In the eighth circle of Hell, Dante describes the fate of the beloved Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him): “His guts hung between his legs and displayed his vital organs.” Dante goes further to paint, in lurid detail, the prophet’s immense pain and physical deformities. The Inferno’s contemptuous view of Islam was informed by the brutal Crusade of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. Roman Catholics sought to ‘recover’ the Holy Land from the Muslims, murdering thousands in their wake. (In fact, Dante boasted that his great-great grandfather died fighting as a crusader.) This is all to say that ideological and physical violence against Islam is nothing new in Western history, but as deeply rooted as the Homeric epics and perhaps even the Bible itself.
Aware of such historical context, I nevertheless awoke with fresh shock and horror upon checking my phone Friday morning. My eyes glazed over the fated headline, “49 Dead in Terrorist Attack at New Zealand Mosque.” I re-read the sentence a few more times until reality finally set in: During Friday Jumu’ah last week (the Muslim equivalent to Sunday church service), a twenty-eight-year-old gunman stormed two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and fired indiscriminately. He live-streamed the massacre on Facebook and released a 74-page manifesto highlighting an array of role models: racist mass murderers, the 20th century British fascist Oswald Mosley and U.S. President Donald Trump. A man at the door of the Al Noor Mosque greeted the killer — “hello, brother” — moments before the killer opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle; “brother,” an acknowledgement of humanity and dignity, was the last word to leave the devout man’s lips.
It is all too easy to call the New Zealand terrorist attack an aberration — the deranged machinations of a psychopath. It is harder to acknowledge that the Islamophobic discourse that motivated the killings is mainstream in the West. From Brexit to Marine Le Pen to the Alternative for Germany party to the Freedom Party of Austria to Donald Trump, far-right nationalism is on the rise. The nationalist — particularly the European nationalist — centers the Muslim heavily. White supremacy of any flavor requires an ‘other’ to degrade. In the current political milieu, with economic anxiety, rising inequality and turmoil in the Middle East — often perpetuated by Western imperialism — the Muslim becomes a convenient scapegoat. Those who propagate such an ideology contrast European rationality and enlightenment with Islamic barbarism and cruelty; Muslim immigration thus threatens the Western order. Even after the Christchurch shooting, Muslim immigrants continued to be vilified. “As always, left-wing politicians and the media will rush to claim that the causes of today’s shootings lie with gun laws or those who hold nationalist views,” wrote Australian Senator Fraser Anning. “But this is all cliched nonsense. … The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” Ignoring the immense human suffering, Anning attempts to reassert the Muslim’s subhumanity, capturing the rhetoric of a transnational nativist movement.Senator Anning lies on the extreme of a continuum occupied by many white liberals. From Iraq to Palestine, this tradtional white liberal simultaneously condescends and demonizes the Muslim. To paraphrase Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” he paints with a broad brush that ignores the complexities of Islam and Muslim life; the Muslim is denied every opportunity to represent himself, as the myriad of false stereotypes proliferate. The recent terror attack shows that such representations lead to real violence. Every pundit and politician who uses lazy and divisive rhetoric to stoke the flames of fear and anger now has the blood of 49 Muslims on their hands.
The killer’s engagement with internet troll culture further demonstrates the extent to which discourse creates violence. His manifesto and live-stream contain common internet themes. He writes, “Spyro the dragon 3 (a popular video game for children) taught me ethno-nationalism … Fortnite trained me to be a killer and to floss on the corpses of my enemies.” While these rantings are difficult to analyze beyond their abhorrent cruelty, they reflect a discursive style common among the emergent alt-right. Other terrorists, including Robert Bowers, responsible for the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, and Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in Isla Vista, California, were also steeped in internet culture. The trajectories of these men show that violence is never arbitrary and random but is instead cultivated through insidious language and communities.
The tragedy of the New Zealand attack is still raw — in Christchurch, in the Muslim community and beyond. Unfortunately, like any unnecessary loss of life, we are too quickly faced with the same recurring question: How can we prevent this from happening again? The first and most important step is to recognize that, like all terrorism, the New Zealand attack was built atop an ideology — a vicious Islamophobia that is as old as the West itself.
Bilal N. Memon ‘22 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.