Shaista Aziz is a freelance journalist who has worked for the BBC, Al Jazeera and The Guardian.
A terrorist, live-streaming footage of himself to Facebook, filmed himself gunning down worshippers at Friday prayers – including women and children – at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Acting in a calm, slick manner, he carried out his massacre in real time, and by the end, at least 49 people were killed, and at least 20 injured. The haunting, devastating sound of multiple firearms being loaded, and then the full silence and stillness of the mosque – interrupted sporadically by the moaning of victims – is beyond chilling. Once it is seen, it cannot be forgotten.
For all the world to see, there it was: footage of a well-planned and organized Islamophobic slaughter, carried out by a white supremacist.
The person whom New Zealand police have charged with the killings – a white, Australian man – also allegedly posted a 74-page manifesto on social-media platforms and an online forum, detailing his profound and deep hatred for Muslim immigrants in Europe. He waxes lyrical about U.S. white-supremacist extremist movements. He has tweeted in the past with images of him holding weapons and rifle magazines, on which the names of the white men who have previously carried out far-right terrorist atrocities against Muslims and African migrants have been scrawled: Alexandre Bissonnette, who killed six people praying in a Quebec City mosque in 2017; Luca Traini, a far-right extremist who injured six Africans in a shooting in Italy in 2018. The weapons used in the Christchurch attack also had references to historical figures from the Ottoman period, and insignia connected to neo-Nazi movements linked to the rallies in Charlottesville, N.C. in 2017, which left an anti-racism protester dead.
The manner in which social-media platforms and technology have been used in this atrocity to amplify white-supremacist ideology and extreme racist violence shows us how connected white supremacists are globally, both on- and offline. But it also shows with shocking brutality why the increasing threat and danger of white-supremacist extremists – drunk on anti-Muslim, anti-migrant and anti-refugee hate – cannot and must not be ignored.
After all, never forget: White supremacy does not manifest in a vacuum. It is a self-perpetuating tradition that grows one act and one bullet at a time.
Hate for Muslims, refugees and migrants doesn’t “just happen.” Terrorism against marginalized and othered bodies is a direct outcome of bigotry and hate that has been mainstreamed in our public discourse by certain media organizations fanning the flames and our own democratically elected politicians. Remember that it was in Charlottesville that Donald Trump went out of his way to falsely equalize the people waving Nazi flags and chanting slurs, and the anti-racist demonstrators, saying the violence was the fault of “both sides.” And Mr. Trump’s run for the presidency helped change the standards by which the United States viewed racism when he declined to put clear space between his campaign and the support of David Duke, the founder of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Across the globe, we are witnessing the growth in white nationalism and so-called populist leaders taking power, and their calling cards look the same. They talk tough on “clamping down” on migrants and refugees as they demonize Muslims, Jews and migrants generally. Alongside this open bigotry often comes misogyny and the rolling-back of the rights of women, trans people and minorities.
The only way to counter white-supremacist ideology and terrorism is to tackle it head-on as a society. This starts with everyone understanding that these acts of terrorism are not one-offs. White supremacy is, of course, a growing and present danger in the lives of Muslims and other marginalized people and communities, but as long as the hate can be dismissed as a rarity and the internet remains a pillar of our lives, it also threatens every single one of us. It shouldn’t require self-interest for us to step up, but we each have a role to play in countering the narrative and the resulting ideologies.
Arguably, no one has a bigger role to play than white people. In the West, white people, upon being identified as “white,” often have a fierce reaction of anger and discomfort. It’s strange, that fact: It is okay for the rest of the world to be put into racialized categories, but it’s not acceptable for white people to be referred to as racialized. Instead, we live in a world where being called a racist can create more outrage than the racist act itself. We live in a world where Martin Luther King Jr. quotes are proudly splashed across social-media feeds, without people educating themselves and preparing themselves to do the hard work of actually tackling white supremacy and structural racism.
We know that Christchurch was not an exception; that reality was writ on the killer’s guns. But if decent-minded people want to ensure that these kinds of unconscionable, yet increasingly explicable tragedies don’t become the rule, it’s time to start travelling in the same direction together, and take on hate and bigotry in every offline corner and online sanctuary where it lives.