“It’s been a hard year for us.”
With these words, said in an agonising tone, a heart-broken Youssef recounted how his family had been plunged into grief over the loss of his brother.
It’s winter again, and every single chilly morning brings back memories of the day Youssef woke up to the news that his brother had been gunned down while performing the Friday prayers and for no other reason than being a Muslim.
Youssef’s brother, 39-year-old Osama Adnan Abu Kuweik, was shot dead in March’s terrorist mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand that left 50 worshippers dead and another 50 injured at the hands of a white supremacist.
Almost nine months later, the wounds of the families of Christchurch martyrs have not healed, and perhaps will never do so long as such hate crimes persist. With the same words he had used to mourn his younger brother on his death, Youssef, who lives in California in the US, still expresses his grief and sorrow that he “couldn’t protect his little brother” and that his brother “couldn’t escape all the killing and all the blood, even by going to the ends of the earth”.
Abu Kuweik’s parents and three sisters are similarly languishing in grief. His widowed wife and three daughters will forever have to live with the poignant memory and loss of a compassionate father and husband. “All that suffering for no reason other than hate,” Abu Kuweik lamented. “Fighting hate and bigotry will be the mission of my life from now onwards.”
The Christchurch massacre received world attention perhaps for being the deadliest anti-Muslim attack and for having taken place in New Zealand, known for its tolerant community and deep values of inclusion. For the first time, the Western media described the crime as a “terror” attack rather than just “a lone incident”.
This change in tone was largely attributed to the reaction of the government and people of New Zealand to the tragedy. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s landmark support for the Muslim community in her homeland will remain engraved in many Muslim minds, and there have been calls to award her the Nobel Peace Prize.
She helped to heal the wounds of many Muslims not only in her own country, but also around the world, when she appeared in a Muslim headscarf sending Quran-laced messages of compassion and solidarity with the shootings’ Muslim victims, calling for the official broadcast of Friday prayers on the day of the funeral, standing for a moment of silence in tribute to the martyrs, and calling on all women to wear the veil on that day in solidarity with Muslim women.
Many moderate voices around the world similarly asserted such values of inclusion and have since been joining forces against hate crimes. President of Austria Alexander Van der Bellen had earlier called for all women to wear headscarves in solidarity with Muslims in a gesture aimed to fight what he described as “rampant Islamophobia”.
But such well-intended efforts seem to have hardly changed the reality that hate crimes, deeply rooted in far-right extremism and white supremacy, have been on the rise in various parts of the world. As many analysts told Al-Ahram Weekly, anyone could be the victim of a hate crime, including Christians and Jews. All minorities are at risk.
That said, Muslims seem to have been faring worst as often recent immigrants, or what some extreme right-wing politicians have dubbed “invaders”, arriving in some European countries seeking refuge and then accused of seeking to change their identity or to “Islamise” Europe.
The rise in the Islamic State (IS) group’s terrorist attacks in the Middle East and elsewhere have also provided fodder for extreme-right-wing extremists and white supremacists to justify their hatred. The vicious circle goes on, claiming more innocent lives.
Ardern in a Muslim headscarf showing support to the families of Christchurch victims
THE FRENCH MOSQUE ATTACK: While this year began with the bloody Christchurch mass shootings in March, it ended with the attempted murder of two men in their 70s who were seriously wounded in a shooting in front of a mosque in Bayonne, a city in the Basque region of southwest France, by a shooter identified by police as a former candidate for the far-right National Front Party on 28 October.
According to police statements, it was 3:20pm when a man tried to burn the door of the Bayonne Mosque. The suspect was surprised by two people who tried to stop him from setting it on fire. He opened fire on these two men and ignited a vehicle before he fled after the attack. The two victims, aged 74 and 78, were rushed to hospital in serious condition.
The attack immediately sparked Muslim outrage in France, which perhaps hosts the largest Muslim community in Europe. Studies have shown that France has between five and six million Muslims and that Islam is the second-largest religion in the country. This perhaps explains why the extreme right in France has joined efforts to protect the secular identity of the country, where the law bans the wearing of the headscarf as a religious symbol in state schools and government offices.
A rally in France in November reportedly included around 13,500 protesters who carried placards denouncing attacks on Islam. Another demonstration was staged in the southern city of Marseille bringing together hundreds of protesters carrying placards that read “Islamophobia kills” and “we are all children of the Republic”.
“We came to sound the alarm, to say there is a level of hate you don’t go beyond,” one marcher, Larbi, a 35-year-old businessman, told the French news agency AFP. “There is a scandalous propaganda being waged against Muslims,” another female protester told AFP, adding that “jihadist terrorism was deliberately equated with Islam.”
The attempted murders and attack on the Bayonne Mosque were definitely not the first in France, however. According to a report by AFP, “there have been intermittent attacks on mosques in France since 2007.”
This year has also seen a number of such attacks, but not all were designated as terrorist attacks, according to AFP. Last June, an imam was targeted in a gunman’s shooting at a mosque in the northwestern city of Brest, but “police ruled out a terror motive,” according to AFP.
“In March, workers building a mosque in the small southwestern town of Bergerac found a pig’s head and animal blood at the entrance to the site, two weeks after a gunman killed 50 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, in a shooting spree at two mosques,” wrote an AFP report, adding that “mosques were also targeted after the killing of 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in 2015 by Islamist radicals.”
“Dozens of mosques were attacked by arsonists, others with firebombs, grenades or gunfire,” the AFP report noted.
Canadian PM Julian Trudeau paying tribute to the victims of the Quebec mosque attack
HATE CRIMES A GLOBAL ISSUE: Whereas France has always had some extreme-right-wing activism, anti-Muslim sentiments seem to have been increasingly spreading across the Western world, resulting in more hate crimes against Muslim minorities.
Tell Mama, an organisation monitoring hate crimes, has declared that attacks on Muslims in Britain increased by 593 per cent the week following the Christchurch massacre. In its annual report for the year before, the group noted a surge in Islamophobic attacks, with 1,201 verified reports submitted in 2017, a rise of 26 per cent on the year before and the highest number since it began recording incidents.
In the same vein, a Pew Research Centre analysis of hate crimes statistics from the FBI in the US revealed that “the number of assaults against Muslims in the United States rose significantly between 2015 and 2016, easily surpassing the modern peak reached in 2001, the year of the September 11 terrorist attacks.”
“Over the past few years, there has been an epidemic of attacks and planned attacks on Muslim communities and mosques across the United States,” said Abdel-Sattar Ghazali, editor of the Journal America online magazine. “Mosques were bombed in Bloomington, Minnesota, and burned in Austin and Victoria, Texas, Bellevue, Washington, and Thonotosassa, Florida, and mass attacks were planned against Muslim communities in Islamberg, New York, Jacksonville, Florida, and Garden City, Kansas.”
This year was no exception. A mosque in the southern California city of Escondido was set on fire a few days after the Christchurch tragedy. The blaze was extinguished by the worshippers, and no one was injured. However, the police said that a note was found in the mosque’s parking lot that referenced the recent Christchurch mass shootings.
Even more tolerant societies like Canada have not been immune to hate crimes, which reportedly “increased by 47 per cent in 2017, primarily targeting Muslims, Jews and black people,” according to figures released by the country’s statistics agency. According to the agency, “the biggest increase was in crimes targeting Muslims.”
The Christchurch terrorist attack immediately conjured up images of Canada’s deadliest-ever shooting, killing six Muslim worshippers at the hands of a white supremacist after evening prayers in the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City.
Christchurch also awakened poignant memories of the deadly 2015 Chapel Hill hate crime that claimed the lives of 23-year-old American-Syrian Muslim Deah Shaddy, his veiled bride 21-year-old Yusor Mohamed Abu Salha, and her veiled sister, 19-year-old Razan. The once happy couple had hardly posted their beautiful wedding photographs online when others took their place showing them bathed in blood. The three were shot dead in a “dispute over parking”, reports said, but their family has insisted that the murder was a hate crime motivated by the religious identity of the victims.
In Ramadan 2016, veiled 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen of northern Virginia in the US was assaulted and killed as she walked home after prayers at a mosque near Washington, and police charged 22-year-old Darwin Martinez Torres with her murder. Her pictures immediately conjured up images of veiled martyr Marwa Al-Sherbini, an Egyptian pharmacist who was fatally stabbed in front of her husband and three-year-old son in a court in Dresden, Germany, for nothing other than her religious identity.
In another incident, 51-year-old Makram Ali was hit by a van driven into a crowd of worshippers as they were leaving Ramadan prayers on a Monday night in the streets of Finsbury Park in north London. “He died in his daughter’s arms, and 11 other Muslims were injured in what is being treated as a terrorist incident by British police,” according to Willy Fautre of the NGO Human Rights Without Borders.
RISE OF THE EXTREME RIGHT: The attacks have been widely seen as a consequence of the rise of extreme-right groups, Islamophobia and white supremacists. “We have seen time and time again that the prevalence of hate speech and Islamophobic rhetoric have deadly consequences,” Ghazali noted.
Erik Bleich, a professor of political science at Middlebury College in the US, says that the New Zealand attacks and others are “part of a rising tide of populist, white supremacist racism that is becoming more active and bold” and “is affecting Muslims and Jews in particular, but all minorities are at risk.”
Earlier this year, the Anti-Defamation League in the US, a NGO, reported that 2018 was the worst year for far-right killings in the United States since 1995 when Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in Oklahoma City.
“Far-right terrorism has a history of promoting anti-Muslim sentiments,” noted Fautre.
Extreme right-wing politicians, however, seem to be gaining more popularity across the US and Europe. “They [the far-right advocates] are emboldened by the rise of populist parties and rhetoric,” Bleich lamented. “They feel that they have more permission to express their views openly, which gives some extremists the feeling that carrying out attacks fits with the general trend.”
The Christchurch murderer has confessed that he was inspired by mass killer Andres Behring Breivik, a far-right terrorist who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. Breivik was “anti-Muslim”, but ironically his terrorist attack was not targeting Muslims.
The Christchurch murderer also described US President Donald Trump in his own manifesto as “a symbol of renewed white identity”.
“These groups, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and white supremacist, are emboldened by a president [Donald Trump] who normalises hatred and weaponises racism,” said Omid Safi, director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Centre in the US.
“The phenomenon cannot be reduced to Trump, but we have to acknowledge how Trump and the system that brought Trump to power is emboldening and empowering these global white supremacist networks.”
The Southern Poverty Law Centre, which monitors hate groups throughout the US, in its 2019 report about extremism in the US lamented that “President Trump has opened the White House doors to extremism, not only consulting with hate groups on policies that erode our country’s civil-rights protections, but also enabling the infiltration of extremist ideas into the administration’s rhetoric and agenda,” according to Ghazali.
Many also agree that the Western media has tended to focus on terrorist attacks in order to portray Muslims as the “enemy.” In a video published on the US network SBS, TV presenter Jane Fran highlighted that “the descriptions of Muslim and non-Muslim perpetrators are significantly different even if they commit the same crimes.”
“It’s easy for us to say that Muslim terrorists come from an inferior culture, a violent religion, a broken society that they’re full of hate. But we can’t really say that about the white ones,” Fran lamented. This year, though, the Western media “rightly highlighted the compassionate response of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Muslim community,” Safi noted.
According to Bleich’s Media Portrayals of Minorities Project, an investigative survey in the US, “the media reaction that stood out was the immediate willingness to call the Christchurch attacks terrorism,” something which was not the case in many previous incidents. “It is much more common for the media to label attacks by Muslims as terrorism and to label attacks against Muslims as racist or anti-immigrant, or perhaps even to focus on the mental health of the attacker,” Bleich pointed out.
According to a paper by Bleich’s assistant Emily Stabler, “57 per cent of articles mentioning Muslims compared to only 14 per cent of articles related to whites contain these words [terrorism and terror].”
However, Stabler pointed out that the words “terrorism and terrorist” were surfacing more frequently in articles published about the Christchurch attacks. The study, however, concluded that such an unexpected shift in the media coverage was largely due to the fact that the New Zealand prime minister had chosen to “publicly designate the shooting as terrorism”.
“I am not optimistic that the voices of those who are against hate crimes and white supremacy will be heard louder than the extreme right-wing extremists,” Ghazali noted. “The reason is that the major electronic and print media is against Muslims. It is the Western media, as well as some politicians, that has a very negative attitude against Muslims and their faith. Anti-hate crime legislation is not possible in the US, as we are witnessing a well-funded lobby busy initiating so-called ‘anti-Sharia’ legislation in several US states.”
One recent report by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN), a NGO, has highlighted “how ‘big money’ is channelled to the ‘industry of Islamophobia’ in the West, which revolves around a fear-mongering demonisation of Arabs and Muslims intended to legitimise both US and Israeli bellicose machinations in a region with highly coveted resources.”
In the same vein, Safi noted that “the forces of Islamophobia, whether in the United States, the UK, India, China, Israel, or New Zealand, are networked and taking inspirations from one another.” “Those of us who aspire to a world of peace and justice will have to be even more organised,” he advised.
In the short run, Bleich similarly expects that the voices of “the populists and right-wing extremists will be louder.”
“The work of fighting back is a longer process, and it involves patience and planning,” Bleich said. “I believe it is possible, and that it will carry the day. But it may take some time.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.