The mainstreaming of Islamophobia has allowed the far-right to become more lethal
Content Warning: This article attempts to locate the Christchurch mosque shootings of 15 March 2019 within recent evolutions in Western racism. As such, it contains language, ideas and descriptions of events which many readers will find offensive and distressing. We distance ourselves from the racist views discussed, which are sickening and abhorrent to us.
In a video of 2016, the progressive YouTube-personality ContraPoints used the diagram shown below to explain what she dubbed the ‘white nationalist worldview’. The graphic identifies a psychosexual fear of interracial procreation as the basis for white nationalist sentiment. The fact that ‘white women’ sleep with people other than white men is conveniently blamed on a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ which aims to destroy the ‘white race’ by driving ‘white women’ to have children with ‘non-whites’. Social liberalization, cultural freedom and progressive politics are really nothing more than a ploy used by that conspiracy to make white women promiscuous. In this schema, non-whites are the broadest group, both numerically and conceptually. They receive little characterization, apart from being assigned a sort of feral sexual prowess.
Western orientalist and islamophobic discourses have fleshed out the category of ‘non-whites’, and thus allowed the white nationalist worldview illustrated above to reach maturity. The process to this effect has been twofold. On the one hand, it has involved an othering of the Muslim world by contrasting it with ‘Western civilization’. On the other, misogyny and violence have been essentialized as immutable qualities of the religion.
The Politics of Othering
The othering of Islam has a long pedigree in Western culture. As a practice, it was granted new legitimacy by Samuel Huntington’s theory of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’, which posited that post-Cold War conflict would arise primarily due to differences in ‘culture’. Huntington divided the world into eight major civilizations, including a ‘Western’ and an ‘Islamic’ one, but also others characterized as ‘Slavic-Orthodox’, ‘Latin American’ and ‘Japanese’. Discourse became increasingly fixated on the supposed opposition between ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ culture following the September 11 attacks. Plans to invade Afghanistan and later Iraq required a legitimizing narrative, which was provided by academics and ‘experts’ on the Middle East. The foremost of these, Bernard Lewis, argued in his 2002 book What Went Wrong? that Islamic orthodoxy had prevented the Muslim world from modernizing and inaugurated a period of political illiberalism and cultural stagnation lasting till the present day. According to Lewis, disgruntled Muslims were using anti-Westernism and antisemitism as outlets for their resulting frustration.
Over the past two decades, this way of looking at Islam as a culturally opposed ‘other’ has become integrated into mainstream political discourse in Western countries. Politicians have stamped immigrants from Muslim-majority countries as in need of ‘integration’ into Western societies. In Britain and France, this rhetoric was aimed at immigrants from former colonies, while in Germany, it was used with reference to Turkish guest-workers. The implication was that immigrants from Muslim-majority countries possessed a set of cultural values which diverged from those held by Westerners, and thus needed to be brought into alignment with them. During the 2015-16 European migrant crisis, this kind of rhetoric intensified as European politicians called into question whether large numbers of refugees from Muslim majority countries could be absorbed by Western societies despite possessing radically different ‘cultural backgrounds’. In 2016, then-French President Francois Hollande declared that France has ‘a problem with Islam’; more recently, Germany’s Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer, claimed that ‘Islam does not belong to Germany’ because it was shaped instead by Christianity.
This ‘othering’ of Islam coincided with attempts to characterize it as inherently violent and dysfunctional. As the Syrian civil war heated up, the conflict became increasingly de-territorialized, spilling over into European metropoles. Thus, the period spanned by the migrant crisis also saw a wave of terror attacks in Paris (January and November 2015), Brussels (March 2016), Nice (July 2016), Berlin (December 2016) and Manchester (May 2017), to name only a few major ones. The perpetrators of these attacks drew inspiration from, and in some cases had connections to, the Islamic State. Populist politicians, as well as some public intellectuals, drew a causal link between this terrorism and Islamic scripture. Certain passages in the Qur’an and Hadith appeared to call for political violence in the name of the religion. Equating authentic religious practice with scriptural literalism, these figures argued that violence towards unbelievers lay immutably at the essence of Islam.
In this way, a composite picture emerged in the public sphere which not only painted Islam as culturally opposed to ‘Western’ civilization, but also belligerent and intolerant at its essence. It would be irresponsible to claim that those who contributed to the evolution of this narrative intended for something like the attacks in Christcurch to happen. Yet conjuring up imagery of opposition between the ‘Muslim world’ and the ‘West’ did lay the groundwork for an evolution in far-right thinking. ‘White nationalists’ despise all ‘non-whites’ unselectively. However, Muslims have come to occupy a distinct position within that category. The original ‘white nationalist worldview’ outlined at the beginning of this piece paints a picture in which a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ manipulates culture to incentivize scattered sexual encounters between ‘white women’ and various men falling under the ‘non-white’ category. One result of the rhetoric described above is that that worldview has been updated.
The ‘White Nationalist Worldview’, anno 2019
The powerful imagery that emerged at the time of the 2015-16 refugee crisis, such as drone footage of large caravans of refugees making their way across Eastern Europe, was used by the far-right to argue that the ‘Jewish conspiracy’ was deliberately directing this stream of (mostly Muslim) refugees into European countries. The language of ‘hordes’ and ‘invaders’ was used to stamp refugees as hostile aliens by such personalities as Trump-acolyte Roger Stone and far-right internet personality Lauren Southern. Incidents like the 2015-16 New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne were then instrumentalized by the far right to claim that the incoming refugees engage in the systematic rape of ‘white women’ in order to usher in the ‘Great Replacement’ of ‘whites’ in European countries.
The origins of this term lie in the French polemicist Renaud Camus’ designation of the supposed erosion of traditional French values as a result of mass-immigration as a ‘grand remplacement’. Far-right conspiracy theorists such as the aforementioned Southern or the Neo-Nazi media organization Red Ice TV have adopted it in referring to their crackpot theory that the 2015-16 migrant crisis was orchestrated to accelerate demographic change and thus ‘replace’ whites in Western countries with ‘non-whites’, especially Muslims. The Christchurch shooter’s manifesto too was entitled ‘The Great Replacement’, and obsesses throughout over birth rates among ‘non-whites’ as posing a civilizational threat.
Besides being the primary instrument of the Jewish-engineered ‘Great Replacement’, Muslims are also believed by white nationalists to represent a violent affront to Western Civilization. This view takes the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ stance outlined above to the extreme. Western men are called upon to protect their Christian heritage by engaging in violence against Muslims. This is reflected in the founding philosophy of the German far-right group ‘Hogesa’ or Hooligans against Salafists, a group dedicated to organizing xenophobic brawls. Similarly, the 2016 book Fistfights with Muslims in Europe, by the fascist charlatan Julian Langness, advertises the title activity as a sprightly routine of masculine self-improvement. As these examples reveal, the general conflict of interest over white women described in the original model of the ‘white nationalist worldview’ has, in the eyes of the far-right, matured into a civilizational antagonism between Christendom and Islam.
Fascists have readily adopted romanticized historical imagery to embellish this antagonism. The internet has become populated with imagery designed to make a war between the West and the Muslim world more desirable. Thus, a popular internet meme edits videos by interspersing soundbites of the Muslim ‘Allahu Akbar’, originally taken from leaked footage of a dronestrike in Syria, with outcries of the Latin ‘Deus Vult’, a supposed Christian equivalent extracted from a video game about the crusades. In this way the idea of a conflict between the Muslim world and the Christian West is normalized and made to seem appealing. More specific historical allusions also abound: the fascist Swedish bodybuilding YouTuber Marcus Follin, for example, calls upon his fans to retake Jerusalem and Constantinople. This is in conformity with the worldviews of far-right terrorists. Both Anders Breivik and Brenton Tarrant draw heavily on crusader imagery in their manifestos.
Over the past two decades, Islamophobia has been endowed with a new, deadly potency. Whilst antisemitism has remained a constant, the racism expressed in the ‘white nationalist worldview’ towards ‘non-whites’ has become dominated by militant, genocidal hatred of Muslims. Part of it is down to the careless othering of Muslims and Islam in public discourse. Christchurch should act as a wakeup call to us all that such divisive rhetoric can cost lives.
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