The mass murder of Muslims in Christchurch perfectly fulfils the project of Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda and their jihadist offspring around the globe, including Islamic State: exploit the political, social and media structures of the West to provoke reactions that can be portrayed as revealing the homicidal Islamophobia of the heart of the West. This would allegedly — in their thinking — force even moderate and westernised Muslims to fight back.
The Dubya Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in which the Howard government gleefully joined, fitted this narrative perfectly. Security agencies across the West repeatedly warned us of this outcome — and were repeatedly ignored. But the mass murder of Muslims at prayer by white terrorists also serves perfectly. The hijacker, the suicide bomber, the IS minion beheading a westerner for YouTube, the hate-filled white male slaughtering people in a mosque, are all brothers in arms in common cause — to outrage, provoke, terrorise and will into existence the delusion that people with slightly varying versions of the same religious story, or of different racial origins, can’t live peaceably and prosperously together.
There’s also been a union of interests between politicians and the media and terrorists to hype the danger of terrorism to the point where it would routinely and absurdly be described as “existential”. Politicians have used it to justify wars, channel vast sums of money to corporate donors, give themselves massively greater powers over citizens. The media, ever more desperate to attract diminishing audiences, have enthusiastically joined in the hype and exploitation.
White supremacist terrorists, however, have had the advantage of not being taken seriously by the media and politicians — indeed, of being enabled by them. The 2016 election gave a platform to the racism and Islamophobic bile of Pauline Hanson and her cronies (her culpability was nailed on the weekend by journalist Rashida Yosufzai in a single, searing tweet).
The enabling extends to the Coalition, indeed to the Prime Minister himself, who eight years ago urged his shadow cabinet colleagues to exploit “Muslim immigration” and the alleged “inability” of Muslim immigrants to integrate with Australian society for political gain. It extends to the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who has claimed asylum seekers who might be brought to Australia for medical treatment would displace Australians.
It extends to Attorney-General Christian Porter who warned of rapists and murderers arriving in Australia under the medivac legislation, and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack claiming the same — while Tony Abbott as Prime Minister criticised the claim that Islam is a religion of peace.
They all used the imagery and language of white supremacists, who portray Muslims as fundamentally hostile to western societies and invaders who aim to displace Australians.
Much of the media, especially News Corp, has also played an enabling role. Both Sky News — a festering sore of far-right extremism after dark — and Seven Network actually provided a platform for fascist convicted criminal Blair Cottrell. Seven has provided a long-running breakfast TV platform for Pauline Hanson that not merely served to normalise her hate speech but gave her crucial free airtime in the lead-up to the election that restored her to parliament. A slew of News Corp commentators have demonised Muslims using the tropes and language of white supremacists for nearly two decades, and celebrated far-right provocateurs as brave truth-tellers rather than the vacuous, self-promoting bigots they are.
This was accompanied by a remarkable double standard. While all Muslims were called upon to denounce any act of violence by a Muslim anywhere in the world, when white supremacists engaged in violence or confrontational behaviour, this was downplayed or ignored.
Again, intelligence and security agencies warned us of the threat of violence. US security agencies and police forces repeatedly singled out white supremacists and other far-right extremists as the most dangerous sources of terrorism in that country, rather than Islamist terrorism. But, again, politicians and the media ignored them (here, ASIO was even criticised for warning politicians about the impact of the language they used to describe Muslims).
It may have been that politicians and the media — perhaps security agencies themselves — assumed white supremacists were only interested in, or capable of, brownshirt-style thuggery. History, particularly the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, showed how wrong this was. This is a key point made by Anthony Byrne, Labor’s deputy chair on parliament’s intelligence and security committee and an MP whose own electorate has been defiled by both Islamist terrorism and white supremacist aggression.
“There is a perception that our agencies have overlooked right-wing extremism and the terrorist threat they posed,” he told Crikey. “This is not true. [ASIO director] Duncan Lewis has warned the public of the threat of right wing extremism for years, but those warnings seemed to have been ignored by the media and politicians. I think, however, the scale of this mass casualty attack would have caught the agencies by surprise. They need to be enabled by politicians to do whatever is necessary to protect the public in the same way they are empowered to deal with the threat posed by Islamic extremism.”
For too long, white supremacists have operated with the advantage of a winking indulgence, even encouragement, from politicians and the media. Changing that means not merely empowering security and intelligence agencies but changing politics and media culture.
Even after the shock of Christchurch, don’t count on politicians and media executives doing that.