On Friday, a terrorist stormed two mosques and killed at least 50 people in an attack unprecedented in the history of New Zealand. The alleged attacker, identified as Brenton Harrison Tarrant, 28, has been charged with a crime of murder in the New Zealand courts, where he showed what looks like a symbol of white supremacism. Prior to the attack, Tarrant had published an online manifesto detailing his hatred of Muslims, recognizing as inspiration the British fascist Oswald Mosley, the Norwegian murderer Anders Breivik and the Spanish neonazi Josué Estébanez, among others, and describing the president American Donald Trump as “renewed symbol of white identity”.
This deadly attack highlights the international (and alarming) nature of the rise of Islamophobia. In countries around the world, anti-Muslim discourse and policies have become dangerously normalized, both in institutions, in politics and in the media, and in daily life. Violent and lethal assaults, such as the Christchurch shooting, are just one more consequence of this, as Muslims face daily acts of discrimination, bias and threats.
The problem of Islamophobia in the world has a powerful collateral effect: it is giving rise to broad anti-immigrant and ultra-nationalist coalitions in many countries. The anti-Muslim rhetoric of mainstream commentators has given oxygen to more radical extremists, who are accustomed to defending violence on social networks.
Anti-Muslim discourse and policies have become dangerously normalized, both in institutions, in politics and in the media, and in daily life.
Although some people try to downplay events such as the New Zealand massacre by considering them acts of a lone wolf, if analyzed in depth we see to what extent world leaders have made room for right-wing movements that promote Islamophobia at the level international. For example, less than 24 hours after the attack, Trump denied that white supremacism is a growing danger. Indeed, Trump is a powerful inspiration for Islamophobes, but he is not alone, far from it. In countries around the world, elected leaders and mainstream elites have stoked anti-Muslim sentiment, benefiting from the rise of white supremacism, and have supported policies that target Muslims directly.
Many countries have passed anti-Muslim laws
In 2016, when several photos of French police officers were forced to take a woman with a burkini to take off their clothes on a beach in Nice, the scandal jumped into the networks and divided the population. France had just approved the veto of the burkini on its beaches (now canceled), which prohibited women from donning that type of swimsuit intended to cover the entire body. This was not the first time that the French Government got involved with Muslim garments. In 2011, France became the first country in the world to ban the burqa and the niqab, the veil that covers the face.
But France is not the only country that targets Muslim women. In 2011, Belgium approved almost unanimously a law that prohibited the veil that covers the entire face. In 2010, Lleida banned the full veil and Italy approved its own version to restrict Muslim dress. On the other side of the Atlantic, Quebec (in Canada) has proposed a veto to prevent public officials, such as judges, professors and police officers, from wearing religious garb, a measure that seems aimed at women wearing hijab.
In 2018 Swiss nationality was denied to a Muslim couple because they did not want to reach out to people of the opposite sex for religious reasons. At the end of that year, Denmark passed a law that obliges those applying for the Danish nationality to shake hands at the naturalization ceremony. Both laws were denounced by civil rights groups across Europe for intimidating Muslims.
In the United States, since 2010, more than 200 anti-sharia proposals have been submitted in more than 40 states. This national campaign against sharia or Islamic law is being carried out by hate groups that put pressure on politicians and try to get public support by spreading conspiracy theories that say that in American courts soon a retrograde and barbaric judicial system will be implemented. (There is no evidence to support any of these claims).
Hype is given to a supposed threat to the white population
Since Europe experiences a greater influx of refugees from Muslim countries, its political leaders have doubled their xenophobia and racism. Despite the fact that the Muslim community is still a small part of the total population, the fear of immigration, combined with concerns about the aging of the population, have created a panic situation for which millions of white Europeans are concerned be “replaced” by migrants.
The Christchurch terrorist had published a manifesto known as ‘The Great Replacement’, named for a pamphlet by the French writer Renaud Camus, which is riddled with all these fears. It also echoes the ideas of Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011 and spoke of forcing the government to stop an “invasion of Muslims.”
Leaders like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, where the Muslim population does not reach 1%, convey the idea that society is on the verge of demographic collapse and that procreation should be a national priority. “We want Hungarian children,” Orbán said last month. “For us, immigration is surrender.”
In the United States, things like this are also heard. The Republican Steve King says that the American culture will not survive if the one who conforms it is “the children of other people”. Although demographic anxiety in states focuses on migrants from the southern border, it is also linked (and meaningless) to exaggerated perceptions of Muslim power, such as the claim that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the US Government. .
According to this discourse that invokes the specter of an alien religion, a racial difference and, in some cases, the arrival of former colonial subjects, Muslims are an existential threat. The people who spread the myth of a white “demographic winter” know it. That is why those who promoted the Brexit spoke of the Turks who were going to invade the United Kingdom, and not of the French entrepreneurs who seek to break through in London.
The worst thing is that the hoaxes to put fear are working. In 2016, a study showed that Americans believe that 17% of the country’s population is Muslim. The reality is that only 1% is. The French think that the proportion of Muslims in their country is four times higher than it is in reality. The British believe that it is triple the actual figure.
The mainstream commentators have authorized and legitimized these fears. The main report of the April issue of The Atlantic magazine, written by David Frum, who was the editor of the Republican Party speeches, explains what could go wrong if the proportion of the white population in the US is reduced. French public radio has given voice to Renaud Camus, the writer mentioned by the New Zealand terrorist, and Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the National Front, shares the theory of the “great replacement”.
Restrict Muslim immigration
Obviously, by giving a boost to that alleged threat to the white population, demands are increasing to restrict migration from Muslim-majority countries. One of the main promises of the Trump campaign in 2016 was a total veto on Muslim immigration, a promise he made and repeated at his rallies while proclaiming: “I think Islam hates us.”
Trump’s veto on immigration is now in its second year, after going through three modifications to overcome legal problems. Now the veto affects seven countries (five of them, countries with a Muslim majority). In 2018, the government denied a visa to tens of thousands of people to enter the United States, and continued its policy of separating families.
The United States is not the only country that tries to limit Muslim immigration. In Europe, governments have begun to implement more restrictive asylum laws and put limits on family reunification for refugees. The far-right Hungarian government has come to pass draconian laws that criminalize aid to asylum seekers and has blocked European Union attempts to relocate refugees.
Other right-wing populists in Europe have campaigned (successfully) for anti-Muslim and anti-immigration measures. The Italian Northern League, whose leader -Matteo Salvini is Interior Minister, has promised to deport 500,000 undocumented immigrants and one of their candidates has sworn to defend the “white race”. In the Netherlands, the anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders called the Moroccans “scum” and encouraged the masses to chant “less, less Moroccans in the Netherlands.” Even some countries traditionally considered liberal and progressive, such as Denmark, have approved restrictive anti-immigration policies aimed at Muslim-majority countries and asylum-seekers.
Export white ultranationalism to the whole world
In Christchurch, two local mosques were attacked, but it seems that the inspiration comes from extreme right extremists from all over the world, who increasingly use social networks to globalize hatred. The New Zealand terrorist referred to white supremacists from at least six different countries.
These international connections are not unique. A month before Alexandre Bissonnette killed six Muslims in a mosque in Canada, the terrorist searched Google for the name of Donald Trump hundreds of times and obsessively searched Twitter TV commentators who had expressed an anti-Islam opinion.
The ideologies of white supremacism, the extreme right and ultranationalism are also disseminated through licit channels and sources authorized by the Government. For example, Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign advisor, has been busy this time looking for a mission to mobilize far-right parties in Europe.
Although websites like YouTube, Facebook and 4chan have accelerated the process, this globalization of white ultranationalism and anti-Muslim extremism is deeply rooted in the movement. Groups of white supremacists like the Aryan Nation have been communicating for decades with their European counterparts, while Islamophobic organizations such as the Finnish Odin Soldiers have opened sections around the world.
But somehow politicians continue to deny the attacks of white and anti-Muslim ultranationalists, such as New Zealand, considering them the work of solitary extremists or people with a mental illness. This vision is not only false – and often part of a double standard – but ignores the threat of Islamophobia and white nationalism, despite the warning of international experts on extremism.
“This is a process by which this movement is becoming internationalized and nourished by global connections,” says Pete Simi, a professor of sociology at Chapman University and an expert on extremism. “It is not a type of individualized violence.”
Trump began to expand anti-Muslim poisons before even becoming president. On several occasions he suggested that President Barack Obama was a Muslim in secret and spread lies about Muslim support for the 9/11 attacks. Now that he is in the Oval Office, he continues to promote false news about violence committed by Muslim migrants, while accusing the US allies of being too soft on the supposed threat.
None of these signs of fanaticism has been a problem for Trump.
The president is not linked to the Muslim veto – which has affected more than 1,600 million people – in the same way as it is to his relations with Russia or his frequent outcasts improper presidential decorum. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez emphasized it after the attack in New Zealand.
And this pattern is repeated in more countries. Nicolas Sarkozy and Manuel Valls, former president and former prime minister of France, respectively, supported last year a (highly criticized) request to modify the Koran. Valls is now a candidate for mayor of Barcelona. In Canada, opposition leader Andrew Scheer – potential successor to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – has been avoiding questions about his meeting with an activist who routinely disseminates conspiracy theories about Muslims for more than a week.
The list of leaders who benefit from Islamophobia extends even to the Muslim world. The Prince of the United Arab Emirates Mohammed bin Zayed once claimed that his people could not support a democracy because, having the right to vote, people would support dangerous extremists. With the excuse of fighting extremism, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has imprisoned tens of thousands of people. Both leaders have the support of the West.
Islamophobia on the media
Studies show that media coverage of the Muslim community is not only opaque, but is often plagued by theories of the Muslim community.
piration and inaccurate data. In the United States, 80% of news about Muslims is negative, according to Media Tenor, a media research organization. Most news describes Islam and Muslims as sources of violence and evil. A 2018 study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding revealed that perpetrators of violent crimes who were perceived as Muslims received seven times more media attention than non-Muslims.
In the United Kingdom, press coverage is not much better when talking about Muslims. A 2011 study from the University of Leeds found that 70% of news about Muslims was hostile. (Only 15% were classified as “inclusive”). In 2016, a man was responsible for presenting more than 14,000 complaints to a group of media organizations for their lack of accuracy, their bias or their hostile treatment in reporting on Muslims.
Studies show that media coverage of the Muslim community is not only opaque, but is often plagued by conspiracy theories and inaccurate data.
For years, media like Fox News have spread erroneous anti-Muslim information without facing consequences. This conservative channel usually invites anti-Muslim activists, such as Pamela Geller – described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “the most visible and ostentatious figure in the anti-Muslim movement” – and Frank Gaffney – founder of a neo-conservative anti-Muslim think tank – to let them loose his tirades of hatred and fanaticism without the presenters interrupting them.
Worse yet, the presenters also use similar rhetoric. Earlier this month, Jeanine Pirro, of Fox News, questioned the loyalty of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar as an American policy solely because of her religious beliefs. Brian Kilmeade, also of Fox, said in 2010 that “all terrorists are Muslims.”
But the problem is not just Fox News. Other media from across the political spectrum have also fallen into this discourse. In 2015, CNN anchor Don Lemon asked guest Arsalan Iftikhar, a US human rights lawyer, if he supported ISIS, for no other reason than the fact that Iftikhar is Muslim. After the shooting in San Bernardino (California) in 2015, journalists from various US media stood before the house of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik to make close-ups of the objects they had lying around. The Koran and the carpet used by Muslims to pray were shown as tools used by terrorists in an attack.
It’s not just a problem of the extreme right
Islamophobia, like intolerance and any kind of hate, is easier to identify when it is produced from the extreme right. When American Republican Steve King said he did not want Somali Muslims to work in the meat industry because they do not eat pork or when columnist Ann Coulter proposed that the United States invade Muslim countries, “kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity “, The criticisms were harsh and they arrived soon.
However, dealing with Islamophobia in liberal and progressive circles is trickier. Representatives of the New Atheism, such as Bill Maher and Sam Harris, both considered progressive, have been criticized for perpetuating opinions against Muslims under the guise of intellectual debates.
“It’s not that the Muslim world has anything in common with ISIS, it’s that it has too much in common with ISIS,” Maher said in a 2014 episode of his HBO program. Harris, meanwhile, opposed in 2010 the construction of a mosque near the new World Trade Center, arguing that its construction would be “a sign that the liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice.”
Richard Dawkins, one of the greatest representatives of the new atheism, has also issued statements against Muslims under the premise of academic and scientific freedom. Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and former professor at the University of Oxford, went on to claim that Islam is “the greatest force of evil today.”
Beyond temporary solidarity
Tragedies such as the shooting in Christchurch have provoked inevitable demonstrations of solidarity and defense of liberal and inclusive values. As New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern eloquently stated, the victims “have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us. ” Those who perpetrated the attack, he continued, “have no place in New Zealand.”
Although the expressions of solidarity towards the victims are appreciated and necessary, it is necessary to carry out more profound actions and concrete to deal with the growing wave of Islamophobia all over the world. Anti-Muslim sentiments continue to grow, both on the part of heads of state and well-known media or intellectual personalities, often without being controlled or punished. In many countries, these sentiments have created enough space to accommodate movements of white ultranationalism and extremist violence, which, thanks to digital platforms, now have a global reach.