A witness said the alleged attacker wore clothing that appeared to bear swastikas, but this was no “lone wolf.” We put our communities at risk if we fail to understand the pattern of hate across borders.
Some security agencies have recognized the threat. But for all the expressions of concern, there are three crucial elements that are all too often left out when discussing the far right. The first is Islamophobia is at the heart of extremist right-wing ideology, but this is often underestimated. The second is that the ideology is spreading abroad. There were the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand. France is seeing a wave of arson attacks against mosques, amid a rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric. The list, tragically, goes on.
Finally — and perhaps most crucially — the rhetoric of the far right today thrives, indeed survives, because so much of it has been mainstreamed by politicians and influential figures in the public sphere.
Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry have been spreading quickly for decades. It’s clear in the campaigns against the Muslim woman’s headscarf (hijab) or face covering (niqab) that are the centerpiece of so many right-wing forces across Europe; it’s clear in the hate-crime statistics in the U.K. collected by Hope Not Hate; it’s clear in the work by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.
A decade ago, the Center for American Progress published a still-relevant work entitled “Fear, Inc,” which gave us a lot of detail on how there are entrenched networks of funders and institutions promoting this kind of bigotry. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “the anti-Muslim movement remains a force in the United States. Groups continue to be a well-funded, tight knit network.” Right-wing terrorists admit themselves to be part of a broader global movement.
Disturbingly, their discourse is not relegated to the fringes of society. As the SPLC makes clear, many anti-Muslim groups have “mainstream clout.” European politicians such as Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, describe Muslim refugees as “invaders”; personalities go on TV shows to demand that Muslim Americans who say Allah instead of God in certain contexts should be investigated. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump declared, “I think Islam hates us,” while promoting bans on mostly Muslim populations from entering the United States. It should be a note of caution for everyone that Trump himself was noted as an influence on the Christchurch terrorist in his own manifesto.
I’ve been researching anti-Muslim bigotry for decades, and there is one inescapable conclusion: The mainstream reach and acceptance of bigotry has led to violence against Muslims on an alarming scale.
In today’s France, the “weaponization of laïcité” across the political spectrum, as coined by French legal scholar Rim-Sarah Alouane, has put the Muslim French population on the defensive, demonized for being “visibly Muslim,” treated as outsiders or even worse, separatists. In the U.K., the Conservatives deny the seriousness of Islamophobia in their own party.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “Islamophobia has no place in any of our communities.” He’s right. But the terrorist who killed four members of a family just for being Muslim is only the most recent manifestation of the rise of anti-Muslim bigotry worldwide. Even after Trudeau’s statement, the Conservative government of Ontario blocked a motion calling on the legislature to unanimously condemn Islamophobia.
As long as countries refuse to confront bigotry and right-wing extremism head-on, until this poisonous ideologies are not extricated from mainstream political thought, we can expect more massacres, more killings and more hatred.