Opinion

Shakira Hussein
Christchurch massacre: an Australian crime

Husna Ahmed was a wife and mother who migrated from Bangladesh to New Zealand, where she used to teach children and help to care for the elderly at her local mosque.

When the Australian terrorist began to slaughter the fellow members of her congregation at the Masjid Al Noor last year, she ushered the other women and children safely towards a side exit, before returning in search of her husband, who has been a paraplegic since a hit-and-run accident six years earlier.

Ko tō tātou kāinga tēnei” – a title that translates to “This is our home” – the report by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques on March 15, 2019, opens by acknowledging Ahmed’s name, along with those of the other 50 shuhada who died in the Al Noor mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre on that day.

Following the precedent set by Jacinda Ardern in the immediate aftermath of the attack, the report never names the man who killed them. He is simply “the individual” or “the terrorist”.

The portrait of the individual who emerges from the report simply confirms his essential banality, the emptiness of his world view, despite his extensive global travels and the borderless nature of his hate.

His life’s story, as detailed in “Ko tō tātou kāinga tēnei”, provides little insight into his crime. The various childhood traumas – an abusive stepfather, bullying from classmates, his father’s mesothelioma and eventual suicide – are tragedies shared by other people who do not go on to commit mass murder, including the shooter’s own sister. It is a simple fact that every single one of the people he killed on that day is more interesting than he is.

But to use the title of Åsne Seierstad’s book about the Oslo terrorist, the man who murdered Husna Ahmed was one of us. We do not honour her memory if we fail to ask how his crime came to be, what steps could have been taken to prevent it, and what lessons can be learnt.

The lack of coverage in the Australian media of the report’s release stands in marked contrast to the saturation coverage that the shooter’s violence received in the attack’s immediate aftermath. Stories on mainstream news sites included links to his so-called manifesto and clips from the GoPro footage of his crime, which stopped just short of the moment when it would have become an actual snuff film.

Senator Fraser “Final Solution” Anning was given airtime on national radio by The Kyle and Jackie O Show so that he could “explain” offensive remarks in which he had said that the “real cause” of the bloodshed in Christchurch was “the immigration program that allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place”. The senator blamed the victims for their own murders, saying countries that have Muslim immigration “invariably have escalation in violence and terrorist attacks and murders”. It was a statement devoid of decency, or reality, and yet it was broadcast without challenge by the most listened-to breakfast radio show in Australia.

It seems few media outlets in Australia considered the risk of contagion effect either – despite the fact the Christchurch attacker declared himself to have been inspired by the terrorist who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. A few months after Christchurch, a terrorist in El Paso murdered 22 people, citing the Australian terrorist as his inspiration.

It is arguably preferable not to cover the latest episode of the attack at all than to do so in a way that retraumatises the victims or provides more fodder for the terrorist’s army of fans around the world.

For me, and for many other Muslims living in Australia, the Christchurch attack has always felt like an Australian crime that happened to take place in Aotearoa.

The royal commission’s report provides some support for this response, concluding that the individual arrived in New Zealand with “a fully developed terrorist ideology” and the intention to commit violence. Many New Zealand Muslims regard this type of analysis as a copout. In an article responding to the commission’s report, Tayyaba Khan, the NZ ambassador for peace with the European Muslim League, describes being told that “we should not keep discussing the terror attacks, that he was Australian so New Zealanders do not need to own this”.

But in this country, the terrorist’s extensive travels, the fact he appears to have been radicalised online and the fact the crime took place in New Zealand, has allowed Australians to evade the need to “own” the crime as well. “Terrorists forfeit their rights to be Australians when they carry out their evil acts,” says Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. But since the Christchurch terrorist does not hold citizenship of any other country, he cannot be stripped of his Australian nationality. This country cannot wash its hands of him – even under recently expanded legislation to cancel citizenships, which saw convicted terrorist Abdul Nacer Benbrika become the first person to lose citizenship while still onshore late last month.

There needs to be a moment of reckoning that the man behind the Christchurch massacre is an Australian. He was born here, and it was in this country that his hatred and racism developed at a young age. While New Zealand’s government has accepted responsibility for intelligence failings that allowed the shooter to slip past checks in the months leading up to the attack, Australia’s intelligence services missed him for many, many years. There has been no contrition.

“It doesn’t matter who it is; if it’s a person who’s posing a significant terrorist threat to our country, then we’ll do whatever is possible within Australian law to protect Australians,” the Home Affairs minister said.

But this isn’t always the case. Australia isn’t in the habit of taking responsibility for crimes committed by its nationals once they leave our shores. Foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, for example, are stripped of their citizenship and therefore no longer our responsibility, despite the fact ASIO says this may hinder investigations. Similarly, the Australian government’s decision to ignore the threat of far-right terrorism makes people in this country, and others, less safe.

Unlike other members of the Five Eyes, Australia still has not listed any far-right groups as terrorist organisations. Without this, there will not be a greater investigative focus. But there is no lack of threat, as illustrated by the sentencing of Phillip Galea last month for plots against “Muslims and lefties” and the arrest of 18-year-old Tyler Jakovac in New South Wales this week for urging others to kill “non-whites, Jews and Muslims”.

It was not only politicians and policymakers who failed to pay serious attention to far-right extremism prior to the Christchurch attack – it was also academic researchers. In the years leading up to Christchurch, I attended symposium after symposium on the topic of “countering violent extremism” at which the only extremism under discussion was Muslim extremism. The far right was given a token mention for “balance”, and to fend off accusations of Islamophobia. I was once asked to attend a government roundtable on women and violent extremism, which I accepted on the condition that I could speak about far-right terrorism. I was given just 10 minutes to speak, with the rest of the day taken up by “the Muslim issue”. Similarly, the media treated academics who warned of the growing threat of the far right as freak shows.

Despite an upsurge in interest after the Christchurch attack, there is still very little published on the far right in Australia. Mario Peucker and Debra Smith’s anthology, The Far-Right in Contemporary Australia, was published shortly after Christchurch. Jeff Sparrow’s Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre was published in the year after the attack. We still have a long way to go before the number of publications reflects ASIO’s estimation that far-right extremism now constitutes up to 40 per cent of its caseload.

In the wake of the Christchurch report, the Labor opposition responded by calling for parliament to inquire into the threat of far-right extremism. Instead, Dutton has signed off on an inquiry by the parliamentary joint committee on security and intelligence but broadened the scope to all forms of extremism, “including – but not limited to – Islamist and far-right extremist groups”.

Eighteen months on from the Christchurch massacre, this is the reality we face in a country that has failed to grapple with its role in the tragedy: it is still not possible to investigate threats to the safety and wellbeing of Muslims living in Australia without reminding all those concerned that Muslims themselves are to be numbered among the suspects.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 12, 2020 as "The Christchurch massacre: an Australian crime".

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Shakira Hussein is a writer and researcher based at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of From Victims to Suspects.