The killing of 50 Muslims in two Christchurch mosques is the largest massacre of a minority group in the west since at least 1961. On October 17 of that year, Paris police opened fire on thousands of Algerians demonstrating against the French war in their homeland and the curfews imposed on “Muslim Algerian workers”. Police threw Algerians from bridges into the Seine, where many drowned. The exact number of deaths is disputed; some historians concur with the official account of 40 deaths, while others place the death toll at more than 100.
White nationalists perceive an unbroken history of conflict between Muslims and Europeans dating back to the eighth century. France, the country with the largest Muslim population in Europe, is central to the white nationalist imagination everywhere. Like many other Australian (and American) white nationalists, the Christchurch gunman developed genocidal fantasies about Europe, and in particular France, where he travelled widely. His language about the Muslim “invasion” of France and the “replacement” of white populations by nonwhites mimics that of far-right French writers such as Renaud Camus and Jean Raspail, whose novel The Camp of the Saints depicts a refugee invasion of France that signals the start of a conquest of Europe and America by black and brown peoples. Raspail inspired Donald Trump’s campaign manager and former top advisor, Steve Bannon, and Camus found echoes in the chants of “you will not replace us” by young men who marched in Charlottesville.
The Australian gunman’s obsession with Europe should not, as some have suggested, be taken as evidence that his views had nothing to do with Australia. Instead, it reflects the deeply internationalist nature of white identity politics. In 2018, sections of the Australian media had a spasm of sympathy with white South African farmers, who were supposedly being murdered in unprecedented numbers by black South Africans. This story, which eventually travelled around the world, exaggerated and distorted the complex reality of violence in South Africa, which claims far more black than white lives. But it allowed whites in Australia to feel like part of a globally threatened minority who need to defend their own homelands. “Anyone who still denies reverse racism is real needs to look at what’s happening in South Africa”, proclaimed the Daily Telegraph. Stories about “no-go zones” in European cities serve the same purpose, cautionary tales for American and Australian audiences about white people driven from their homes.
Traditionally white nationalists have seen Jews as the international arch-enemy, the hidden force behind every plan to undermine white populations (the Charlottesville marchers also chanted “Jews will not replace us”). Throughout the twentieth century, communism was often seen as a manifestation of Judaism, and white supremacists blamed it for stirring up non-white insurrections everywhere from Rhodesia to Mississippi. Since 9/11 Islam has increasingly become seen as a global enemy of similar proportions, a view not confined to the furthest fringes of the right. As the US, UK and Australia fought wars in Muslim-majority countries in the name of the “war on terror”, respectable Anglophone authors like Mark Steyn, Christopher Caldwell and Melanie Phillips warned that Islam was destroying European societies from within. Islamophobes, from the most mainstream to the most extreme, shield themselves from charges of racism by saying that their problem is with Islam as a religion, and its cultural incompatibility with the west. But their talk of differential birthrates and territorial loss resonates with the purest strains of biological racism. Furthermore, the targets of Islamophobic violence are usually chosen on the basis of their appearance, regardless of whether they actually practice the Islamic faith. The UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims recently took the step of defining Islamophobia as “a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.
Islamophobia, like antisemitism, is rife with conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories do not feature in every form of racism. Donald Trump promotes conspiracy theories about caravans of Central American migrants mounting an invasion of the United States from Mexico. But the migrants themselves are not the controlling figures in these theories, which circulate online and through talk radio and Fox News. Rather, they are puppets of ubiquitous Jewish figures such as George Soros, or they act as Trojan horses for “radical Islamic terrorists”. The man who killed twelve worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue believed the theory that Jews were behind the “invasion”. Recently Trump repeated old and debunked claims that border patrols had found Muslim “prayer rugs” in the desert.
Islamophobes see the influence of international Muslim organisations everywhere. In the United States there is a particular demonology about the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which is routinely described in right-wing publications as a front for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Claims that these groups “infiltrated” the highest levels of the United States government abounded during the Obama years, when rumours that Obama was a Muslim refused to die. Conspiracy theories extend to the term “Islamophobia” itself, which critics say was coined by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to suppress criticism of Islam (it was actually introduced in the late 1990s by a British anti-racism foundation, the Runnymede Trust). Ironically, these conspiracy theories serve the aims of the most reactionary and repressive states in the Muslim world, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Islamophobic conspiracy theories rarely focus on these powers, allies of the West, despite the very real role they play in terrorism and radicalization worldwide, and their growing influence on United States foreign policy. Instead they fixate on their enemies, Iran and populist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. With the Trump presidency, this alignment between conspiracy theory and foreign policy has only deepened.
The Christchurch shooting is already the subject of conspiracy theories. The historian Norman Cohn described the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the ultimate conspiracy theory, as the “warrant for genocide” of Jewish people in Europe. We can no longer ignore the warrants for genocide being crafted in our own time.
David Smith is Senior Lecturer in American Politics, US Studies Centre,Department of Government and International Relations,Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney