Another vicious act of large-scale cruelty has been carried out by an adherent to a despicable and poisonous ideology. 28 year old Australian white nationalist Brenton Tarrant livestreamed himself marching into Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, and shooting dead 41 of the Muslim worshipers inside, beginning with a gentleman whose poignant and tragic final words were an offer of friendship. “Welcome brother” Tarrant’s unsuspecting victim exclaimed, having barely finished the sentence before being callously gunned down by him.
Tarrant then drove to the Lynnwood mosque some 5 kilometres away and murdered a further 8 people with a pump-action shotgun before being arrested by Christchurch Police, along with two potential accomplices who were discovered to have been in possession of IED’s.
As is now customary, the Twitterverse responded to the news of this horrendous act of butchery, by quickly becoming a frothing cesspool of horrendously stupid, deceitful, uninformed, tactless, obnoxious, and hypocritical takes. Imbeciles sprang up with their colour chart memes demanding to know why this terrorist wasn’t being referred to as a terrorist despite this terrorist being repeatedly referred to, by the police, the media, and world leaders, as a terrorist. An Australian senator/walking brain donor named Fraser Anning shared his delightful theory that the ideology of the gunman was not at fault and that his actions should instead be blamed on Muslim fanatics and immigration policy. Mike Stuchbery cast his net of blame over UKIP, Lauren Southern, Paul Joseph Watson, and “the usual suspects in the online Right”. Baroness Warsi set about accusing Times columnist and author Melanie Phillips of faux sympathy and of feeding hatred, and Bonnie Greer laid culpability at the feet of Boris Johnson.
Another of the more noticeable offenders was the insufferable Al Jazeera journalist Mehdi Hasan. Hasan decided that the occasion of this devastating massacre was an opportune moment to further his political vendettas, issuing as he did, a Tweet personally naming Donald Trump and American Neuroscientist Sam Harris as being at least partially, if indirectly, culpable for this senseless atrocity.
I have so many issues with this take, and the narrative that it represents, that I barely know where to start. I have no desire to scrawl through the semi-literate and often incoherent ramblings of the U.S President in the hopes of contextualising his boorish, albeit not entirely inaccurate, proclamation. However the comment made by Sam Harris is one I am very familiar with. And very familiar with defending.
It was a comment originally made in a 2004 Washington Times article in the context of pointing out the theocratic character of our antagonists in the War on Terror. The religious motives, aspirations and justifications of groups such as the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State are painstakingly attested to, and our war with them is not limited to a literal fight against the terrorism they enact, but encompasses a broader figurative battle against the vision of life they represent. It’s a vision of life that is celebrated by their supporters, and one which has unfortunately proven somewhat resistant to having some of the more troubling aspects filtered out by otherwise peaceable Muslims. Certainly most Muslims don’t support al Qaeda or its ideological offshoots, and will happily denounce the horrors of the Islamic State, but to review polling data on certain attitudes held within the global Muslim community is to stare into a black hole of retrograde intolerance and religious bigotry.
Harris’s point therefore, is that we are not merely fighting an actual war against people who throw gays from rooftops, and stone women to death for adultery, and victimize apostates, but a metaphorical one against these ideas and values – ideas and values which find themselves entrenched in all too plausible interpretations of Islam. This is an argument that he has made in various forms, often illustrated by a diagram of concentric circles detailing the relatively small number of actual jihadists in the world, in comparison to those who acquiesce to their behaviour, share many of their views, or denounce them whilst clinging to some unsavoury and deeply illiberal religious ideas of their own.
The full quote reads as follows:
“It is time we admitted that we are not at war with “terrorism”; we are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran. This is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with millions more than have any direct affiliation with Al Qaeda. Every person living in a western democracy should read the Koran and discover the relentlessness with which non-Muslims are vilified in its pages. The idea that Islam is a “peaceful religion hijacked by extremists” is a dangerous fantasy—and it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for moderate Muslims to indulge.”
It’s certainly boldly stated, as is much of Harris’s writing, and assumes a level of reading comprehension whereby the audience are not treated as children incapable of understanding logical inference. But to mischaracterise this summarised explanation of a nuanced position as a declaration of war upon Muslims, as Hasan has done here, and to hold it aloft as the inspiration for a mass killer, is irresponsible in the extreme.
Moreover, to do so is to inadvertently infer that anybody criticising bad ideas, or seeking to highlight their prevalence, can be held responsible for crimes committed against people who might be assumed to hold such ideas. If Hasan really wants to adopt this as the standard for evidence of complicity, perhaps he might like to consider how his comments on atheists and non-Muslims – or “kaffars” as he prefers to put it – might be used against him in a similar way.
When video footage emerged of Hasan looking vaguely like a glove puppet approximation of Uday Hussein, ranting like a hate preacher, and describing atheists as “people of no intelligence”, as “cattle”, and as equivalent to “animals” who “bend any rule to fulfill any desire”, he was not talking about ideas or ideologies. He was referring to people. And he was doing so in the kind of generalised and hateful terms that would surely garner shrieking cries of Islamophobia had they been employed by Harris, or anyone else, about his Muslim brethren.
I wonder therefore; if Hasan takes personal responsibility for the persecution and murder of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh, or of Muslim apostates the world over, on the basis of his unambiguous rhetoric here. When he likens homosexuals and “music lovers” to paedophiles and to people engaged in incestuous relationships with their mothers, his own logic would convict him of accountability in the discrimination and execution of LGBT people in Muslim societies, or the lashing and imprisonment of young men and women for the crime of dancing in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
More pertinently, Hasan’s 2013 column illustrating the pervasiveness of anti-Semitic attitudes within the Muslim community could be uncharitably used as grounds for charges that he propagates Islamophobic rhetoric, and by extension, is culpable for violence towards Muslims. Does Hasan hold himself complicit for this despicable incident in Christchurch, I wonder?
Doubtful. Hasan affords himself the right to say things he stridently criticises in others. I don’t expect him to take responsibility for any of the aforementioned persecution and violence, and nor should he. But I don’t think it’s too much to expect him to afford others the same courtesy. I would further suggest that he reflects upon the justification he provided for his bigoted remarks about non-Muslims. Claiming to have been merely quoting from the Quran, as he did, is not quite the defence he thinks it is. Dare I say, it may even lend weight to Harris’s point.
Hasan is also quick to absolve Islam of any influence over the anti-social behaviour of people who regularly cite it as their motivation. His preference is to proselytise the socio-political grievances of jihadi terrorists and the West’s apparent role in their radicalisation. I suspect, however, that Hasan might have something of an adverse reaction if Harris were to release an intensely smug series of videos urging the consideration of, and capitulation to, the political complaints of this racist murderer as a means of preventing further attacks. Arguing that the repellent acts committed by Tarrant were “blowback” – the inevitable result of our immigration policy – would be rightfully seen as outrageous apologia.
Happily, in his hastily released article on the New Zealand atrocity, Hasan seems to have miraculously discovered a long overdue interest in the influence of beliefs upon behaviour. “What I am suggesting… is that violence does not exist in a vacuum” he asserts before reminding us that “ideology matters”. It’s a shame though, that Hasan can’t find the consistency to apply this approach to the terrorists and supremacists who share his religion and carry out their offences with recourse to it, or to refrain from castigating those who do.
This brings me to Neo-Conservative commentator Douglas Murray, who also came under fire for having published an article a few days prior in which he sought to illustrate the asymmetry between anti-Semitism and so-called Islamophobia. It was greeted by a wave of strawmen arguments at the time which were then resurrected in response to the Christchurch attack.
Many took Murray’s article, and criticism of the term Islamophobia generally, to be an assertion that hatred of Muslims is a non-existent phenomenon. This is yet another misrepresentation. Nobody even mildly sensible denies that a bigoted hatred of Muslims exists among certain people. Or that it can motivate violence. The objection to the term is in how it is not only misused, but is designed for misuse. It is distinguishable from anti-Semitism in an important way. In its dictionary definition and in its widespread usage, the term Islamophobia incorporates a dislike of the ideas expressed within Islam. It then conflates this aversion to certain ideas with a hatred of Muslims as people. Anti-Semitism, on the other hand refers, as all bigotries do, specifically and purely to people.
By way of analogy: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was up until relatively recently, an officially racist organisation. The founder of the religion posited that black skin was a divine curse and restrictions were placed on the permissibility of black people to occupy certain senior positions or to participate in certain ceremonies. This is overt racism propagated by the tenets of a relatively mainstream religion. Unless we’re happy to say that an aversion to the racist tenets of Mormonism, is itself an expression of racism or bigoted intolerance, then it should be clear why the word Islamophobia presents a problem.
“Anti-Muslim bigotry” however, is a perfect term to describe anti-Muslim bigotry. It’s crystal clear in its meaning, it loses nothing of what people using the word Islamophobia to mean the same thing are attempting to communicate, and it does not allow itself to be so readily misused or misunderstood.
Murray puts it this way:
“Anti-Semitism is hatred or suspicion of Jews because they are Jews. It is an irrational prejudice built on centuries of stereotypes and hatreds which culminated in the worst crime in human history, on our continent, in the last century. ‘Islamophobia’, by contrast, is a term which can (mean) almost anything that the wielder claims it to mean. So in many peoples’ eyes, it is ‘Islamophobic’ to ever say anything negative about any aspect of Islam or any action carried out by any Muslim in the name of their faith.”
And so when Hasan declares that “Islamophobia kills”, it’s not immediately clear whether he’s referring to actual bigotry towards Muslims, or to dislike of Islam. Commonsense would suggest the former whereas the quotes he references would suggest the latter. It would therefore indicate that Hasan views criticising Islam as a logical and inevitable pathway to mass-murder. This is a less than subtle attempt to close down any and all criticism of Islam by rendering it indistinguishable from incitement.
Yet one can make these points about Islam effortlessly, and indeed about the cynicism of a term like Islamophobia, whilst simultaneously and vociferously opposing bigotry and violence against innocent people on the basis of their identities. There is no contradiction here. And Mehdi might do well to realise that it’s also entirely possible to oppose racism and the ideology of white supremacism, as we all must do, without recklessly misrepresenting the views of others as synonymous with this bigotry. Harris is vocally opposed to racism, to identitarianism, and to terrorism. To therefore publicly accuse him of personal complicity in an act of terrorism committed on racist identitatrian grounds, is disgraceful.
It’s galling that such arguments need to be made in the immediate aftermath of a devastating attack like this. But innocent people being accused of having the blood of other innocent people on their hands, simply adds insult to injury.
It should be clear that the behavioural implications of beliefs, that critics of Islam like Harris and Murray are concerned with, are equally applicable to this latest attack. Tarrant committed his appalling crime on the basis that he views his actions to be a defence of “his people”. His ideology divides the world into white and non-white, just as the jihadist’s ideology separates humanity into Muslim and non-Muslim. And this is done regardless of the fact that the majority of people who they would claim as “their own”, would respond with utter revulsion towards the idea that they should be associated with these murderous cowards.
These supremacist ideologies are indistinct in many fundamental ways. And so we need to begin treating terrorists with the same unequivocal condemnation across the board. The same scrutiny and criticism of their beliefs. The same indifference to their supposed grievances. The same efforts to prevent the spread of their ideologies. And the same intolerance for any shameful apologia and equivocation on their behalves. To echo Sam Harris, we are at war not merely with white supremacist terrorism, but with the vision of life offered by this reprehensible ideology.
My thoughts are with the families of the victims and everyone affected by this disgusting act of cowardice.