Terrorism Has No Religion

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

‘… and death shall have no dominion’

– Dylan Thomas

The only way to begin is by joining in sorrow with those bereaved in Christchurch on 15 March and remembering and respecting the fellow humanity of those who, so painfully recently, were also living. Of course, we must find a way to comfort those made fearful by this terror: especially since such fear-making was its major purpose.

There are some crimes of such moment that we always remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard. The assassination of John F. Kennedy is one such that is often named; September 11th is another. The latter was a terrorist attack that was made for showing on television; I heard it on the radio and obstinately refused to watch TV for two days. The Christchurch massacres were made for propagating the terror and ideology via the internet. I am not yet clear about what this means, but it is obvious that it is significant, and that the jumbled ravings of the killer were put together with gleanings from the Web. He says so, in his pre-murder ‘manifesto’. Police and politicians cautioned us not to watch the video footage. Indeed I had no stomach to do so. Yet I spent the night reading the weird manifesto, which was easy enough to get hold of early on.

When I heard the appalling news — somewhat late — I was sitting at my desk, trying to write about Islamophobia. Ironically, the last sentence that I had written, was: ‘There is nothing intrinsically Islamic about these ‘old enemies’ vanquished (eventually, for a time) by the empire; Islam was just part of the package of the otherness, along with non-Whiteness / non-Europeanness, of these brown or black non-Christians who stood in opposition to the empire.’ I was harking back to how the crazed jingoists of the white settlement colony of New South Wales had sent troops to Sudan in 1885 to avenge General Gordon’s ill fate in Khartoum — and it was an immensely popular gesture — invoking, in their recruitment and fundraising campaign, ‘England’s and all Christendom’s old enemies, the Saracens’. The anti-Muslim racism was bound up in empire, I was arguing.

It is a sort of white (European) supremacism, anti-immigration and ethnic cleansing that pervade the 74 incoherent pages of Christchurch murderer’s diatribe. Islam is almost incidental to him, though a mish-mash of obsessions alludes to Saracens, crusader imagery, Knights Templar, ‘the Turk’, the siege of Vienna and so on and on. Yet also Valhalla, just to emphasise that it’s about ‘race’: the killer proudly owns to fascism and racism and does not baulk at neo-nazism, though he regrets that there are no real nazis any more. The ‘vipers’ nests’ must be burned, and non-European children who are in ‘our lands’ must be killed, without hindrance of sentiment. The killer is fixated upon the non-white others out-breeding ‘us’, and effecting ‘white genocide’ — a by now standard Islamophobic trope and one similarly colouring the ‘manifesto’ of that other mass killer, Anders Breivik, to whose motivations and crimes the Christchurch mass murderer’s have already been widely compared.

The nonsense of this irruption of irrationality should not lead us to the error of believing that individual madness is the cause, or that the motivations are unshared. In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 Oslo massacres, when ‘we were all Norwegians’, George Morgan and I wrote (in Global Islamophobia, 2012: 1) that the mass murder displayed ‘the clear imprint of a revanchist nationalist politics that has gained popularity in many parts of the contemporary West. … While rightwing political organisations have scurried to denounce Breivik and the murders … it is clear that he drew on their (tortured) political logic to rationalise his actions’. Australia’s right-wing racist Senator, Fraser Anning, who has remarked that migration was behind the Christchurch massacre, and recently called even more despicably for a ‘final solution’ to the ‘Muslim Question’, is in the same camp. Breivik credited the likes of Dutch anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders and the English Defence Leaguefor his inspiration. This perpetrator’s ‘manifesto’ played on exactly the same sorts of themes: mass immigration, Muslim birth rates, ‘white genocide’, and all the rest. It is not only his insignias that are fascist. It is exterminist, and we have seen it before.

New Zealand rightwing extremist blogger Cameron Slater, having in 2015 just quoted Golda Meir as condemning Arabs as not loving their children, wrote of Islam: ‘… religion of peace? No way, it is a death cult and we should kill them before they kill us’. Well, the message got across on 15 Marchin Christchurch. Slater,Fraser Anning and their ilk all sell the samesort ofproduct. Will they own it now?

What hate crime and terrorism have in common — and this crime was both — is that they victimise communities beyond those directly targeted, in order to ‘send a message’. A bright young academic, and our recent co-author on Islamophobia, exclaimed to our collaborator in her grief, ‘They keep killing us!’. The perpetrator’s warped and wicked testimonial, The Great Replacement, with its obsession about ethnic cleansing, makes clear that the armies of his allies (yes, he sees himself as a courageous ‘soldier’, repelling ‘invaders’ by killing unarmed civilians including children) will keep doing so until ‘they’ go back to ‘their own lands’. He wants to reinforce a ‘they’ and ‘us’ — and we must not let him.

Others will have commented more than enough about the irony of this (white Australian) immigrant railing against immigration and appointing himself as the defender of ‘our land’ — which he conceives of as a little finger of Europe. While obsessed with ‘race’, he does not mention, in 74 pages, Indigenous people in either the land of his birth or the land of his recent residence. His white supremacism harks ‘back’ mythically to a racially pure/purified Europe. It is different from the US white supremacism excused (embraced!) by Trump, which disparages Black Americans or Hispanic peoples; rather it regards the United States (and indeed Brazil) as hopelessly degenerate and irredeemable. (The manifesto looks forward to guns and war sorting all that decadence out, with the white race emerging victorious.) This racist gunman is no more concerned with the ‘race’ legacy in the Americas of chattel slavery than he is with that of settler colonialism and the dispossession of indigenous peoples. It’s a strangely Europe-centred racism, cobbled together with memes from the internet: no less effective, for all that.

I feel strangely soiled, having immersed myself in this excrement. And deeply disturbed. But I am committed to the methodological principle of taking this sort of testimonial seriously, for explanations of the crime. Also, to finding ways of countering this sort of ideology. There are many such violent racists out there on the internet, and recruiting and proselytising in our communities — and he boasts of this. He addresses them, instructs them.

One of the first public comments that I read about the massacre was Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s observation that terrorism does not belong to any religion. He has a global political point to make, and he is correct in doing so. Before his election to political office, when people in Pakistan’s north-west were systematically terrorised by murderous US-alliance drones in the name of western counter-terrorism, Imran Khan campaigned in a principled way against this. He has to deal with Indian nationalist terrorism on the other side, along with plenty of the ‘home-grown’ terrorism. Empire and nationalism may be inflected by religion, but they are by no means reducible to it.

I later watched with unexpected admiration as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke, movingly and with dignity, of compassion and indeed the duty to give shelter to those in need of it, as crucial, unifying New Zealand values. How different from bullying ‘mateship’ purveyed as ‘national values’ on the other (my) side of the Tasman. She did seem to have trouble mentioning the M-word, but then the murderer declared that he selected his victims as immigrants and non-‘Europeans’ rather than as Muslims. In two mosques, at Friday prayer time, mind you.

Some of the media commentary noted the Kiwi ‘black humour’ bandied for comfort among the traumatised people anxiously gathering outside the mosques (these ‘others’ are capable of such Kiwiness!). In that vein, and as we will all be New Zealanders for the while, I might observe that the killer began his legacy rant with a complete rendition of Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’. One dear literature-loving Muslim colleague of mine commented that the man had added one more (minor) crime — of plagiarism — to his record. Yes, the rant is pretentious and pseudo-erudite, with sprinklings from literature and worldly-travelled posturing as well as potty-mouthed locker room macho menace.

In laying claim to inheriting — and safeguarding — all of European civilisation, Tarrant declares his English, Scots and Irish heritage. No Welsh: some small comfort for Dylan Thomas. As the epigraph at the top of this present piece suggests, perhaps ‘we’ should take Dylan Thomas back.

This essay originally appeared on the Criminology Collective site.

Scott Poynting is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation, Charles Sturt University. He is Adjunct Professor in the School of Justice at Queensland University of Technology and in Criminology at Western Sydney University. He co-edited, with George Morgan, Global Islamophobia (Routledge 2016) and, with Monish Bhatia and Waqas Tufail, Media, Crime and Racism (Palgrave, 2018).