As we mourn the victims of the terrorist atrocity in New Zealand — where at least 50 Muslim worshippers were mowed down by a white supremacist partially “inspired” by Donald Trump — many are looking for answers to the inevitable questions of why and how.
To answer those questions, and explore how we might prevent such terrorist acts, it may be helpful to recognize that what happened at Christchurch — mass murder produced as the logical result of a long-running political epoch that is almost singularly defined by the dehumanization and demonization of Muslims, Arabs, and anyone perceived as such — happens every day.
As in any war, atrocities are the norm, not the aberration. In the war of terror that has been waged by so-called Western democracies for decades — long before 9/11 — governments and militaries, their compliant media partners, the so-called entertainment industry, and a host of others have played the role of initiators, accomplices, and accelerants to a fiery hatred of all things perceived as Muslim.
Occasionally, there is official shock and grief at large-scale massacres like Christchurch, the images of tortured bodies at Abu Ghraib, or the front-page picture of a drowned Syrian refugee child washed up on a beach. But our attention too often turns elsewhere because our status quo is defined by indifference to the daily suffering inflicted on large groups of people without white skin privilege who are targeted directly — or who are too easily dismissed as indirect “collateral damage” — because they are perceived to have no human value whatsoever.
Most of the time, Christchurch-style atrocities in which the victims’ humanity is reduced to a mere statistic barely make the news or draw condemnation. When such atrocities do generate headlines, sanctimonious leaders in charge of countries built on racism and genocide try to calm the rage in our hearts by claiming “this is not who we are,” even as their regimes’ policies contribute to such unspeakable acts.
Others, like Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the point where they are forced to acknowledge the terrorist targeting of Muslims that Christchurch represented. And then there are those like People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier, who do not feel such atrocities warrant his condemnation. Notably, both Bernier and Scheer are unapologetic for speaking at an Ottawa rally that hosted white supremacist Faith Goldy and racist yellow-vest members in February. As Bernie Farber of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network explained, that rally’s organizers and backers — the climax of a truck convoy from Alberta — were infused with overt racism, and “had engaged in online death threats including calls for the arrest and death of the prime minister, [and] supported anti-Muslim hate groups including Canadian Combat Coalition, Soldiers of Odin, and Worldwide Coalition Against Islam.”
Canada’s national public broadcaster, the CBC, devoted an incredible amount of free publicity to the extremely problematic truck convoy and its two days of tiny rallies, which drew tens of people to Parliament Hill. The CBC’s blanket coverage helped normalize the people behind a very dangerous discourse that blames immigrants, and, specifically, Muslims, for everything that’s wrong in the world. (This almost fawning coverage was in stark contrast to CBC’s utter refusal to provide any substantive space to some of the largest student-led mobilizations ever seen in this country during the global climate strike on March 15, including the 150,000 marchers in Montreal that most would not have heard of had it not been for Facebook and other social media.)
And while some so-called progressives cheered the formation of Bernier’s white supremacist party as a perfect “divide the right” moment, they neglected to remember that the very communities who will be hurt by the existence and media normalization of this very dangerous xenophobic grouping are the ones in line for the next Christchurch. Indeed, Bernier sings from the same songbook as the Christchurch terrorist, right down to Bernier’s 2018 tweet that “More diversity will not be our strength, it will destroy what has made us such a great country…. Why should we promote ever more diversity? If anything and everything is Canadian, does being Canadian mean something?”
While leaders like Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump did tweet about Christchurch, their government’s policies nevertheless contribute to Christchurch-style massacres everyday, whether by aerial bombardment, through economic sanctions, or the approval of their state security services continuing to racially profile and scaremonger about the threat allegedly posed by Muslims, even though study after study shows that white supremacist violence is the leading cause of extremist killings in both leaders’ countries.
Notably, neither Trump nor Trudeau found it in themselves to tweet last summer when the same number of those killed in Christchurch were murdered in a Saudi air strike against a Yemeni school bus, killing 40 children and 11 adults and injuring 79. The laser-guided bomb used in the attack was sold to the Saudis by Lockheed Martin, the military contractor Canada has chosen to lead its $105-billion warship contract. That is the same Saudi coalition that is still being supplied with $15 billion of Canadian weaponry with the full approval of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Trudeau, further bolstering a slaughter and sanctions regime that kills a Yemeni child every 10 minutes and threatens up to 20 million with death by starvation and disease.
Dismissing Muslim lives as state policy
In Afghanistan, NATO air strikes — in which Canadian intelligence and logistical support no doubt always played a role — have notoriously and callously hit wedding parties, markets, and other clearly civilian sites with a sickening consistency that blatantly disregards human life in the same hateful manner as the Christchurch terrorist. Among far too many to recount is the bombing of the Haska Meyna wedding party in Nangarhar province in July 2008, that murdered 47 civilians, largely children and women. In November 2008, another wedding party at Wech Baghtu resulted in 63 killed by NATO air strike. In May 2009, a U.S. B1 bomber massacred at least 140 civilians in the heart of the village of Granai.
Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Libya, and far too many other countries are viewed as “target-rich” environments by the Pentagon and its allied military forces in which the illegal killing by drone or other means is the assumed right of those who wage this 21st-century white supremacist crusade (recalling, of course, George W. Bush’s statement that “this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile.”) It is no accident that the Christchurch terrorist used the exact same language — “target rich” — to describe the New Zealand worshippers he intended to obliterate.
Similarly “target rich” were the peaceful protests last year against the apartheid wall that became an Israeli military-sponsored bloodbath, found by the United Nations to possibly constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.
“More than 6,000 unarmed demonstrators were shot by military snipers, week after week at the protest sites by the separation fence,” the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2018 Gaza protests concluded in its February 28 report, which drew not a single banner headline in this country. The commission went on to report that:
“189 Palestinians were killed during the demonstrations inside this period. The Commission found that Israeli Security Forces killed 183 of these protesters with live ammunition. Thirty-five of these fatalities were children, while three were clearly marked paramedics, and two were clearly marked journalists. According to the Commission’s data analysis, the Israeli Security Forces injured 6,106 Palestinians with live ammunition at the protest sites during this period. Another 3,098 Palestinians were injured by bullet fragmentation, rubber-coated metal bullets or by hits from tear gas canisters.”
While it is important that world leaders condemn the Christchurch massacre, their thoughts and prayers are meaningless unless they get to the root cause of Christchurch, a root cause most of them contribute to, by, among other things, their silence on Palestine. As UN Commissions chair Sara Hossain said, “There can be no justification for killing and injuring journalists, medics, and persons who pose no imminent threat of death or serious injury to those around them. Particularly alarming is the targeting of children and persons with disabilities. Many young persons’ lives have been altered forever. 122 people have had a limb amputated since 30 March last year. Twenty of these amputees are children.”
The daily disappearing of the suffering endured by those who are targets of white supremacy will likely resume its normal pattern this week as our attention turns away from Christchurch. What will take its place is the daily background white noise — if it makes any sound at all — of the ongoing war against the majority of the world’s population on behalf of a small, privileged group of countries whose leadership acts as proxies for corporations looking to exploit what’s left of the world’s treasure. Those who call out and resist the daily violence of corporate rule by companies heavily invested in tarsands, overseas mines, and engineering megaprojects — often Indigenous women on the front lines of land and water defence struggles — are criminalized, demonized, cast aside, and detained, tortured, and murdered.
It’s that normalcy of daily war that will soon make names like Christchurch mere asterisks in our historical memory. Indeed, the casual and careless enforced disappearance of these horrible moments was no better represented than in last week’s National Public Radio Morning Edition interview with Jonathan Greenblatt, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, which in January released a report finding that every single act of extremist violence committed in the U.S. during 2018 was undertaken by far-right, white supremacist groups and individuals.
Asked how common such incidents as Christchurch are, Greenblatt remarkably replied: “Well, I think this act of violence really doesn’t have a precedent as far as we know, murdering people in a mosque like this, and the social media dimension is something new.” That the head of an organization which documents such horrific crimes could so readily disappear the January 2017 mosque massacre in Quebec City — one that most media actually did report was cited by the Christchurch terrorist as an inspiration — speaks to the potent racism and Islamophobia that underlies both white supremacist violence and a liberal culture that refuses to face its own complicity in and tacit acceptance of this racism.
Indeed, there is an extensive history of attacks against Muslims at prayer. As the group Fairness and Accuracy in Media (FAIR) reminded readers last week, Israeli army reservist Baruch Goldstein entered the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994 and slaughtered 29 praying Muslims, and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently reported that, “The killer’s grave has become over the years a pilgrimage site for extremist Jews who support him, and a shrine to his memory was set up next to his tomb.” FAIR also points to other anti-Muslim attacks “that include the 25 worshipers killed on October 11, 2017, at a mosque in Kembe, Central African Republic; the 20 people slaughtered at the Han Tha mosque in Taungoo, Myanmar, in May 2001; and the 147 victims of the Kattankudy mosque massacre in Sri Lanka on August 3, 1990,” as well as the 1974 massacre of some 1,500 Moro people killed in a mosque by the Philippine army in the village of Malisbong.
As the editors of FAIR concluded: “That none of this was recalled, either by the host of Morning Edition or the director of a group that presents itself as a ‘global leader in exposing extremism’ with a mission ‘to secure justice and fair treatment for all,’ is a testament to the failure of our information systems to give due weight to violence against Muslims — and the consequent dangerous impoverishment of our collective memory.”
A thousand-year crusade
Of course, this is nothing new. One can go as far back as Pope Urban II’s call for a crusade in 1095 that resulted in the indiscriminate slaughter of Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem four years later. Launching this bloody era, Urban railed against those he labeled “infidels,” “pagans,” and “barbarians,” and in the same manner that the U.S., Canada, U.K., and other imperial powers provide a shield of impunity for those who take part in modern-day state-sponsored crimes, Urban cried, “All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins.”
According to Fulcher of Chartres, a priest who took part in and wrote an account of that first crusade, “In this temple almost ten thousand were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet coloured to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared.” The Crusaders also set fire to a full synagogue and then encircled “the screaming, flame-tortured humanity singing ‘Christ We Adore Thee!'”
The fear and hatred of Muslims and Arabs is of course but one subset of a worldwide white supremacy whose vile rationalizations have been used to enact genocides against Indigenous peoples; drop chemical weapons on human beings (Winston Churchill famously declared in one secret memo his disgust at the “squeamishness” of those opposed to its use, noting in bulldog fashion that “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes”); and drop nuclear weapons on the people of Japan (prime minister Mackenzie King crowned a career based on promoting Canada as “white man’s country” when he wrote approvingly in his diary of the nuclear incineration of 100,000 people at Hiroshima: “It is fortunate that the use of the bomb should have been upon the Japanese rather than upon the white races of Europe.”)
While the luxury of having communism as an “enemy” provided state security agencies with a 20th-century raison d’etre until the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is no coincidence that they had old-fashioned and time-tested hatred of Arabs and Muslims to fall back on to save the military-industrial complex from the dread peace dividend that many demanded at the end of the Cold War. Thus, Saddam Hussein, who went from being a close U.S. ally who received tons of American weaponry, including chemical weapons, suddenly became the butcher of Baghdad and a global threat. As Canadian troops went overseas for Desert Storm, Canadian Arabs and Muslims saw a sharp uptick in visits to their homes by CSIS and the RCMP.
The ease with which so many people got into the genocidal spirit of Desert Storm in 1991 was attributable to many facets of white supremacy, not least of which was a century of racist tropes courtesy of Hollywood. The late historian Jack Shaheen documented this in Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, an analysis of over 900 films in which moviegoers were told that “all Arabs are Muslims and all Muslims are Arabs…The moviemakers’ distorted lenses have shown Arabs as heartless, brutal, uncivilized, religious fanatics through common depictions of Arabs kidnapping or raping a fair maiden; expressing hatred against the Jews and Christians; and demonstrating a wealth for love and power.”
After the slaughter unleashed during Desert Storm, there was the daily, 12-year-long bombing campaign over Iraq and the most brutal sanctions ever enacted in human history, enforced with a $1-billion investment by the Canadian navy. In concert with other military forces, Canada was complicit in the killing of over 1.5 million Iraqi civilians who desperately needed the medical supplies, water purification systems, and other necessities that were daily turned away.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — a shero to Chrystia Freeland — was famously asked about the effects of U.S. sanctions: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Albright’s reply was perfectly in line with the sickening manifesto left behind by the terrorist in New Zealand: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”
On what moral plane was Albright’s justification for such cruelty any different than the distorted thinking that went into the Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto? How were either of these different from that moment when the U.S., Canada, and a few other nations launched their illegal invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and U.S. general Tommy Franks, asked about the numbers of dead, replied: “‘You know, we don’t do body counts.” The British approach was similar, with Group Captain Al Lockwood telling reporters: ”We don’t do head counts, and we certainly don’t publicize them.”
Meanwhile, our own indifference and silence erases the fact that the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp is still in operation, with plans to build wheelchair accessible cells because Muslim men who have never been charged with or tried for any offence will likely grow old and die there, forgotten by the world. That same indifference means we fail to protest every time the word “Islamic terrorism” is irresponsibly used by the CBC, yet no other religion is thusly described when attacks are carried out in these faiths’ names (indeed, Buddhists have committed large-scale atrocities against Rohingya Muslims, yet Buddhist terrorism is a word yet to be heard on the national airwaves). Media representatives either fail to grasp or simply don’t seem to care that each use of that vile term conflates 1.3 billon practitioners of Islam with the acts of a few who certainly have no understanding of the religion, and also feeds the fire and fury of those who would act “pre-emptively” to make their white supremacist world “safer” by eliminating whatever Muslims they can, as at Christchurch.
Presidential enjoyment of killing
While former U.S. president Barack Obama rightly condemned the Christchurch massacre, he has yet to apologize for his role in the enthusiastic development and execution of his notorious kill lists and the Christchurch-like bloodlust they inspired. As the New York Times famously reported, Obama refused to believe that anyone living in Muslim-majority countries could be viewed as a potential civilian casualty of his hellfire missiles. In setting hugely dangerous precedents that have since been gladly followed by his successor, Obama developed his own racist calculus that “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants… unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
Obama’s 542 drone strikes killed over 4,000 people, and, like the terrorist of Christchurch, he reportedly confided to his aides: “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.”
In Canada, the acceptance of white supremacy is a given in all of this country’s state institutions. We see that everywhere from the global campaign by Chrystia Freeland to release two white Canadians in China (ignoring the case of Canadian Uighur Huseyin Celil) to the ongoing creation of national sacrifice zones where Indigenous people will suffer in the name of “green” energy (Site C, Muskrat Falls, Coastal Gas Link) and the refusal to end racist discrimination against 165,000 Indigenous children despite seven compliance orders to do so from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
When Ottawa’s Abdullah Almalki was wrongfully targeted for torture in Syria by agents of the RCMP, CSIS, Justice Department, and Foreign Affairs Canada (DFAIT), internal Mountie documents complained that they had nothing on him “other than the fact he is an arab running around.” The racism at the heart of desperate attempts to pin something on Almalki led them to nonetheless conclude that he was an “imminent threat” to national security. Almalki’s right to be viewed as a full human being was tossed aside, in the same manner lives at Christchurch were, by those same Canadian agencies when the question arose of what would happen to him should they send questions to Almalki’s Syrian torturers.
An infamous memo from Foreign Affairs concluded, “if such questioning is carried out by the Syrian security services, there is a credible risk that it would involve torture.” Nonetheless, the RCMP sent those questions. As the O’Connor Inquiry into the torture of Canadian Maher Arar found (here also referencing the torture of Canadian Ahmad Abou Elmaati), “On January 10, Staff Sergeant Callaghan advised Staff Sergeant Fiorido that in an interview held in Egypt, Mr. El Maati had stated that the Syrians had tortured him. These allegations did not raise a red flag for Staff Sergeant Fiorido with respect to the questions being sent for Mr. Almalki. ‘[I]t was never a concern because it was never considered.'”
The inquiry into the torture of Almalki, Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin also found that:
“Some of the RCMP members involved in the decision to send questions for Mr. Almalki displayed a dismissive attitude towards the issue of human rights and the possibility of torture. When torture was raised at the September 10, 2002 meeting, some of the RCMP members present disregarded it as merely a one-off comment from a junior DFAIT official. Another RCMP member, who did not attend the September 10 meeting, but played a critical role in facilitating the preparation and sending of questions, told the inquiry that the issue of mistreatment was not on his radar screen.”
Notably, no one has been held legally accountable for their role in the torture of Almalki, Arar, Elmaati, and Nureddin, and most went on to promotions, including Michel Cabana, who became an RCMP Assistant Commissioner. When the victims are Muslims, there is always an aggravating factor to explain away and water down the white people’s crimes; in these cases, former Supreme Court Judge Frank Iacobucci (who does the same dirty work for SNC-Lavalin) called what happened to these men a “mistake” and added that we must be “grateful” to the people who do the ugly work of state security and employ “their best judgment,” even though the record clearly tells a different story.
When it comes to people who are not direct beneficiaries of white supremacy, they never get on the proverbial radar screen of human concern because, as in Christchurch, their lives simply do not matter to the powers that be. In fact, the only time they are on anybody’s radar screen is when they are trying to board planes or live otherwise normal lives. The insistence on continuing to racially profile such large groups of people based on their faith or heritage helps explain why so many white terrorists are able to get away with their massacres, even ones that are advertised well in advance on social media. When all the resources are directed against false bogeymen, it’s easy for the real terrorists to express themselves and act in plain sight.
What Trudeau could do
As the reverberations from Christchurch continued to evolve over the weekend, Justin Trudeau issued a declaration that “we must all confront Islamophobia and work to create a world in which all people — no matter their faith, where they live, or where they were born — can feel safe and secure.” Heartfelt as that sentiment must have been, it needs to be matched by actions that show his government does value Muslim lives and that words like “safe and secure” are not mere rhetorical flourish.
For starters, he could cancel the deportation order that has hung over the head of Ottawa refugee Mohamed Harkat for years. If sent back to Algeria, Harkat faces torture; the very existence of that threat is a torturous limbo itself. You can sign this petition to support Harkat. A similar pending order against Toronto’s Mohammad Mahjoub should also be cancelled, and all those who spent years detained under Islamophobic “security certificates” should be compensated for lives and reputations destroyed.
Similarly, the Trudeau government must stop fighting Montreal’s Abousfian Abdelrazik and provide him with an apology and compensation for the torture he endured in Sudan with very clear CSIS complicity.
Trudeau could also order a public inquiry into the role of his War Minister Harjit Sajjan — as well as other Canadian military officials — into their commission of or participation in activities that could be construed as war crimes. While the U.S. has refused entry to investigators of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Trudeau and Sajjan have spent their whole term in office sweeping under the rug Canada’s bloody legacy in Afghanistan, where hundreds were knowingly transferred to torture. Former MP Craig Scott has sent a voluminous petition to the ICC, and awaits word on whether they will follow up. Trudeau could hasten that process by demanding transparency and full disclosure.
Trudeau and Freeland could make good on their word that they respect rule of law and an international rules-based order by calling for the immediate closure of the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp and also provide compensation to those who wound up there as a result of Canadian “intelligence,” such as Mohamedou Slahi and Djamel Ameziane.
Trudeau could play a stronger role in condemning the ongoing Islamophobic attacks in Quebec, where as usual attempts to legislate what Muslim women wear by the “Ministry of Diversity” are ongoing.
Trudeau must repeal C-51 (the Harper anti-terrorism act that he supported while in opposition) as well as C-59, the extension of C-51 currently in the Senate that continues to further unleash the state security agencies whose racist mandates are used as an excuse to harass Muslims simply because of their faith while ignoring the real threat posed by white supremacists.
Trudeau should intervene in the case of Canadian Muslim Huseyin Celil, still detained 13 years after his arrest and illegal extradition to China. Similarly, Trudeau and Freeland could speak up on behalf of the over 1 million Muslims (a.k.a. Uyghurs) illegally detained in Chinese concentration camps. When called upon to do so, Trudeau refused, declaring: “We recognize nobody is perfect.” Freeland spouted similar rhetoric, claiming, “We who live in freedom do have an obligation to stand up for people who don’t,” but she would not extend that obligation to over 1 million Muslims under lock and key in China.
Trudeau should speak out against the brutal human rights violations of the Egyptian regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which has jailed upwards of 100,000 political prisoners, and also demand the immediate release of recently detained Canadian Yasser Ahmed Albaz.
Trudeau could follow up on Parliament’s Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage recommendation that January 29 be designated as a “National Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamophobia and other forms of religious discrimination.”
Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale could issue very strict guidelines to end racial profiling at mosques and airports alike, stop the dangerous CSIS practice of paying office, mosque, and home visits to those of Muslim faith, end the role of RCMP and CSIS informants creating sinister plots designed to entrap vulnerable Muslims, and also pull the Harper-era torture memos that greenlight state security agencies in this country from trading information with overseas torturers (a policy that disproportionately affects Muslims as well).
What we could do
These are just a few of the things Trudeau and his crew could be doing. While he chooses to do the photogenic thing — visiting a mosque — his fine words must be matched with actions if he is serious about preventing the next Christchurch. The same goes for the rest of us who, once the shock dies down, tend to move on to “other things” while forgetting that the structures of white supremacy that enable and promote Christchurch are functioning at full speed. Ultimately, we need to throw many a monkey wrench into the operations of white supremacy and dismantle it as part of our daily work, and not only think about it when one of the system’s true believers goes on a rampage.
The late, much-missed peace activist and priest Daniel Berrigan once wrote about a different kind of war, in words that are as sharp and concise as they are challenging. They provide us something to think about and act upon as we resist the white supremacist crusades of our time:
“We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price. And because we want the peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, is total — but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial. So a whole will and a whole heart and a whole national life bent toward war prevail over the velleities of peace. ‘Of course, let us have the peace,’ we cry, ‘but at the same time let us have normalcy, let us lose nothing, let our lives stand intact, let us know neither prison nor ill repute nor disruption of ties.’ And because we must encompass this and protect that, and because at all costs — at all costs — our hopes must march on schedule, and because it is unheard of that in the name of peace a sword should fall, disjoining that fine and cunning web that our lives have woven, because it is unheard of that good men and women should suffer injustice or families be sundered or good repute be lost — because of this we cry peace, peace, and there is no peace. There is no peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war — at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.”
Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. ‘national security’ profiling for many years.
Photo: julian meehan/Flickr
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