The bloody cost of Islamophobia

The appalling massacre of 49 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Thursday naturally has people around the world looking for explanations. Proximate motivations were not hard to discover. The alleged terrorist, a 28-year-old man from Australia, posted a white supremacist tract online where he lauded President Trump as a “symbol of white identity.” He livestreamed the shooting, in which he repeated many white nationalist slogans and recommended that viewers “subscribe to PewDiePie” (YouTube’s most popular independent channel, which is somehow constantly getting in trouble for “ironic” racism).

One important aspect of this horror is how the internet enables the spread of genocidal propaganda. Worldwide peer-to-peer communication networks makes it easier than ever for hatred and racist conspiracy theories to spread.

But just as important is the political background. Powerful conservative activists, media figures, and politicians around the world have deliberately stoked hysterical anti-Muslim bigotry for political advantage. It should not be surprising if occasionally some of their supporters follow their words to their logical conclusions.

Ben Shapiro — whose tweets, according to Canadian court documents, were regularly read by Alexandre Bissonnette, the right-wing terrorist who shot up a Quebec mosque — has used ridiculously slanted statistics to argue that the majority of Muslims (or 800 million people, by his count) are “radical” terrorist sympathizers. He has also promoted an article he allegedly edited saying that Muslims living in Europe constitute a “disease” and that Muslim men are “uncivilized.” David French wrote in National Review in 2015 (again wildly exaggerating the implications of opinion polls) that the Muslim world is “overcome with hate” and that “jihadists represent the natural and inevitable outgrowth of a faith that is given over to hate on a massive scale.”

This kind of thinking — many if not most Muslims are terrorists or “radicals,” and should be collectively instead of individually judged — is why President Trump has stoked fear about Muslims sneaking across the southern border and proposed (and partly accomplished) banning all Muslim entry into the United States.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) — who, among other things, accused the Obama administration of being infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood — implicitly admitted some overlap with the Christchurch terrorist. He argued in a statement not that the murderer’s racism was wrong, but that he didn’t use the correct channels: “There are courts, dispute resolutions, and legislatures to resolve controversies[.]” Which “controversy” he means is left as an exercise for the reader.

An extreme right-wing Australian senator named Fraser Anning straight-up blamed the victims themselves for the massacre, issuing a statement that read: “The real cause of the bloodshed … is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place … just because the followers of this savage belief were not the killers in this instance, that does not make them blameless.”

This barely-veiled apologia for terrorism conceals a strong political motive. Indeed, this is far from the first time that powerful right-wingers have attempted to stoke bigotry for political advantage. In Imperial Russia in 1911, for instance, the top levels of the tsarist government (including the minister of justice and Tsar Nicholas II himself) conspired to frame a Jewish clerk named Menachem Mendel Beilis for the “ritual murder” of a Ukrainian boy — a classic piece of blood libel anti-Semitism. The actual murderers (who were not Jews) were quickly discovered by police and journalists, but the authorities hushed it up.

The case attracted a storm of international condemnation, but the tsarist regime pressed on with the frame-up. The reason is that the frenzy of hatred served an important political function — namely, building mass popular support for the autocracy. (Luckily for Beilis, the prosecution’s case was so shoddy that he was acquitted at trial.)

Similar to how war fever can inspire mass demonstrations of patriotic loyalty, stoking violent anti-Semitism (which produced clockwork bloody pogroms from reactionary “Black Hundreds” militias) provided both some social glue for a right-wing empire and a convenient scapegoat for any problems that cropped up. In the end, it didn’t save Imperial Russia, but the truly enormous potential of political bigotry would later be demonstrated by Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Political Islamophobia from Alaska to Australia serves as a key ideological unifier for modern right-wing movements, because they have little policy content which is practically useful for their mass base. Right-wing oligarchs like Trump may not actually roll back globalization, or do any major domestic policy but tax cuts and deregulation, but they can provide a compelling (and wholly fictional) narrative of white civilization under threat. White supremacist terrorism across the whole Western world is just the price to be paid.

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