The massacre of 49 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, prompted a mass outpouring of hypocrisy. So horrific was the crime perpetrated by a white, male terrorist, right-wing politicians and commentators could barely control their desire to demonstrate how very much devoid of blame they were.One after another, these men and women, who have, collectively, turned Islamophobia into a cottage industry, issued tear-stained statements condemning gunman Brenton Tarrant for his act of violence.
Boris Johnson, who, in 2005, claimed Islamophobia was a natural reaction to Islam, and last year compared women in niqabs to letterboxes, called the shooting “a sickening and cowardly terrorist attack, driven by nothing but hatred”. Melanie Phillips, who was quoted by Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, and has called Islamophobia a “myth”, urged “all decent people” to “unequivocally denounce” such atrocities.
Donald Trump, whose first move as president was to try to implement a travel ban on Muslims, sent his warmest sympathy and best wishes to the people of New Zealand, but only after he had deleted his first response which was a link to the story on the alt-right website, Breitbart.
Katie Hopkins held her own counsel, which was just as well, seeing as the last thing she posted on her account prior to the attack was a whinge over a Twitter wrist-slap for voicing her non-sympathy for “Isis bride” Shamima Begum. To this extent she displayed more self-awareness than the Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who stripped Shamima of her citizenship to appease public opinion and did nothing to save her baby, but nonetheless felt able to write: “We stand with New Zealand and Muslims across the world against all forms of racism” without blushing. So much cant…
Javid also engaged in some world-class deflection; in a separate tweet he criticised YouTube and Facebook for failing to remove the gunman’s footage of the killing spree quickly enough. He wasn’t wrong. But such platforms are an increasingly easy scapegoat for a problem with more obvious roots: the legitimisation of an anti-Muslim narrative in the mainstream media.
It is a cop-out to look at Tarrant’s lengthy manifesto – a piece of propaganda composed for maximum impact – and point to references and memes from anonymous forums such as 4chan and 8chan. Though he had clearly spent time down the alt-right rabbit hole, many of his sinister ideas are being pushed by established writers on powerful platforms.
Type “Islamophobia” and “Spiked” into Google and you are hit with a barrage of headlines, either justifying it or denying its existence. “Islamism is just as bad as Islamophobia”; “Islamophobia is Not the New Anti-Semitism”; “We are all Ayatollahs Now”. The Patrick West column which includes the line “The fact an anti-Islam backlash never materialises is of little importance” rang a bit hollow on Friday, eh?
The Spectator is not much better: “Islamophobia is Dangerous Humbug”; “The False Equivalence Between Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism”. And so on. And so on.
Elsewhere, the racism may be less overt. But the language of “invasion”, espoused by Tarrant, has been omnipresent in the debate over immigration and Brexit. Words like “swarm” and “swamp” and “plague” and images of migrant “caravans” have served both to dehumanise and to other.
Racist rabble-rousers such as Tommy Robinson and Markus Meechan (Count Dankula) have been given plentiful opportunities to spout their prejudice under the lofty guise of free speech (but really because they act as click-bait).
Even the title of Tarrant’s manifesto, The Great Replacement, a conspiracy theory that suggests the white European population is systematically replaced by Arabs and Africans through mass immigration and demographic growth, has made its way from the alt-right fringes to verified Twitter accounts.
So let’s not pretend the gunman’s rhetoric could only have been garnered from long hours on the nether regions of the internet; rather, it is ubiquitous, and it was only a matter of time before it was being co-opted to justify violence (again).
Yet, such was the lack of self-reflection, some news outlets were still at it as the death toll mounted. The Daily Mail allowed readers to download Tarrant’s manifesto from its website, while the Sun and the Mirror included GIFs of the gunman’s first-person video.
The hypocrisy reached its zenith in two front pages. Yesterday, the Mail led with “Massacre Shame of Facebook” (criticising the social media giant for offences it had itself committed) and the Mirror carried a photo of Tarrant as a toddler with the headline “Angelic boy who grew into evil far-right mass killer”. The Daily Mail aggravated this offence by explaining the atrocity had been carried out “after” Tarrant’s father had died of cancer. This is what the tabloids do in their coverage of domestic violence and terrorism. They inform the reader of the white, male perpetrator’s good qualities, as if the fact he went on to murder was a minor aberration in an otherwise pristine life. They look for excuses – an early trauma, say – to justify the violence. This is not a courtesy extended to female or black offenders, who tend to be branded “hammer killer wife”, or have petty previous convictions published, alongside a photograph of them giving the middle finger.
Right-wing commentators scratch their heads and ask why; even though the reasons are staring them in the face: even though they have been complicit in creating the febrile climate in which such acts are nurtured.
There is, naturally, a backlash against the hatred. As Christchurch plunged into mourning, many took part in inter-faith gestures of solidarity, with Christians and Jews in New Zealand and elsewhere heading to their local mosques to join in prayers.
But there was also Queensland senator Fraser Anning, who responded to the deaths with these words: “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand’s streets today is the immigration programme which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.”
The politicians/commentators who weep disingenuous tears, without stopping to reflect how their own toxic language and blanket statements might empower men like Tarrant, aren’t much better.
As for the decision of editors on Newsnight to ask hate organisation Generation Identity to comment, it pretty much sums up where we are at. How can you push for “balance” when 49 people have been gunned down in cold blood? It serves only to embolden the white racists And in any case, it’s not even-handed: you can’t imagine a jihadi group being asked to comment on the Manchester Arena bombing.
Atrocities like Friday’s represent the very worst of human nature, but they don’t take place in a vacuum. Unless those in positions of power stop normalising the far right; unless they stop appropriating the language of racists and promulgating their ideologies, they shouldn’t be surprised if they have to express more faux disbelief over more innocent victims, while continuing to abdicate responsibility for their fate.