Anders Breivik
Mass murderer Anders Breivik

So everyone’s all over LNP MP and repugnant anthropoid George Christensen for prematurely using the incident at Merrylands Police Station in Sydney last night to attack Islam. Christensen himself, not without reason, blames the ABC, which like other outlets initially talked about a terrorist attack. Christensen wasn’t the only Islamophobe to seize on the incident. Far-right head of the “Australian Conservative Party” Peter Wallace was insisting long after the actual nature of the event was clear that it was terrorism.

What’s interesting isn’t that bigots gonna bigot — they don’t need an excuse to demonise Muslims — nor for that matter eager journalists not bothering to confirm things before yelling “terrorism”, it’s what the incident reveals about what how “terrorism” is defined.

For people with memories longer than five minutes, terrorism used to be about politically motivated violence. And there was plenty of it: France was racked with right-wing terrorism in the 1960s (multiple attempts to kill De Gaulle), then left-wing terrorism in the 1970s. Italy’s “years of lead” saw over 2000 people murdered by left-wing and right-wing terrorists; left-wing and right-wing terrorists killed dozens in Germany in the 1970s; the Troubles in Ireland and the UK cost 3600 lives — remember the IRA’s regular “Christmas bombing campaigns” on the mainland, funded by generous donations from the American Irish community?

Now, despite white supremacist groups being identified by US police as the biggest terrorist threat in that country, despite Anders Breivik’s 77 victims, despite the now forgotten murder of MP Jo Cox, terrorism is almost, by definition, any violent behaviour by Muslims. Or, put another way, the threshold for “terrorism” is far, far lower for brown people than white people.

If Peter Zhurawel had been a Muslim, we wouldn’t be reading about his “mental health issues” or his looming legal battle with his brother, or how he felt “overwhelmed”. But his white skin and his non-Muslim status give him access to a special place reserved for white perpetrators of violence, where efforts are made to understand their grievances, determine if they have been suffering mental health or drug problems — where, in short, his actions will be assessed in their actual context.

Violent white men get understanding and pleas for their circumstances to be taken into account. Violent Muslims get “who radicalised them”. It’s media racism — or media bigotry, if you want to get hung up on the “Islam isn’t a race” excuse — in action.

Now, belatedly, there seems to be a dawning realisation that mental health might actually be relevant not merely for understanding why angry white men commit violence but for some violent Muslim extremists as well. The role of mental illness in the background of terror attack perpetrators certainly needs more study — some experts say it plays no significant role (and people with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than the rest of the community), but time and again, mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness feature in the background of perpetrators. So, too, does domestic and sexual violence, as the case of Man Haron Monis indicates.

These are all tools for enabling us to better understand what drives some men — and they’re nearly always men — to violence, but they’re loaded with political baggage. Attempting to understand what drives Islamist terrorism is likely to lead to criticism that you’re excusing and justifying terrorism, that these people are simply evil, or “hate us for our freedom” and any effort to understand their actions further is simply being “soft on terrorism”.

Attempting to understand white male grievance, however, gets the opposite response. In both Pauline Hanson’s initial foray into politics and now her return, for example, “liberal elites” are blamed for facilitating her success because they fail to sufficiently understand and sympathise with the concerns of the angry white males who support her. You’re irresponsible if you don’t try to understand angry white males, but irresponsible if you try to understand angry Muslims.

Nowhere does this play out more clearly than in the connection between Western military action and violent responses from radical Muslims. This connection is now so well-established and so widely accepted that it’s laborious to document — it has been made by the CIA, by MI5, the Pentagon, by all UK intelligence agencies advising Tony Blair before the Iraq War, by counter-terrorism experts, and even made by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. And yet when an Australian Islamic cleric made the same connection, he was demonised as a terrorism apologist by News Corp and government ministers for doing so.

The double standard doesn’t extend merely to the bigotry of the Murdoch press or the casual inconsistency of thoughtless journalists. Earlier this week, at least 73 Syrian civilians, including 35 children, were killed in airstrikes in the Syrian town of Manjib, with the casualties confirmed by several different monitors of civilian casualties. The United States is the only air force operating in the area and now says it is “investigating” what happened — such investigations tend to take many months and the results only emerge long after the relevant incident has long been forgotten.

The news of scores of civilians, including dozens of children, being killed in what was almost certainly a Western airstrike received minimal attention here — news outlets ran some wire copy, but it wouldn’t have received 1% of the coverage of the Nice attack. The deaths would have been accidental, and Western air forces have much stricter rules to prevent civilian casualties than the Russians, whose airstrikes in support of the Assad regime are conducted with a near-contemptuous disregard for civilians.

But the problem is that such events — exactly like drone strikes that incinerate civilians, including children, across the Middle East — perpetuate exactly the anger and disaffection that provides such fertile soil for Islamic extremists. And the indifference of Western media, and the West itself — i.e. us — to those casualties reinforces the impression of a profound double standard, of a lack of interest in dead Muslims, even those killed at our own hand, compared to white people.

Meantime, Aussie Muslims, ordinary people going about their lives, mums and dads and kids struggling with the same pressures the rest of us deal with, people no better or worse or more or less religious than the rest of us, face a rising tide of hate, abuse and attacks, increasingly legitimised by elected politicians. But it’s the angry, bitter white people abusing and attacking them that we’re urged to understand and empathise with. It’s a double standard with a real human cost.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey