Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1442, (9 - 15 May 2019)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1442, (9 - 15 May 2019)

Ahram Weekly

After the Christchurch massacre

Many Muslim worshippers living in the West fear that mosques could be attacked this Ramadan as the curtains come down on March’s white supremacist shootings in New Zealand, writes Gihan Shahine

 

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people are so full of doubts — philosopher Bertrand Russell, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1950


The Christchurch massacre

It did not occur to 39-year-old Osama Adnan Abukweik that he could be martyred at the hands of “fools and fanatics” when he chose to set the above quotation from English philosopher Bertrand Russell as his Facebook background profile. Yet, Abukweik was among the victims of the mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand that left 50 worshippers dead and another 50 injured in March this year.

Abukweik had hardly imagined he would be gunned down in the same land he had emigrated to 18 months earlier in quest of a better future for his family and which soon became the object of his passion and ironically the last station of his life. Only a week ahead of his tragic murder, Abukweik had told his brother that it was in New Zealand that he wished to “spend my entire life, raise my kids, die and get buried”.

He probably did not imagine that he would be the victim of a hate crime in much the same way his grandfather had been martyred while defending the Palestinian city of Lydda against Israeli attack in 1948. Or that his children would be orphaned at more or less the same age as his father had been as a refugee.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t with you when it happened, Osama. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to protect you, little brother. I’m sorry you couldn’t escape all the killing and all the blood even by going to the ends of the earth.” These were the words that Abukweik’s brother Youssef, who lives in California, wrote mourning his younger brother on Facebook.

Hailing from a Palestinian family, Osama was raised in Egypt. He received a Masters degree in communications from the American University in Cairo and soon became a manager in a leading IT company. But when Egypt was battling with economic challenges after the 2011 Revolution, Osama lost his job and emigrated to New Zealand with his wife and three children in search of a better future. He was hugely happy with his new life that ended in tragedy.


photo: AP

“My brother was shot dead in a hate crime in a remote land,” Youssef told Al-Ahram Weekly in anguish a day before his brother was buried. “My parents and three sisters are all languishing in grief. Fighting hate and bigotry will be the mission of my life from now onwards.”

Abukweik’s wife and children plan to continue living in New Zealand, according to his wishes. “My brother was happy his kids were being treated like true citizens, not refugees, and he wanted them to receive a good education,” Youssef noted.


Ardern showing support to the families of Muslim victims

HAVEN FROM HATRED: Abukweik was probably not the only person to be happy with his life in New Zealand. The reaction of the government and the people there to the tragedy explains the passion many have for living in the country, as applications to immigrate to New Zealand have reportedly surged following the shootings.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s support for the Muslim community in her homeland will remain engraved in Muslim minds, and there have been calls to award her the Nobel Peace Prize.

She helped heal the wounds of many Muslims not only in her own country, but also around the world, when she appeared in a Muslim headscarf sending Quran-laced messages of compassion and solidarity with the shootings’ Muslim victims, calling for the official broadcast of Friday prayers on the day of the funeral, standing for a moment of silence in tribute to the martyrs, and calling on all women to wear the veil on that day in solidarity with Muslim women.

Ardern’s message of love was not so much directed to Muslims alone as to all humanity since she said that most of the victims were immigrants who “chose to come” to New Zealand where they “chose to raise their families” as “a haven from hatred, racism, extremism, and that is why they became a target”.

“We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of these things,” Ardern said. “Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, refuge for those who need it. Those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack.”

Ardern was not alone in supporting Muslims in New Zealand. Judging from the colourful flowers adorning the funeral and the sight of women wearing Islamic headscarves and hugging and showing emotional support for the victims’ families, there were many unmistakable blows to the message of hate propagated by the fanatics and far-right extremists.

There are many moderate voices around the world that assert such values of inclusion and that are joining forces against hate crimes. President of Austria Alexander Van der Bellen had earlier called for all women to wear headscarves in solidarity with Muslims in a gesture aimed to fight what he described as “rampant Islamophobia”.

It remains questionable, however, whose voice will ultimately prove louder: that of white supremacy and right-wing extremism, or that of inclusion and the work against hate crimes, xenophobia and Islamophobia.

 

Will the Christchurch tragedy deal a permanent blow to white supremacy and hate crime? Or will hate crime and Islamophobia find more supporters, especially in the light of the recent wave of immigrants, or what extreme right-wing politicians have dubbed “invaders”, who have arrived in Europe seeking refuge but who have been accused of seeking to change the identity of or to “Islamise” Europe?

 


Canadian PM Justin Trudeau paying tribute to the victims of the Quebec mosque attack

SEEKING DEFINITIONS: Such questions remain open, provoking heated debate across the world. But to find answers, analysts need to put such shootings in the right context. Should anti-Muslim attacks like that in Christchurch be regarded in the context of white supremacy, xenophobia or Islamophobia? Is white supremacy targeting Muslims more than other minorities?

There is a consensus that the recent shootings in New Zealand were a violent manifestation of white supremacist ideology and xenophobia that did not occur in a vacuum. The 28-year-old Australian murderer who committed the crimes described himself on social media as representing “Europeans and whites in a battle against immigrants” whom he insisted on calling “invaders”. His posts were widely circulated on social media and expressed his deep “hatred for Islam”.

“There’s been less reflection on the fact that any 28-year-old in Australia has grown up in a period when racism, xenophobia and a hostility to Muslims in particular were quickly ratcheting up in the country’s public culture,” the UK newspaper the Guardian’s Jason Wilson wrote in an article entitled “Islamophobia is Practically Enshrined as Public Policy in Australia”.

Abdel-Sattar Ghazali, editor of the Journal America online magazine, agreed that the Christchurch massacre “was the logical consequence of rising Islamophobia and white supremacy, particularly in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks”.

“We have seen time and time again that the prevalence of hate speech and Islamophobic rhetoric have deadly consequences,” Ghazali told the Weekly.

According to the second annual European Islamophobia Report for 2016, a survey of the continent, “Muslims are seen as the enemy ‘within’” in Europe. “Thus, physical attacks and political restrictions can often be carried out and even defended in an atmosphere of wide distrust and enmity.”


Many moderate voices around the world are joining forces against hate crimes

Some analysts mention the rise of terror attacks carried out by the Islamic State (IS) group in Europe and the US and the recent influx of immigrants from war-torn countries like Syria into Europe following the Arab Spring as the reasons behind the rise of anti-Muslim sentiments. But there is also almost a consensus that the rise of extreme right-wing groups in Europe and US President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric have boosted anti-Muslim sentiments that peaked in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

“The horrific attack on the Christchurch mosques is a terrible incident in the globalised context of violent, white supremacist terrorists,” noted Omid Safi, director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Centre in the US. According to Safi, the terrorist murderer “was inspired by Trump, white supremacy, and anti-Muslim genocidal forces in the former Yugoslavia”.

“The forces of Islamophobia, whether in the United States, the UK, India, China, Israel, or New Zealand, are networked and taking inspirations from one another,” Safi told the Weekly. ”Those of us who aspire to a world of peace and justice will have to be even more organised.”

One recent report by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN), a NGO, has highlighted “how ‘big money’ is channeled to the ‘industry of Islamophobia’ in the West, which revolves around a fear-mongering demonisation of Arabs and Muslims intended to legitimise both US and Israeli bellicose machinations in a region with highly coveted resources.”

Muslims are not alone. Erik Bleich, a professor of political science at Middlebury College in the US, says that the New Zealand shootings are “part of a rising tide of populist, white supremacist racism that is becoming more active and bold” and “is affecting Muslims and Jews in particular, but all minorities are at risk”.

“Muslims are particularly vulnerable in Western countries,” Bleich elaborated, saying that there have been systematic attacks on mosques since 9/11. But, according to Bleich, “there have also been anti-Semitic attacks such as the one at the Pittsburgh synagogue in the US, as well as anti-Semitic chants at venues like the Charlottesville, Virginia, march.”

“There was also an attack on a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white supremacist,” Bleich added.

Safi concurred, explaining that “white supremacy attacks many communities who are marked as non-white. It’s responsible for attacks on Muslims, on African-Americans, on Jews, Sikhs, Hispanics, and other communities,” he elaborated.

The attack on the mosques is neither new nor unprecedented,” Safi went on. ”We have seen black churches being attacked in Charleston, Jewish synagogues in Pittsburgh, the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek [Wisconsin], as well as previous attacks on mosques in Quebec and the terrorist attack on the mosque in Hebron [Khalil] by the Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein. We have to stop treating these terrorist attacks as isolated episodes and see the system and institution that produces this kind of violence.”

Today, Ghazali says, “white-nationalist inspired mass attacks on the Muslim community are a very real fear in America.” Such attacks, many agree, have “already been at a peak because of dedicated and well-funded anti-Islam and anti-Muslim groups which constantly promote Islamophobia through different means,” he added. “These groups are there to foment anti-Islam and anti-Muslim rhetoric.”

The US-based Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC), which tracks anti-Muslim and hate groups, recorded that “the number of major anti-Muslim US hate groups in 2018 was 42, while the number of all hate groups was 1,020 in 2018.”

“Over the past few years, there has been an epidemic of attacks and planned attacks on Muslim communities and mosques across the United States,” said Ghazali. “Mosques were bombed in Bloomington, Minnesota, and burned in Austin and Victoria, Texas, Bellevue, Washington, and Thonotosassa, Florida, and mass attacks were planned against Muslim communities in Islamberg, New York, Jacksonville, Florida, and GArdern City, Kansas.”


commemorating the victims of the Quebec massacre

ALARMING FIGURES: Tell Mama, a charity organisation monitoring hate crimes, has already declared that attacks on Muslims in Britain increased by 593 per cent the week following the Christchurch massacre.

According to figures published by the Guardian, “95 incidents were reported to the charity between 15 March, the day of the New Zealand mass shooting, and midnight on 21 March. “Of those, 85 incidents — 89 per cent of the total — contained direct references to the New Zealand attacks and featured gestures such as mimicking firearms being fired at Muslims,” it wrote.

In its annual report, the group noted a surge in Islamophobic attacks, with 1,201 verified reports submitted in 2017, a rise of 26 per cent on the year before and the highest number since it began recording incidents.

In the same vein, a Pew Research Centre analysis of hate crimes statistics from the FBI in the US revealed that “the number of assaults against Muslims in the United States rose significantly between 2015 and 2016, easily surpassing the modern peak reached in 2001, the year of the September 11 terrorist attacks.”

In another Pew survey conducted in early 2017, three-quarters of Muslim American adults (75 per cent) said there was “a lot” of discrimination against Muslims in the US, a view shared by nearly seven-in-10 adults in the general public (69 per cent).

In the holy month of Ramadan, many “American Muslims fear attacks like the Christchurch Mosque massacre” could happen again, according to Ghazali. He referred to an incident when a mosque in the Southern California city of Escondido was set on fire a few days after the Christchurch tragedy.

“The blaze was extinguished by the worshippers, and no one was injured,” Ghazali said. “However, the police said that a note was found in the mosque’s parking lot that referenced the recent Christchurch mass shootings.”

Even more tolerant societies like in Canada have not been immune to hate crimes, which reportedly “increased by 47 per cent in 2017, primarily targeting Muslims, Jews and black people,” according to figures released by the country’s statistical agency. But, according to the agency, “the biggest increase was in crimes targeting Muslims.”

The Christchurch terror attack also conjured up images of Canada’s deadliest ever shooting, killing six Muslim worshippers at the hands of a white supremacist after evening prayers in the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City.

The worshippers, all immigrants, had hardly finished their evening prayers when suddenly Alexandre Bissonnette, a white supremacist now sentenced to 40 years in prison, stormed the mosque and opened fire, killing them all.

Christchurch has also awakened poignant memories of the deadly 2015 Chapel Hill hate crime that claimed the lives of 23-year-old American-Syrian Muslim Deah Shaddy, his veiled bride 21-year-old Yusor Mohamed Abu Salha, and her veiled sister 19-year-old Razan. The once joyously happy couple had hardly posted their beautiful wedding photographs on line when others took their place showing them bathed in blood. The three were shot dead in a “dispute over parking”, but their family has insisted that the murder was a hate crime motivated by the religious identity of the victims.

In Ramadan of 2016, veiled 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen of northern Virginia in the US was assaulted and killed as she walked home after prayers at a mosque near Washington, and police charged 22-year-old Darwin Martinez Torres with her murder. Her pictures immediately conjured up images of veiled martyr Marwa Al-Sherbini, an Egyptian pharmacist who was fatally stabbed in front of her husband and three-year-old son in a court in Dresden, Germany, for nothing other than her religious identity.

In another incident, 51-year-old Makram Ali was hit by a van driven into a crowd of worshippers as they were leaving Ramadan prayers on a Monday night in the streets of Finsbury Park in north London. “He died in his daughter’s arms, and 11 other Muslims were injured in what is being treated as a terrorist incident by British police,” according to Willy Fautre of the NGO Human Rights Without Borders (HRWF).


Deah and Yusor in Chapel Hill

THE RISE OF THE EXTREME RIGHT: Earlier this year, the Anti-Defamation League in the US, a NGO, reported that 2018 was the worst year for far-right killings in the United States since 1995 when Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in Oklahoma City.

“Far-right terrorism has a history of promoting anti-Muslim sentiments,” noted Fautre.

Extreme right-wing politicians, however, seem to be gaining more popularity across the US and Europe. “They [the far-right advocates] are emboldened by the rise of populist parties and rhetoric,” Bleich lamented. “They feel that they have more permission to express their views openly, which gives some extremists the feeling that carrying out attacks fits with the general trend.”

The Christchurch murderer has confessed that he was inspired by mass killer Andres Behring Breivik, a far-right terrorist who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. Breivik was “anti-Muslim” but ironically his terror attack was not targeting Muslims.

“These groups, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and white supremacist, are emboldened by a president who normalises hatred and weaponises racism,” Safi said. ”The phenomenon cannot be reduced to Trump, but we have to acknowledge how Trump and the system that brought Trump to power is emboldening and empowering these global white supremacist networks.”

Ghazali would similarly insist that “Trump’s presidency has energised the white supremacists.” The Christchurch murderer also described Trump in his manifesto as “a symbol of renewed white identity”.


Abukweik with his family in New Zealand

“It has become a pattern with President Donald Trump to downplay the seriousness of violence associated with the white supremacists,” Ghazali lamented.

The SPLC in its 2019 report about hate and extremism in the US lamented that “President Trump has opened the White House doors to extremism, not only consulting with hate groups on policies that erode our country’s civil rights protections, but also enabling the infiltration of extremist ideas into the administration’s rhetoric and agenda.”

Many also agree that the Western media has tended to focus on terror attacks in order to portray Muslims as the “enemy”. In a video published on the network SBS, TV presenter Jane Fran highlighted that “the descriptions of Muslim and non-Muslim perpetrators are significantly different even if they commit the same crimes”.

“It’s easy for us to say that Muslim terrorists come from an inferior culture, a violent religion, a broken society that they’re full of hate. But we can’t really say that about the white ones,” Fran lamented.

This time, though, the Western media “rightly highlighted the compassionate response of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Muslim community,” noted Safi.

According to Bleich’s Media Portrayals of Minorities Project, an investigative survey, “the media reaction that stood out was the immediate willingness to call the Christchurch attacks terrorism,” something which was not the case in many previous incidents.

“It is much more common for the media to label attacks by Muslims as terrorism, and to label attacks against Muslims as racist or anti-immigrant, or perhaps even to focus on the mental health of the attacker,” Bleich pointed out.

According to a paper by Bleich’s assistant Emily Stabler, “57 per cent of articles mentioning Muslims compared to only 14 per cent of articles related to whites contain these words [terrorism and terror].”

However, Stabler pointed out that the words “terrorism and terrorist” were surfacing more frequently in articles published about Christchurch attacks. “The newspapers’ unexpected willingness to label the Christchurch attacks terrorism” could be seen as “a shift in media framing” incurred by criticism of its biased coverage, she said. But more likely it is just that “the words used are a function of the New Zealand prime minister’s decision to publicly designate the shooting as terrorism,” she added.

“If this is the case,” Stabler concluded, “Christchurch may be more of an exception to the rule than a harbinger of change in the US media coverage of mass shootings.”

 

FUTURE SCENARIOS: Could such hate crimes reduce the growing extreme right-wing in Europe and elsewhere and end hate crime in the same way that the Holocaust in Europe led to effective laws against anti-Semitism on the continent?

“Unfortunately not,” Bleich said. “There would have to be a bigger, perhaps global, attack on Muslims for there to be parallels with the reaction to the Holocaust.”

In the meantime, he added, “some new survey data suggests certain kinds of respondents, namely liberals and the non-religious, feel more positively toward Muslims than we expected. This might be a result of the view that Muslims are unfairly targeted.”

In the short run, Bleich expects that the voices of “the populists and right-wing extremists will be louder. The work of fighting back is a longer process, and it involves patience and planning,” Bleich speculated. “I believe it is possible, and that it will carry the day. But it may take some time.”

Ghazali was less optimistic, speculating that “the Christchurch mosque massacre is unlikely to affect the popularity of the extreme right-wing.”

“I am not optimistic that the voices of those who are against hate crimes and white supremacy will be heard louder than the extreme right-wing extremists,” he noted. “The reason is that the major electronic and print media is against Muslims. It is the Western media, as well as some politicians, that has a very negative attitude against Muslims and their faith. Anti-hate crime legislation is not possible in the US, as we are witnessing a well-funded lobby busy initiating so-called ‘anti-Sharia’ legislation in several US states.”

Bleich, however, thought that perhaps “more public pronouncements on the dangers of Islamophobia by leading politicians could help raise awareness and build sympathy.”

“Let’s hope those are forthcoming,” he concluded.

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