This Friday 15 March a white, male terrorist killed 50 people and injured 50 more in a terrorist attack at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. 28-year-old Australian Brenton Tarrant has been charged for the event. Before the event Tarrant posted on the internet a number of images of his firearms and a link to a 73-page manifesto explaining his actions. He also filmed the attack and uploaded it to the internet.
This attack has had direct and terrible consequences on its victims, and their families, friends and communities. We offer our condolences and support to these people. We also would like to emphasise that this attack has effects on Muslim communities – particularly in Western countries – worldwide, and particularly in New Zealand and Australia. Many members of these communities are grieving this attack, and living in heightened fear of increased attacks against them in the aftermath and into the future. We extend our support and solidarity to these communities.
Like all such attacks, the actions of Tarrant and his accomplices took place within a web of white supremacy and male supremacy, but this fact is rarely recognised in mainstream media coverage and analysis. In this article, we extend this understanding, using elements found in media reports to make a number of points:
- Extremist and mainstream racism are closely intertwined
- White supremacist/male supremacist men take inspiration from one another, learn from one another and see themselves as a group
- Such ideology inevitably emerges from the desire to control women’s bodies, and particularly racialised women
The Australian context
As an Australian citizen, Tarrant likely grew up immersed in Australia’s particular brand of settler-colonial racism. Australia is a country built upon the genocide of Aboriginal people beginning from the arrival of British settlers in 1788. This genocide continues today through government policies that enforce poverty and disadvantage among Aboriginal people and continue the destruction of culture and the process of genocide, for example through the continued removal of children from Aboriginal families.
Australia also has a long history of racism towards non-white immigrants, beginning in competition among workers from China and the Pacific Islands in the nineteenth century. During the second world war, then-prime minister John Curtin enunciated this prejudice clearly, saying “This country shall remain forever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race”, a phrase stunning not only in its rejection of non-white immigration but also in its erasure of the genocide of Australia’s first peoples. This “White Australia policy” was only fully dismantled in the 1970s.
Today, racism towards migrants and refugees is frequently expressed in public discourse. Politicians such as Pauline Hanson, who initially became famous in the 1990s for her opposition to Asian immigration, have now taken on Muslims as their target of choice. Hanson, who is also known for calling for a Royal Commission into Islam and her opposition to the labelling of halal food, in 2017 wore a burqa into the Senate in a stunt designed to advocate for its ban in Australia.
In the aftermath of the Christchurch shootings, the even more right-wing politician Fraser Anning released a statement claiming that the shootings were the result of “the growing fear within our community, in both Australia and New Zealand, of the increasing Muslim presence.” Citing a bible passage, he called Islam a “violent ideology” and claimed that it is different from other religions, compared it to fascism – despite the fact that he himself called for a “final solution” to Muslim immigration (a euphemism for genocide used by the Nazis) in 2018.
Extreme-right inspiration from France
Tarrant was obsessed by France
In his manifesto, Tarrant explains that a trip to Europe in 2017 was a “catalyst” for his thought, and in particular the French presidential elections that took place that year. The journalist Doan Bui, who read Tarrant’s manifesto, shows how he was obsessed with France, and that some of his political ideas and the idea for the attack were shaped by his experiences there. In the manifesto, Tarrant presents himself as “a White, European in heart and blood”, and his twitter banner photo featured one of the women victims of the Nice attacks in 2016.
He presents right-wing French president Emmanuel Macron as an internationalist capitalist, “egalitarian, without nationalist beliefs” and extreme-right politician Marine Le Pen as a “timid nationalist”. He says that Le Pen’s defeat in the 2017 elections plunged him into “despair”. He writes: “[w]hen I arrived in France […] I saw that all the invaders were there. The remaining French people were often single, old or without children, while the immigrants were young with big families.”
The “Great Replacement” theory
The manifesto reveals that Tarrant identifies with the racist and misogynist theories spread by extreme right and fascist movements in France, as shown by its title, “The Great Replacement”. The theory of the “grand remplacement”, named after the title of a book by Renaud Camus authored by Renaud Camus, rests on the idea that European peoples are being “replaced” by populations from countries of the global South, and talks about a “genocide of Europeans via substitution”.
These theories are racist, xenophobic and colonialist. They are underpinned by a reversal of the historical process of colonialism which is in complete opposition to reality. It is western colonialist countries that are responsible for the enslavement and genocide of very many peoples, the massive theft of resources from colonised countries and the organisation of an international system whose aim is to exploit and oppress countries of the global South.
At some point during his trip to France, Tarrant visited a war cemetery. He wrote: “it was there that I decided to act, through violence. That I would fight against the invaders myself.” The fact that Tarrant links his obsession with the fear of invasion to a war cemetery in France is significant. Did Tarrant identify with the obsession to “save Europe” as was the case during the world wars? Further, certain war cemeteries in France are the burial ground for thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers who died there during the first and second world wars. The first world war in particular has taken on a particular role in the Australian nationalist vision of the country’s history. It is seen as a coming-of-age moment, in which Australia became truly independent from its British fatherland.
From the extreme to the mainstream
Extremists – such as Anning and Hanson in Australia, and Camus and his extreme-right followers in France – are terrifying and highly visible. But the fact is that their access to political power and the spreading of their ideas is only possible in a national climate in which racism is generally tolerated. Australia is a country founded on the genocide of an entire people, while France, as a former colony, was a perpetrator of similar genocides in a number of other countries. These are countries founded on white supremacism.
It should be unsurprising, then, that racism is strongly present in mainstream culture in every western country. This mainstream racism is actually more dangerous than extreme-right racism because it is seen as normal and legitimate. The process is cyclical: extreme-right racism is enabled by the existence of mainstream racism, but right-wing extremism also enables this mainstream racism by making it appear mild in comparison and therefore harmless and acceptable, while providing a way for mainstream commentators to pretend not to be racist by condemning the extremists.
Mainstream racism in Australia
Numerous Australian politicians are currently doing exactly this by calling for the censure of Fraser Anning. Meanwhile, it is official Australian government policy to imprison people legally seeking asylum in impoverished neighbouring countries. Not coincidentally, these asylum seekers are not white. This extraordinarily racist, xenophobic and deeply inhumane policy – which is also illegal under international law – is supported by both major political parties. Another recent example is the trend that has emerged for politicians to invent “African gangs” who supposedly perpetrate non-existent crime sprees, in attempts to instrumentalise a “get tough on crime” approach to win elections.
Another aspect of mainstream Australian racism potentially illuminates the fact that Tarrant was moved to act violently while visiting a French war cemetery. WWI has become sacralised in Australian public discourse. In recent years in particular, ANZAC day – which commemorates soldiers from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – has been transformed into a massive annual injunction to nationalism and patriotism. Critique of this phenomenon is not tolerated: in 2015, a journalist for one of Australia’s public broadcasters was fired for a series of tweets making this argument, including one saying: “Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan.”
In a second example, on ANZAC day 2017, the Sudanese-Australian anti-racist activist Yassmin Abdul-Magied made a facebook post saying “Lest we forget (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…)” [Manus and Nauru are the locations of two of Australia’s offshore detention centres for asylum seekers.] The torrent of hatred she received over the following months was so extreme that she ended up leaving the country.
Mainstream racism in France
In France, too, the racism of the extreme right is fed and complemented by the racism of the mainstream. A prominent example of this mainstream racism, as we have frequently written about on this blog, is the extreme hatred of women from Muslim cultural backgrounds, particularly those who wear the headscarf. Discrimination towards these women is legitimated even by law, with the 2004 law banning headscarfs in schools and the 2010 law banning niqab in public places.
This Muslim-hating, racist and misogynist environment encouraged by French state politics manifests in the multiplication of acts of violence against Muslim people, and particularly women and girls who wear headscarves. Women and girls suffer aggressions and discrimination in public space, at school, when trying to engage in politics, in shops, in the job market, in the world of music, in official government ceremonies, and in an endless list of other situations and locations.
Such events are a daily occurrence in France, demonstrating the dangerous consequences of mainstream racism. The recent shooting in New Zealand exists on a continuum with these everyday racist aggressions. The perpetrators of mainstream racism bear just as much responsibility for this shooting as do right-wing extremists.
Finally, this ambient racism is also present in the way information about terrorist attacks is reported. In the case of the Christchurch attack – and as is systematically the case with white terrorists – the term “terrorism” was not used straight away. And, in the aftermath of the attack, various western mainstream media services immediately began diffusing childhood photos of the mass murderer, or from his personal life (travel photos etc.): even in the case of terrorists, we can see a tendency to humanise white murderers in comparison to non-white.
Beyond Australia and France: international links through racism and misogyny
Tarrant’s influences were not limited to Australia and France, but demonstrate that he sees himself as part of a truly global network of white supremacist, male supremacist men. In his manifesto, he claimed to be inspired by a number of other white supremacist mass murderers, notably Norwegian Anders Breivik, who Tarrant claimed “gave his blessing” for the project. Another notable name appearing – this time written in white marker on one of his guns – is that of Alexandre Bissonnette, perpetrator of the Quebec City mosque terrorist attack in 2017.
Tarrant thus consciously situates himself in a tradition of white supremacist and male supremacist action. Mass shooting is a practice overwhelmingly perpetrated by white men (from 1982 to late 2018, 104 out of 107 mass shootings in the US were perpetrated by men, and 60 were perpetrated by white people). What’s more, these men very often have a history of violence against women in some form. While we do not yet know enough about Tarrant to know if he was a perpetrator of violence specifically against women, the ideas enunciated in his manifesto and in those of his heroes are fundamentally misogynist. Again, this should not be surprising: white supremacy and male supremacy typically go hand in hand, and white male terrorists are linked not only by their racism but by their hatred of women.
The “Great replacement” theory is fundamentally misogynist
Generally speaking, theories such as the “great replacement” are intrinsically misogynist, because they are based on and focus on birthrates, and thus on women’s bodies. This obsession with birthrates (which are claimed to be too low for white women and too high for non-white women) is actually an obsession with controlling women’s bodies, and particularly the bodies of women from migrant backgrounds and their children, following a broader racist and colonialist pattern.
Historically, these are not simply extreme-right ideas, but policies put in place by western countries in colonial contexts – notably by France (forced abortions and sterilisations performed on black women in Reunion) and by Australia (forced abortions and sterilisations performed on Aboriginal women and the forced adoption of Aboriginal children). Such policies continue today, albeit often in less obvious forms. This racist, colonialist and misogynist obsession is at the centre of Tarrant’s motivation, as shown in the opening words of his manifesto: “It’s the birthrate! It’s the birthrate!”. This word appears at least twenty times, while the word “fertility” appears 24 times.
White supremacists are also male supremacists
Breivik also published a manifesto (entitled “A European Declaration of Independence”) before committing his terrorist attacks on 22 July 2011. He wrote that feminism and multiculturalism had led to a “feminisation of European culture” and had reduced European men to an “emasculate[d]… touchy-feely sub-species.” He believed that feminism made European women into traitors because they no longer reproduced and thus did not produce enough European men to resist what he called “the Muslim invasion”; similar kinds of racist and misogynist ideas as those expressed by Tarrant. Breivik concluded that the fate of European men depended on their ability to resist feminism.
This woman-hatred was also present with Bissonnette, the white supremacist terrorist who killed 6 people in the attack on a mosque in Quebec City in January 2017. His internet search history revealed that he was obsessed by two feminist groups and one Muslim student group at Laval University in Quebec. He also frequently searched for information about the “nuisances” caused by feminism, and about Marc Lépine, the terrorist who killed 14 women at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989.
This misogynist obsession can perhaps be seen most clearly in the case of Alek Minassian, the terrorist who killed 10 people – a majority of them women – on April 23rd in Toronto after having written on facebook that “the Incel Rebellion has already begun”, and making reference to Elliot Rodger, another “Incel” who killed 6 and injured 14 in an attack in California on 23rd May 2014.
- These white supremacist terrorist attacks take place in a particularly nationalist, racist and misogynist context in western countries.
- The fascist, racist and misogynist theories such as that of the “great replacement” are spread within national contexts in which Muslim-hatred and other forms of racism are tolerated in the mainstream and legitimated by law.
- The self-declared motives of white supremacist terrorists are consistently underpinned by the desire to control women and to have sexual access to their bodies.
- The aim of these acts is to restore a white and male domination that these men consider to be under attack.
- The men who perpetrate these attacks consciously make references to and links with those who came before, identifying as part of a genealogy or group with the clear aim of creating a common political project.
Only when these realities – true not only of the Christchurch attack but of all white supremacist/male supremacist terrorist attacks – are recognised, can steps be taken to prevent similar tragedies in the future.