Western politicians in denial: A Killer in New Zealand, without a name

Manal Lotfy , Thursday 21 Mar 2019

The New Zealand mosque massacre exposes the dangers of downplaying Islamophobia

Sign near Masjid Al Noor in Christchurch
A sign is seen after Friday's mosque attacks outside a community center near Masjid Al Noor in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 16, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern vowed never to say the name of the Christchurch mosque’s gunman.

She addressed a special meeting of parliament on Tuesday which she opened by using the Islamic greeting al-salaamu alaikum. The man’s rampage left 50 people dead.

“He sought many things from his act of terror, but one was notoriety – that is why you will never hear me mention his name,” Ardern said in her emotional address.

“I implore you, speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”

New Zealand’s prime minister declared she would do everything in her power to deny the gunman a platform for his racist views after he dismissed his lawyer and opted to represent himself at trial.

“I agree that it is absolutely something that we need to acknowledge and do what we can to prevent the notoriety that this individual seeks,” Ardern said.

“He obviously had a range of reasons for committing this atrocious terrorist attack. Lifting his profile was one of them. And that’s something that we can absolutely deny him.”

The gunman’s desire for publicity led him to compose a 74-page manifesto justifying Friday’s massacre and to livestream footage of his attack on the Al-Noor Mosque.

The video prompted widespread revulsion and condemnation, and will lend weight to ongoing international campaigns seeking to change how the media reports such masscres.

One of the highest profile campaigns was started in 2012 by parents of a victim of the mass shooting at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. It is called, simply, No Notoriety.

Its Website argues for “no name, no photo and no notoriety”, challenging the media to “deprive violent like-minded individuals the media celebrity and media spotlight they so crave”.

The Don’t Name Them campaign, headed by the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Centre at Texas State University, also argues that giving attackers publicity “allows the shooter to accomplish one of his goals and validates his life and actions”.

Facebook said it removed 1.5 million videos of the shooting during the first 24 hours after the massacre. But on Tuesday Ardern expressed frustration that the video remained available online, four days after the attack.

Despite the original video being taken down, it was quickly shared on other platforms, including YouTube and Twitter.

Ardern spoke with British Prime Minister Theresa May about the importance of global efforts to clamp down on the distribution of such material.

UK Home Office Minister Ben Wallace warned it was “perfectly possible” for a far-right attack like that in New Zealand to happen in the UK and warned MPs that the UK was seeing a “growing threat” from the far right.

He said the attack in New Zealand must be a “wake up call” for social media companies which should be “ashamed” they enabled the shootings to be live-streamed and shared.

The shooter’s manifesto ended with the sentence “Europa rises”. The 74 pages were a diatribe against liberal values, multi-racial, -religious and -cultural societies, migration and Muslims who were called “invaders” and “foreign scum”.

Muslim scholars and community leaders, though horrified by the massacre, were not totally surprised.

“This massacre was inspired by hatred of Islam and Muslims. This bigotry has been fuelled by certain callous academics, reckless politicians as well as media outlets which regularly feature those who demonise Islam and Muslims with impunity, disguising their vile mantra behind a veneer of objectivity,” said a joint letter signed by Muslim leaders from the UK, US, France, Canada, Sweden and other countries published in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper after the attack.

“The massacre of Muslims did not just begin with bullets fired from the barrel of Tarrant’s gun. Rather it was decades in the making: inspired by Islamophobic media reports, hundreds and thousands of column inches of hatred printed in the press, many Muslim-hating politicians and unchecked social-media bigotry. Muslims have been constantly cast as suspect communities, foreigners with barbaric views who are a threat to our society. We are now reaping the awful outcome of systemic and institutionalised Islamophobia woven into many sections of our societies. This racism and xenophobia that has been allowed to fester for far too long – has deadly consequences – presenting one of the most significant challenges to civilised society in contemporary times,” the joint statement continued.

Harun Khan, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain told Al-Ahram Weekly that prejudice against Muslims and anti-immigration sentiments are easily mistaken for freedom of expression in many parts of the world, and linked main-stream media coverage to Islamophobia and the increasing number of attacks against Muslim communities.

Many Muslim leaders argue that we are at a crossroad and need to define the term Islamophobia, if not kill it altogether. It is misleading, they say, and serves as a gloss for racism, a shortcut to hide hate crimes, racism and intolerance.

There is no single reason or explanation for the rise of the far right. But the only way to fight back is not to underestimate its danger. Unfortunately, it sometimes appears as if we are already losing the plot.

In the wake of the New Zealand attacks US President Donald Trump said he did not believe white nationalism constituted a danger. His view is not really shocking. Trump, after all, has a long history of making derogatory remarks about Muslims, and in 2016 declared that “Islam hates us.” His administration has also implemented policies barring citizens from some Muslim-majority countries from travelling to the United States.

In the purported manifesto the New Zealand terrorist wrote that he supported Trump “as a symbol of renewed white identity”.

The White House rejected any connection between Trump and the tragedy.

“It’s outrageous to even make that connection between this deranged individual that committed this evil crime to the President who has repeatedly condemned bigotry, racism and made it very clear that this is a terrorist attack,” Mercedes Schlapp, the White House’s director of Strategic Communication, told reporters.

US member of Congress Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill) was asked during a CNN interview about the gunman invoking Trump’s name.

He replied: “I’m not defending all of the president’s language on this stuff… This hate for people whether it’s religion or race has been since the beginning of humanity. This disgusting animal is evil. If President Trump’s language triggered him, that wasn’t President Trump triggering.”

Regrettably, the fight against the far-right will not be easy or straightforward. Many Western politicians are in denial and there is a tendency to downplay the danger of these movements. Condemnation is seldom followed by consistent action.

The New Zealand terror attack will either be a turning point or a tragedy soon forgotten by the press and politicians. We will find out which soon enough. 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Killer without a name

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