A deadly silence on Christchurch
We are now two years on from the massacre of 51 Muslims in Christchurch, a terrorist attack perpetrated by an Australian man. And once again the responsibility has fallen on members of the community who were targeted to remind Australia that this horrific incident occurred and is still to be reckoned with.
The erasure of the Christchurch attack from the political and media landscape in Australia has been staggering. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise though, given how our leaders chose to respond in the immediate aftermath. “Extremist terrorism has no nationality,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at the time, a line scripted to reassure Australians there was nothing to reflect on, nothing to interrogate. It was the rhetorical equivalent of brushing aside with the wave of a hand the shooter’s inculcation in Australian culture and his history with Australian far-right groups.
Last March, the first anniversary of the massacre coincided with the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic. Borders were shut, large gatherings were banned. As necessary as those public health measures were, they also had the consequence of disrupting the grieving process for Muslims around the world, but particularly those in Australia and New Zealand.
After 12 months of reeling, of feeling unsafe at Friday prayers, of the attack and its aftermath dominating every conversation within the Muslim community, that first anniversary would have been an opportunity to reflect, to commemorate and to try to force Australia to grapple with how this attack happened and how this kind of violence can be stopped.
Two years on, the shock waves of Christchurch are still felt in the Muslim community, as is fear about the ongoing threat of far-right-motivated terror attacks. Yet there is hardly a word about Christchurch in the Australian media.
As I write this piece, only one other Australian outlet, The Guardian, has seen fit to turn its opinion pages over to the topic. Muslim voices are trying to share our trauma, our inability to process what happened and to raise alarm about the feeling that, without action, violence like this will be perpetrated again upon our community.
From the rest of Australia, though, the response is mostly silence. There’s no analysis or introspection. No one questioning whether the racism in Australian society, supercharged by certain politicians and the media, has been addressed or even acknowledged.
The only minister of the Morrison government to mention the Christchurch attacks in parliament this week was Senator Jonathon Duniam, the assistant minister for Forestry and Fisheries. In a response to a motion commemorating the victims of the attack and condemning racism, Duniam said “Australians overwhelmingly reject all forms of racism and extremism”. He pointed to the government’s announcement of $62.8 million in funding over five years for “social cohesion”.
There was nothing from the prime minister. Nothing from the Home Affairs minister, who has responsibility for the security and safety of Australians.
In fact, this week Peter Dutton was heavily criticised by New Zealand MPs for describing the deportation of a 15-year-old New Zealand boy as “taking out the trash”.
The conservative NZ opposition leader, Judith Collins, was particularly scathing. “It was a pretty poor call for Minister Peter Dutton to come out and start talking about sending out the trash to New Zealand in the same week that we were commemorating an Australian who came here and killed 50-odd people in New Zealand and injured so many more,” she said.
The absence of reflection of any kind from Australia’s most senior political leaders isn’t merely disappointing, it’s dangerous. The threat from the far right, including individuals or small cells directly inspired by the Christchurch shooter, hasn’t dissipated. Australia’s domestic spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, has consistently warned that, if anything, the threat has increased since the Christchurch massacre.
According to ASIO, 40 per cent of the agency’s current counterterrorism operations are focused on far-right extremism. But the organisation’s latest threat assessment, released this week, is yet another example of how far we still have to go in terms of really being able to confront the far right.
In the assessment, ASIO’s director-general, Mike Burgess, reiterated that the threat from the far right would “not diminish anytime soon – and may well grow”.
He said extremists were reacting to global events, including the Black Lives Matter and the election of Joe Biden in the United States, and were adopting narratives “about societal collapse and race war”.
But, bewilderingly, Burgess also announced ASIO would no longer be using the terms “far right” or “right-wing extremism”.
Instead, the organisation would place extremist threats in two categories: religiously motivated violent extremism and ideologically motivated violent extremism.
According to ASIO, the term “Islamic extremism” has been seen by some Muslim groups as “damaging and misrepresentative of Islam” and contributes to stigmatisation.
There is no denying that since 9/11 the Muslim community has experienced significant and deeply harmful profiling and stigmatisation from security agencies, politicians and the media. It has contributed both to a sense of alienation for many Muslims and to creating an environment wherein far-right extremists – animated by a hatred of Muslims – have thrived.
But why does recognising the harm that stigmatising the Muslim community can cause mean we can’t call far-right extremists what they are: far-right extremists?
According to ASIO, it’s because there are a growing number of “individuals and groups that don’t fit on the left–right spectrum”. Instead, Burgess says, they are motivated “by a fear of societal collapse or a specific social or economic grievance”.
It’s a strange statement, when examined alongside the specific kinds of grievances that Burgess name checked. Extremists motivated to violence by the Black Lives Matter rallies or Trump losing the presidency pretty clearly fall on one end of the left–right spectrum.
ASIO’s new language is a concerning development. Judging by the continued muted response to Christchurch in Australia, it’s clear the country has only just barely acknowledged the threat of the far right. Now even the term is being erased. How can we combat a threat we refuse to call by its name?
The shift has occurred in a broader political context as well. In fact, Burgess’s comments reflect the attitude of a number of Coalition figures, including Home Affairs Minister Dutton.
In February last year, Dutton was criticised for drawing an equivalence between “right-wing extremism” and so-called “left-wing extremism”.
“I don’t care where people are on the spectrum, if they pose a threat to our country and want to do harm to Australians, then they are in our sights,” Dutton said at the time.
But ASIO’s own data shows the threat from the far right in Australia eclipses anything from left-wing groups.
In March last year, Coalition senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells grilled Burgess during a parliamentary hearing about his use of the term “right wing” when describing the extremist threat.
“I am concerned about this and concerned about the use of terminology of ‘right’. ‘Right’ is associated with conservatism in this country and there are many people of conservative background who take exception with being charred [sic] with the same brush,” Fierravanti-Wells said.
“I think that you do understand that your comments, particularly when you refer to them solely as ‘right wing’, has the potential to offend a lot of Australians.”
Fierravanti-Wells went on to argue there was evidence of left-wing extremism in Australia as well.
“I totally get it,” Burgess responded, “and my intention was not to offend any innocent people in that regard.
“It’s unfortunate that we refer to it as right-wing extremism, but in the absence of anything else maybe we should consider another label.”
It seems that ASIO has done just that. While the change might satisfy the political interests of the current government – a government deeply unwilling to acknowledge how dangerous the far right has become – it is unclear how this semantic shift will actually help deal with the threat.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 20, 2021 as "A deadly silence".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.