Smina Akhtar, Phd student at the University of Glasgow and anti-racist campaigner, gives her thoughts in the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre of 49 people in a mosque in New Zealand
Friday 15 March, 9.12pm
Today I feel broken. I woke up around 7am and checked my phone as normal and discovered that a white supremacist, a fascist had shot and killed 49 people at two Christchurch mosques in New Zealand. This massacre happened thousands of miles away from Glasgow but I cried and I’ve been crying for most of the day. I generally don’t cry a lot. I was horrified at what had happened but not surprised, this was waiting to happen in a world where anti-Muslim racism is now the dominant form of racism practised by the state, the media and the far-right not just in New Zealand but in Europe, America and of course Britain.
I still couldn’t stop the irrational thoughts and questions, questions that I already knew the answers to, such as, how did we get to a point where Muslims like me are hated so much? I attended the evening vigil called by the Muslim Council of Scotland in Glasgow city centre, it was an extremely cold evening which worked in my favour because I could tell people that my eyes were watering when in fact, I just couldn’t hold back the tears. It was some time afterwards that I felt the overwhelming urge to express my fury and tears in words.
Minutes before he started shooting, Brenton Tarrant, a 28 year old born in Australia, posted a 74 page manifesto entitled “The Great Replacement”, where he claimed that Muslims would soon outnumber the white race. He wore a webcam in his helmet to record his massacre which he livestreamed on Facebook. That is not the behaviour of a sane individual is it? It’s very easy and perhaps convenient to dismiss him as a deviant; normal people don’t go to a mosque and film themselves shooting people while they are praying do they?
Just hours afterwards, members of the far-right, clearly inspired by Tarrant, attacked worshippers outside an East London mosque. For those of you who are thinking how can attacks on Muslims be described as racism? I know Muslims aren’t a race but today’s racism is expressed in cultural terms, so it can include religion, giving it the flexibility to adapt to what the racists require at any given time and context, which makes anti-Muslim racism very real.
So why did Tarrant do it? Where did he get his racism from?
The project to dehumanise Muslims was ramped up following 9/11. The attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001 were used to justify the West’s ‘war on terror’, which was essentially a war with the sections of the Muslim world which didn’t yield to their agenda. It started with the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq because it is easier to enter wars with countries whose people are first defined as less than human. So, it was necessary to construct a discourse of the Muslim man as a terrorist, a sexual deviant and oppressor of women who weren’t even allowed to choose what they wore.
The 7/7 terrorist attacks carried out in London because they were carried out by Muslims born and bred in the UK resulted in the re-formulation of state counterterrorism policies focussing on British born Muslims, as a homogenous group of potential terrorists. Muslims were and still are required to prove their loyalty and Britishness by giving up their cultures and accepting a set of undefined “British Values” and a “British way of life”. Any visible signs of Muslimness are viewed with suspicion.
Tarrant’s racist ideas are sanctioned and practised by the very top of Western state structures, by far-right organisations and by sections of the media; he just put them into practice. In his manifesto, Tarrant praised President Trump for his work in renewing the hopes of the white race, he praised Anders Breivik, the Norwegian white supremacist who massacred 77 people in Norway in 2011. In fact, Tarrant said he had Breivik’s blessings for his actions.
Since he became President, Trump has consistently pursued a racist and Islamophobic policy agenda, from his bans on Muslims entering the US to his determination to build a wall to keep Mexicans out. Even if he denies he is a white nationalist, the white nationalists think he is one of them, and in tune with Tarrant he is intent on making America white. His reasoning is based on the racist assumption that Muslims are terrorists, yet every single terrorist attack carried out in America in 2018 was carried out by white nationalists. Let’s also not forget that Trump retweeted Jayda Fransen the leader of Britain First, a far-right British group, to the delight of their members. In effect, giving state sanction to their abhorrent racism and fascism. He is effectively partly responsible for propping up right wing anti-Muslim racism both in Britain and in America and now in New Zealand too.
Responsibility for this attack and similar ones lies too with sections of the media. As soon as Tarrant was identified as the killer today, the vile right-wing Mail Online put a link to his Facebook live video on their site, essentially acting as clickbait. The right-wing press have presented him as a blond haired “innocent boy” who grew up without a father. In contrast, they vilified Shamima Begum, a 19 year old Muslim woman whose new born baby had just died in a freezing refugee camp as a traitor “Jihadi bride” who should never be allowed to return to Britain, and the Metro described her 18 day old son, a British citizen who died in a Syrian refugee camp as “a Jihadi baby”.
So, a murderer of 49 innocent Muslims is presented in the most sensitive way where whiteness denotes goodness and the Muslim is labelled as the evil terrorist. It’s not just the gutter press that peddles racism and Islamophobia in Britain. The so called respectable and quality media gives voice to career racists and islamophobes such as Piers Morgan who consistently defends Trump and Melanie Phillips, a columnist for The Times, who claims that islamophobia is manufactured and overstated. Whilst the BBC gives constant coverage to Nigel Farage and far-right Muslim hater Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (Tommy Robinson).
Many of our own politicians are also guilty of actively pursuing an agenda of racism and islamophobia, thus when the former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson describes Muslim women who wear the burka as bank robbers and post boxes it gives confidence and state sanction to racist ideas, and legitimacy to racist attacks. When the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid revoked British citizenship from Shamima Begum he was giving a clear message to all Muslims that we are the “other” and are only British on terms defined by the British State. Let us also not forget Theresa May’s “Go Home” vans and Windrush which resulted from her ‘hostile environment’ policies which only targeted Black people. Sajid Javid promised an end to the Windrush deportations but he has broken his promise, we must hold him to account for that.
The battle against racism and islamophobia is one that we must all actively participate in. We can increase security on mosques but we must do battle on the ideological and political level too. Politicians must be held to account, we must force them to stop deportations, we must call out the racist politicians and stop buying racist rags like the Sun and the Mail. Racism in all of its forms must be called out wherever we see it or hear it, in our workplaces, amongst our friends and families too.
I am a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, I found out just a few days ago that a far-right group was trying to organise on campus. I contacted some members of my department, one of them is a union rep, we met just yesterday and decided to get the union to call a campus wide meeting on the far-right, racism and free speech for all students and staff. What we do will make a difference, the far-right presence at the university is small – we will do our best to make sure it is totally eradicated.
In the words of Raymond Williams: “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing”. I am convinced that we can build a better world.
Picture courtesy of JMacpherson