Christchurch and the threat of right-wing extremism
I’ve thought of Haji Daoud Nabi at every Muslim social event I’ve attended since the Christchurch attack last year. He was the first to die, gunned down after greeting his killer at the doorway of the mosque with the words, “Hello, brother, welcome.” There is always an elderly man somewhere in the background who reminds me of him – the resemblance sometimes so strong that I’ve wondered if I am seeing the ghost of this Afghan grandfather I know only from media reports.
But Muslims living in Australia were haunted by Christchurch – and Quebec, and Utøya – long before these names became shorthand for the crimes committed there. We have braced ourselves for the moment when someone would put into action the threats we are sent on a regular basis. Because running alongside the mass killings, quietly, there has been a slow-motion massacre of Muslims living in the West in the years since September 11, 2001, as one hate crime steadily piled upon another.
These crimes are routinely attributed to mental illness, to gang warfare, to drug or alcohol abuse. The Christchurch massacre – too brazen, too spectacular, to be dismissed in those terms – was immediately named as an act of terrorism by both New Zealand and Australian authorities. Yet the implications of the crime continue to be downplayed by those who characterise its perpetrator as a freakish lone wolf and dismiss his Australian citizenship and upbringing as mere happenstance.
There has been a longstanding determination to minimise the threat of the far right in Australia. In the years preceding the Christchurch attack, I attended many academic forums and government consultations on countering violent extremism, or CVE, which focused exclusively on Islamist extremism, even as security agencies in Australia, North America and Europe warned of the rising danger posed by the far right. Muslims in Australia and New Zealand reported our concerns on a regular basis, only to be patted on the head and sent on our way – unless, of course, we were informing on members of our own religious community.
There was a brief moment of consensus in the aftermath of the Christchurch attack, with Jacinda Ardern praised around the globe for her leadership in embracing the Muslim community and immediately banning both the manifesto in which the terrorist outlined his plan of action and the assault weapons with which he carried it out. The “Christchurch Call” brought together heads of governments and media platforms in an attempt to ensure there would be no repeat of the horrifying 17 minutes of carnage live-streamed by the shooter on Facebook. But while arrests have been made, and some extremist forums and platforms have been taken offline, far-right extremism shows no sign of fading away.
The director-general of ASIO, Mike Burgess, described the threat from right-wing extremism as “real and growing” when delivering the organisation’s annual threat assessment in February. However, during a later senate estimates hearing, Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells objected to Burgess’s choice of terminology, warning him that “your comments, particularly when you refer to them solely as ‘right wing’, [have] the potential to offend a lot of Australians”. Fierravanti-Wells claimed that some of the “so-called right-wing extremists” are actually affiliated with the left, citing as evidence the flying of “the BLF flag”, by which she presumably means the Eureka flag, at some right-wing events.
In truth, I share Fierravanti-Wells’ dissatisfaction with the current nomenclature, although on different grounds. The term “far-right extremism” has arguably become a misnomer, when the so-called extreme has become so firmly established in the mainstream. If the terrorist’s manifesto featured obscure alt-right references and in-jokes, it also drew upon tropes that have become familiar in everyday political discourse. The obsession with Muslim birth rates; the fearmongering about Muslim men as sexual predators; the belief that European, including Australian and New Zealand, civilisation is under siege from Islamisation – the hate merchants of the far right scarcely need platforms such as the now-defunct 8chan when their ideas circulate so freely in the mainstream media and political discourse. Fierravanti-Wells herself introduced a favourite far-right conspiracy theory to parliament when she suggested Australia’s summer bushfires might have been the work of “a sinister collective conducting ecoterrorism”.
And it is not only the political tropes of the terrorist’s manifesto and snuff movie that seem familiar, but also his gleefulness. He does not kill in cold blood – he kills because he enjoys it. He revels in his hatred. He is having fun. That same gleeful pleasure in hate can be seen in politicians ranging from Pauline Hanson to Donald Trump, even if their violence for the most part remains metaphorical rather than physical. Anti-racists are yet to formulate an adequate response to this sadistic pleasure. We continue to denigrate far-right supporters as “losers” and assume they are driven by despair, even as they crow with triumph and laugh in our faces.
Attending far-right events ranging from Geert Wilders’ Melbourne lecture in 2013 to the Reclaim Australia rallies to the mercifully small Trump victory celebration in Melbourne, I’ve been struck by the fact that their speeches and slogans – clearly formulated to be as vitriolic and offensive as possible – hardly sound out of the ordinary. If not for the outlandish costumes, the odd swastika tattoo or SS helmet, these events could have been a day in the national media, or indeed the national parliament. There was always a mismatch between this familiarity and the widespread depiction of the far-right supporters as marginalised outsiders, doomed to failure and irrelevance. Their leaders and micro-parties may not be in government, but they scarcely need to be when their ideology has become so normalised.
In settler-colonial societies such as Australia and New Zealand, built on the continued violent dispossession of Indigenous people, Muslims represent just one of the racialised communities in the crosshairs of the far right. Attacks on visibly Jewish people and premises are also increasing, while the rise in anti-Asian racism in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak illustrates both the durability and malleability of racism. In Australia, racism is often represented as a form of hazing for new arrivals – part of the process of settling in and becoming part of the national fabric. The revival of these “old” racisms should, but won’t, put paid to such victim-blaming responses.
As reported by The Saturday Paper, a 2019 classified report from ASIO warned that a far-right attack in Australia was “plausible” in the next 12 to 18 months. The far right hopes such an attack would “accelerate the race war”. While Muslims are the most likely victims of such an attack, members of all minority communities are potential targets, whether on the basis of their racial, religious, gender or sexual identities. And yet our Home Affairs minister, Peter Dutton, has pushed back against ASIO’s public warnings about the far right, pointing instead to the threat of extremist Islamist groups, which he referred to as “left wing”.
In the immediate aftermath of Christchurch, Jacinda Ardern said she would not speak the name of the man who killed 51 Muslims in their places of worship, and I have refrained from using it in this piece. But on online forums, his name – like that of Anders Breivik – is preceded by the title “St”. His image is adorned with haloes and crowns. While thousands will join Ardern and the Muslim community in commemorating the lives lost on March 15 last year, others are preparing to celebrate the occasion in eager anticipation of a repeat performance. Just as the Christchurch terrorist drew inspiration from previous such crimes, most notably the Utøya slaughter, it has inspired more such crimes in its turn. There will almost certainly be more funerals to come.
We ignore the threat of right-wing extremism at our peril. But on the anniversary of the attack on the Masjid al Noor and the Linwood Islamic Centre, I ask you to think not of the man who killed them and others of his ilk but of the 51 Muslim men, women and children who died at his hands, the survivors whose bodies are still poisoned by the lead from his bullets, and the families who grieve not just on this day, but every day.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2020 as "Extremism creeping in".
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