’t any Muslim terrorist organizations or that nobody has used Islam as an excuse to hate and pass judgment onto others. Of course, they have. However, it is just as true that the first time New Zealand’s threat level was raised this ‘high’ in the country’s entire history, it was at the hands of a dangerous white supremacist. Not a mentally unstable lone wolf. Not a misunderstood young man. He was a hateful, inhumane bigot who believed innocent people deserved to die for migrating to his country.
What the rhetoric of hate around the world establishes, whether it is directed at minorities by the white, or vice versa, is that bad people belong to every group. That does not necessarily mean every single person who is Muslim or Black or Afghan or white is bad: and that is not something that should still need to be spelled out.
However, when the President of the United States has the gall to say that white nationalism is “[not] really” a rising threat after such blatant atrocities have been committed is a testament to just how little Muslim lives matter to the privileged white. The fact remains that, in the white supremacist’s mind, all Muslims are terrorists, are ISIS, are jihadis, are violent and hateful and bad—that’s just not true.
Yes, terrorists are bad people. Some of them are Muslims. Some of them are self-important and loathsome white boys. Not all of them are treated equally. When there is a Muslim attack, it gives power to those who hate them. You’re right, it says, all Muslims want to kill you and your loved ones. They deserve to be hated and punished. When a white boy kills 50 people in cold blood, it is an isolated incident and not at all indicative of a spreading rot in global society.
The hypocrisy in that narrative is something the Christchurch shootings prove, at the expense of too many lost lives. At the end of the day, a shooter in a mosque is the same as a shooter in a church, a synagogue, a temple, a shrine, a school, a street, a house, a club. Them belonging to a certain race or religion does not absolve them of what they truly are: a terrorist.