Heinous attacks on unarmed victims such as the one carried out in Christchurch, New Zealand last week take place in a context. It is important to consider the impact of social, political and media trends that form the backdrop to such hate-fuelled attacks and increase the likelihood of such attacks taking place in other Western societies.
In the media, tabloid newspapers and websites have been putting out anti-immigrant messages for decades. In the UK, publications such as The Sun and Daily Mail have long sought to target Muslims and portray them in a negative light. The outcome of this editorial policy is widespread irrational, unchallenged hatred among the population.
A sense has been generated in the UK media that Western societies and ways of life are being overwhelmed by masses of Muslims. It has also become normalised in Western societies for the media to insult and ridicule Muslims regarding the burka and the hijab.
This tabloid approach has spread to the centre ground. It has become normal for mainstream media to express suspicion and criticism of Islam and Muslims. Trusted and respected publications have given a platform to the far right, often to politicians with racist views. One very prominent UK politician, the former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson wrote in the Daily Telegraph in 2018 that women who wear burkas “look like letter boxes”.
In Australia, birthplace of the suspected Christchurch mass murderer, popular newspapers like the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun have also pushed an anti-Muslim message. Australian media is dominated by Rupert Murdoch, whose platforms are uniformly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim.
Some very influential public intellectuals have contributed to whipping up irrational panic and hatred around migrants and Muslims in the West. Sam Harris made the extraordinary prediction that, even if immigration were halted, France would be a majority Muslim country by 2031. Currently, around 8% of the French population are Muslim. In 2017, British author Douglas Murray published his provocatively-titled book The Death of Europe, claiming that immigration has caused the end of European society.
In Australia, there have now been decades of explicit anti-Muslim, anti-Asian and anti-Aboriginal utterances and policies from the highest-level politicians. The Australian senator, Fraser Anning, chose to blame the recent attack on the Christchurch mosques on “immigration.”
A similar pattern can be seen in other Western societies. Significant sectors of the media and intellectual classes have encouraged this by consistently portraying violence perpetrated by Muslims as inspired by the Qur’an while other (white) violence is portrayed as an aberration caused by mental health problems or loneliness.
In the UK, immigration policies have hardened under Conservative rule since 2010, and the statements of leading politicians has followed suit. As prime minister in 2016, David Cameron referred to refugees fleeing North Africa as “a bunch of migrants”.
Such utterances from prominent politicians serve to create a hostile environment in which Muslims are dehumanised.
This process was further accelerated by the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. In 20 Tweets over the weekend following the Christchurch massacre, Trump did not mention the killings. Trump’s consistently racist rhetoric forced his White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney into declaring: “The President is not a white supremacist!”
But Trump’s policies (including the so-called Muslim ban and the wall he plans to erect on the Mexican border) combined with his racist, Islamophobic rhetoric, have undoubtedly emboldened white supremacists and awoken violent political forces reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan.
It is the responsibility of all those with a public platform to desist from using words that encourage dehmanisation, hate and violence. Without such change, more attacks like that in Christchurch are likely.