Tackling far right violence after the New Zealand massacre

By Savi Hensman
March 15, 2019

Forty-nine people were killed  on 15 March 2019 after shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Making sure that those responsible cannot commit further violence is the immediate priority, along with support for the families and friends of victims, the survivors, Muslims left in fear and all others affected. However the attack also makes clear the urgent need to tackle the surge in far-right extremism.

Reportedly a gunman naming himself as Brenton Tarrant from Australia livestreamed the terror attack, as well as issuing a manifesto . In this he described himself as “just a regular White man” who “decided to take a stand to ensure a future for my people.” He saw himself as taking revenge for the activities of “foreign invaders in European lands throughout history” as well as defending Western civilisation.

While much of his hostility was directed at Muslims, he is said to have lamented “the invasion of France by non-whites”, stated that there was “a racial component to the attack” and described it as “anti-immigration”.

Leaders across the world, including the UK and USA, have condemned this violence. Few, even on the far right, would approve of mass murder. Yet his praise for the US President Donald Trump as "a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose" reflects a wider trend.

There has been a surge in far-right extremism in the USA, Europe and Australasia. Many mainstream politicians and media, while not endorsing murder on the streets, have helped to fuel fear of Muslims and ethnic minorities. Also policies where the state mistreats migrants and those of non-European origin, for instance the 'hostile environment' in the UK and terrible conditions of refugees in Australia, make it easier to see others as less than fully human.

In some cases this is linked with contempt for women who do not accept a lower status and hostility to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. These too, can be portrayed as undermining Western values. At other times though, Muslims and minority ethnic people are verbally attacked for being supposedly less tolerant and enlightened towards women and minorities.

For Christians, there is a particular challenge when a faith that teaches love for all is twisted to try to justify prejudice. The gunman in Christchurch appears not to have been Christian himself, mentioning that he might go to Valhalla if he died. However he did link himself to Serbian nationalists, who sometimes portray themselves as devout Christians battling enemies of the faith.

Worryingly, Christians in Western Europe tend to be more anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant than their neighbours, though this varies. It is important to challenge attempts to portray respect for minorities and diversity as somehow undermining core religious and national values.

However, the latest attack is also challenging for those committed to equality for all. Sometimes this is communicated in ways that alienate people rather than winning them over. Fear of getting things wrong and being humiliated or isolated can get in the way of meaningful conversations about equality and justice

It can be helpful when those opposed to fascism and racism are willing to listen to grievances which can be exploited by racist leaders. There is also value in affirming what is good about people – including white heterosexual men – and local cultures rather than just being critical.

The value of love for all, humility and readiness to forgive (making it easier for former extremists to back down and rebuild relationships) should not be underestimated.

If terrible events such as those in Christchurch are to be prevented in future, everyone of goodwill has a part to play.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.