By Chris Wilson
On Friday March 15, a man entered Al Noor Mosque on the edge of Hagley Park near the centre of Christchurch. Over the next half an hour he shot and killed 50 people there and in another mosque several kilometres away in the suburb of Linwood. Police apprehended the man who has been charged with murder, although he is likely to face terrorism charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act.
The accused is a 28-year-old Australian who had been in New Zealand periodically since approximately 2013, and been based in Dunedin since 2017. The ‘manifesto’ he posted online just before the attack is filled with in-jokes, trolling and memes designed to increase his cachet among his fellow online racists and extremists. A great deal of this so-called ‘shit posting’ is designed to confuse people and generate publicity.
Yet the overarching theme of the manifesto is far more dangerous. The statement is one of nativism: a combination of nationalism and xenophobia which demands that regions be controlled by, if not exclusively populated by, a group which identifies itself as the true first owners of the land. For the indigenous communities of New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere, it is outrageous (and laughable) that white nationalists would claim to be the first true owners of the land. But this is how white nativists perceive themselves in many settler societies.
In its milder versions, nativism demands preferential rights for those who came first, which can ensure customary rights and protect the way of life of indigenous peoples. In its most extreme version however, one that is often taken by politically and economically privileged white communities, nativists demand the expulsion of non-citizens, the revocation of citizenship for some groups and the closing of national borders. The goal of some white supremacists to create a new white homeland in the Northwest United States through the expulsion of all non-whites is such an example. This is why the connection of homeland and race – Blood and Soil – is so central to the white nationalist movement.
Nativism is now increasingly transnational, with groups reaching out to, influencing and cooperating with movements elsewhere. In the past, nativists sought to protect the nation, today it is racial, ‘civilizational’: hence the perpetrator in Christchurch claiming that although he is Australian he isn’t going to “ethnically replace the people, nor change the nation’s culture”. Catholics, Jews, African-Americans, Chinese, southern Europeans and others have all been the targets of nativism in the past, and remain targets of nativist violence and hatred still. Yet the main target of the current period is the Muslim community.
Some nativists go to great pains to deny they are racist and make no claims about the superiority of their own culture or society, or the flaws of immigrants, instead seeking simply protect their own nation’s “cherished heritage”. Each race is fine, they say, so long as they stay in their own homelands. However, in most if not all cases, racism and anti-immigration sentiment often go hand in hand. Nativists (like the Christchurch terrorist) frequently point to supposed high birth rates or criminal nature of particular immigrant communities.
This is why the term ‘invader’ appears 56 times in the Christchurch perpetrator’s manifesto, almost once a page. And it is why his weapons were marked with the names of historic battles between European and Muslim armies. Nativists actively attempt to generate fear of immigration among the supposed ‘sons of the soil’. The neo-Nazi term White Genocide, used so freely by so-called alt right commentators and other white nationalists is one example. The Great Replacement, the title of this perpetrator’s manifesto, is another. Through this fear, and the terrorist violence itself, the perpetrators seek to create division, conflict and ultimately, they hope, civil war between locals and immigrants.
Consider some recent incidents of white nationalist violence. In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people, most of them teenage members of the ruling Labour Party, in Utoya, Norway. He did so because he believed that the party was facilitating an Islamic ‘conquest’ and ‘colonization’ of Norway and the rest of Europe. Alexandre Bissonnette killed six worshippers in a mosque in Quebec City, telling police that he believed Muslims threatened his family, and that he snapped on January 29, 2017 when Prime Minster Trudeau said that Canada would accept refugees turned away by the United States. In sentencing him, the judge stated that he had been motivated by a “visceral hatred for immigrants”. The man who killed 11 people in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018 did so because he believed the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was bringing in “invaders that kill our people”.
Each new perpetrator has researched, admired and emulated those before him (as far as I know all recent white supremacist terrorists have been male). Far right nativist groups have glorified this violence in the name of opposing immigration, almost certainly encouraging further attacks. And perhaps more crucially for making these ideas mainstream, nativism is used by political parties and politicians to win support, from Kotleba in Slovakia and Golden Dawn in Greece to One Nation in Australia and the Republican Party in the United States. Nativist ideas have attained perhaps unprecedented exposure and legitimacy since the election of the current President of the United States.
Given this, it is difficult to know how to successfully push back this growing ideology of nativism and white supremacy. Facebook, Twitter and local media need to take responsibility for cracking down on anonymous hatred and provocation to violence: if they don’t willingly, they should be compelled to do so. If they are not doing so already, the security services need to monitor the threat of white nationalism at least as much as they do other forms of extremism. Nativism thrives on polarisation: my hope is that New Zealanders of all political perspectives will show unity in the face of this rather than allow it to divide us further. Most importantly, public figures from politicians, to media personalities and academics and other commentators need to keep the dangers of nativism in mind when they speak about immigration. Any exaggerations (or outright fabrications) of crimes committed by immigrants, or the supposed threat migration poses to society, quickly becomes fuel for nativist sentiment, legitimises it and motivates people to commit violence.
Chris Wilson is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in political violence.
This article was originally published on Newsroom. For the original click here.
Photo Credit: Lynn Grieveson