Al Ahram Weekly - May 2-8, 2019

After the Christchurch massacre

By Gihan Shahine

Many Muslim worshippers living in the West fear that mosques could be attacked this Ramadan as the curtains come down on March’s white supremacist shootings in New Zealand, writes Gihan Shahine 

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people are so full of doubts — philosopher Bertrand Russell, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1950

It did not occur to 39-year-old Osama Adnan Abukweik that he could be martyred at the hands of “fools and fanatics” when he chose to set the above quotation from English philosopher Bertrand Russell as his Facebook background profile. Yet, Abukweik was among the victims of the mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand that left 50 worshippers dead and another 50 injured in March this year.

Abukweik had hardly imagined he would be gunned down in the same land he had emigrated to 18 months earlier in quest of a better future for his family and which soon became the object of his passion and ironically the last station of his life. Only a weak ahead of his tragic murder, Abukweik had told his brother that it was in New Zealand that he wished to “spend my entire life, raise my kids, die and get buried”.

He probably did not imagine that he would be the victim of a hate crime in much the same way his grandfather had been martyred while defending the Palestinian city of Lydda against Israeli attack in 1948. Or that his children would be orphaned at more or less the same age as his father had been as a refugee.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t with you when it happened, Osama. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to protect you, little brother. I’m sorry you couldn’t escape all the killing and all the blood even by going to the ends of the earth.” These were the words that Abukweik’s brother Youssef, who lives in California, wrote mourning his younger brother on Facebook.

Hailing from a Palestinian family, Osama was raised in Egypt. He received a Masters degree in communications from the American University in Cairo and soon became a manager in a leading IT company. But when Egypt was battling with economic challenges after the 2011 Revolution, Osama lost his job and emigrated to New Zealand with his wife and three children in search of a better future. He was hugely happy with his new life that ended in tragedy.

“My brother was shot dead in a hate crime in a remote land,” Youssef told Al-Ahram Weekly in anguish a day before his brother was buried. “My parents and three sisters are all languishing in grief. Fighting hate and bigotry will be the mission of my life from now onwards.”

Abukweik’s wife and children plan to continue living in New Zealand, according to his wishes. “My brother was happy his kids were being treated like true citizens, not refugees, and he wanted them to receive a good education,” Youssef noted.

HAVEN FROM HATRED: Abukweik was probably not the only person to be happy with his life in New Zealand. The reaction of the government and the people there to the tragedy explains the passion many have for living in the country, as applications to immigrate to New Zealand have reportedly surged following the shootings.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s support for the Muslim community in her homeland will remain engraved in Muslim minds, and there have been calls to award her the Nobel Peace Prize.

She helped heal the wounds of many Muslims not only in her own country, but also around the world, when she appeared in a Muslim headscarf sending Quran-laced messages of compassion and solidarity with the shootings’ Muslim victims, calling for the official broadcast of Friday prayers on the day of the funeral, standing for a moment of silence in tribute to the martyrs, and calling on all women to wear the veil on that day in solidarity with Muslim women.

Arden’s message of love was not so much directed to Muslims alone as to all humanity since she said that most of the victims were immigrants who “chose to come” to New Zealand where they “chose to raise their families” as “a haven from hatred, racism, extremism, and that is why they became a target”.

“We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of these things,” Arden said. “Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, refuge for those who need it. Those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack.”

Arden was not alone in supporting Muslims in New Zealand. Judging from the colourful flowers adorning the funeral and the sight of women wearing Islamic headscarves and hugging and showing emotional support for the victims’ families, there were many unmistakable blows to the message of hate propagated by the fanatics and far-right extremists.

There are many moderate voices around the world that assert such values of inclusion and that are joining forces against hate crimes. President of Austria Alexander Van der Bellen had earlier called for all women to wear headscarves in solidarity with Muslims in a gesture aimed to fight what he described as “rampant Islamophobia”.

It remains questionable, however, whose voice will ultimately prove louder: that of white supremacy and right-wing extremism, or that of inclusion and the work against hate crimes, xenophobia and Islamophobia. 

Will the Christchurch tragedy deal a permanent blow to white supremacy and hate crime? Or will hate crime and Islamophobia find more supporters, especially in the light of the recent wave of immigrants, or what extreme right-wing politicians have dubbed “invaders”, who have arrived in Europe seeking refuge but who have been accused of seeking to change the identity of or to “Islamise” Europe? 

SEEKING DEFINITIONS: Such questions remain open, provoking heated debate across the world. But to find answers, analysts need to put such shootings in the right context. Should anti-Muslim attacks like that in Christchurch be regarded in the context of white supremacy, xenophobia or Islamophobia? Is white supremacy targeting Muslims more than other minorities?

There is a consensus that the recent shootings in New Zealand were a violent manifestation of white supremacist ideology and xenophobia that did not occur in a vacuum. The 28-year-old Australian murderer who committed the crimes described himself on social media as representing “Europeans and whites in a battle against immigrants” whom he insisted on calling “invaders”. His posts were widely circulated on social media and expressed his deep “hatred for Islam”.

“There’s been less reflection on the fact that any 28-year-old in Australia has grown up in a period when racism, xenophobia and a hostility to Muslims in particular were quickly ratcheting up in the country’s public culture,” the UK newspaper the Guardian’s Jason Wilson wrote in an article entitled “Islamophobia is Practically Enshrined as Public Policy in Australia”.

Abdel-Sattar Ghazali, editor of the Journal America online magazine, agreed that the Christchurch massacre “was the logical consequence of rising Islamophobia and white supremacy, particularly in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks”.

“We have seen time and time again that the prevalence of hate speech and Islamophobic rhetoric have deadly consequences,” Ghazali told the Weekly.

According to the second annual European Islamophobia Report for 2016, a survey of the continent, “Muslims are seen as the enemy ‘within’” in Europe. “Thus, physical attacks and political restrictions can often be carried out and even defended in an atmosphere of wide distrust and enmity.”

Some analysts mention the rise of terror attacks carried out by the Islamic State (IS) group in Europe and the US and the recent influx of immigrants from war-torn countries like Syria into Europe following the Arab Spring as the reasons behind the rise of anti-Muslim sentiments. But there is also almost a consensus that the rise of extreme right-wing groups in Europe and US President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric have boosted anti-Muslim sentiments that peaked in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

“The horrific attack on the Christchurch mosques is a terrible incident in the globalised context of violent, white supremacist terrorists,” noted Omid Safi, director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Centre in the US. According to Safi, the terrorist murderer “was inspired by Trump, white supremacy, and anti-Muslim genocidal forces in the former Yugoslavia”.

“The forces of Islamophobia, whether in the United States, the UK, India, China, Israel, or New Zealand, are networked and taking inspirations from one another,” Safi told the Weekly. ”Those of us who aspire to a world of peace and justice will have to be even more organized.”

One recent report by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN), a NGO, has highlighted “how ‘big money’ is channeled to the ‘industry of Islamophobia’ in the West, which revolves around a fear-mongering demonisation of Arabs and Muslims intended to legitimise both US and Israeli bellicose machinations in a region with highly coveted resources.”

Muslims are not alone. Erik Bleich, a professor of political science at Middlebury College in the US, says that the New Zealand shootings are “part of a rising tide of populist, white supremacist racism that is becoming more active and bold” and “is affecting Muslims and Jews in particular, but all minorities are at risk”.

“Muslims are particularly vulnerable in Western countries,” Bleich elaborated, saying that there have been systematic attacks on mosques since 9/11. But, according to Bleich, “there have also been anti-Semitic attacks such as the one at the Pittsburgh synagogue in the US, as well as anti-Semitic chants at venues like the Charlottesville, Virginia, march.”

“There was also an attack on a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white supremacist,” Bleich added.

Safi concurred, explaining that “white supremacy attacks many communities who are marked as non-white. It’s responsible for attacks on Muslims, on African-Americans, on Jews, Sikhs, Hispanics, and other communities,” he elaborated.

The attack on the mosques is neither new nor unprecedented,” Safi went on. ”We have seen black churches being attacked in Charleston, Jewish synagogues in Pittsburgh, the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek [Wisconsin], as well as previous attacks on mosques in Quebec and the terrorist attack on the mosque in Hebron [Khalil] by the Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein. We have to stop treating these terrorist attacks as isolated episodes and see the system and institution that produces this kind of violence.”

Today, Ghazali says, “white-nationalist inspired mass attacks on the Muslim community are a very real fear in America.” Such attacks, many agree, have “already been at a peak because of dedicated and well-funded anti-Islam and anti-Muslim groups which constantly promote Islamophobia through different means,” he added. “These groups are there to foment anti-Islam and anti-Muslim rhetoric.”

The US-based Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC), which tracks anti-Muslim and hate groups, recorded that “the number of major anti-Muslim US hate groups in 2018 was 42, while the number of all hate groups was 1,020 in 2018.”

“Over the past few years, there has been an epidemic of attacks and planned attacks on Muslim communities and mosques across the United States,” said Ghazali. “Mosques were bombed in Bloomington, Minnesota, and burned in Austin and Victoria, Texas, Bellevue, Washington, and Thonotosassa, Florida, and mass attacks were planned against Muslim communities in Islamberg, New York, Jacksonville, Florida, and Garden City, Kansas.”

Continued on next page

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