White Activism Is Crucial In The Wake of Right-Wing Terrorism
By Laura El Alam
The vicious terrorist attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15 were a punch to the gut for peace-loving people all over the world. Only the most heartless of individuals could feel nonchalant about 70 innocent children, women, and men being killed or maimed mercilessly as they prayed. However, even a brief glimpse at comments on social media confirms that among the outpouring of sadness and shock, there are, indeed, numerous sick individuals who glory in Brenton Tarrant’s deliberately evil actions. White supremacy, in all its horrific manifestations, is clearly alive and well.
In an enlightening article in The Washington Post, R. Joseph Parrott explains, “Recently, global white supremacy has been making a comeback, attracting adherents by stoking a new unease with changing demographics, using an expanded rhetoric of deluge and cultivating nostalgia for a time when various white governments ruled the world (and local cities). At the fringes, longing for lost white regimes forged a new global iconography of supremacy.”
“Modern white supremacy is an international threat that knows no borders, being exported and globalized like never before,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said. “The hatred that led to violence in Pittsburgh and Charlottesville is finding new adherents around the world. Indeed, it appears that this attack was not just focused on New Zealand; it was intended to have a global impact.” (link)
Many people want to sweep this terrifying reality under the rug, among them the U.S. President. Asked by a reporter if he saw an increase globally in the threat of white nationalism, Trump replied, “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
However, experts in his own country disagree. A March 17 article in NBC News claims that, “The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned in a 2017 intelligence bulletin that white supremacist groups had carried out more attacks in the U.S. than any other domestic extremist group over the past 16 years. And officials believe they are likely to carry out more.”
Although they may be unaware of — or in denial about –the growing influence of white supremacist ideology, the vast majority of white people do not support violent acts of terrorism. However, many of them are surprisingly, hurtfully silent when acts of terrorism are committed by non-Muslims, with Muslims as the victims.
When a shooter yells “Allahu akbar” before killing innocent people, public furor is obvious and palpable. “Terror attacks by Muslims receive 375% more press attention,” states a headline in The Guardian, citing a study by the University of Alabama. The perpetrator is often portrayed as a “maniac” and a representative of an inherently violent faith. In the wake of an attack committed by a Muslim, everyone from politicians to religious leaders to news anchors calls on Muslim individuals and organizations to disavow terrorism. However, when white men kill Muslims en masse, there is significantly less outrage. People try to make sense of the shooters’ vile actions, looking into their past for trauma, mental illness, or addiction that will somehow explain why they did what they did. Various news outlets humanized Brenton Tarrant with bold headlines that labeled him an “angelic boy who grew into an evil far-right mass killer,” an “ordinary white man,” “obsessed with video games,” and even “badly picked on as a child because he was chubby.” Those descriptions, which evoke sympathy rather than revulsion, are reserved for white mass murderers.
The media’s spin on terrorist acts shapes public reaction. Six days after the Christchurch attacks, millions were not currently taking to the streets to protest right-wing extremism. World leaders are not linking arms in a dramatic march against white supremacist terrorism. And no one is demanding that white men, in general, disavow terrorism.
But that would be unreasonable, right? To expect all white men to condemn the vile actions of an individual they don’t even know? Unreasonable though it may be, such expectations are placed on Muslims all the time.
As a white woman, I am here to argue that white people — and most of all white-led institutions — are exactly the ones who need to speak up now, loudly and clearly condemning right-wing terrorism, disavowing white supremacy, and showing support of Muslims generally. We need to do this even if we firmly believe we’re not part of the problem. We need to do this even if our first reaction is to feel defensive (“But I’m not a bigot!”), or if discussing race is uncomfortable to us. We need to do it even if we are Muslims who fully comprehend that our beloved Prophet said, “There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab, nor for a non-Arab over an Arab. Neither is the white superior over the black, nor is the black superior over the white — except by piety.”
While we might not hold hatred in our hearts individually, we do hold the power, institutionally. If we truly care about people of color, peace, and justice, we must put our fragile egos aside and avoid “not me-ism.” The fact is, if we have white skin, we have grown up in a world that favors us in innumerable ways, both big and small. Those of us with privilege, position, and authority are the very ones who have the greatest responsibility to make major changes to society. Sadly, sometimes it takes a white person to make other white people listen and change.
White religious leaders, politicians, and other people with influence and power need to speak up and condemn the New Zealand attacks publically and unequivocally, even if we do not consider ourselves remotely affiliated with right-wing extremists or murderous bigots. Living our comfortable lives, refusing to discuss or challenge institutionalized racism, xenophobia, and rampant Islamophobia, and accepting the status quo are all a tacit approval of the toxic reality that we live in.
Institutional power is the backbone of racism. Throughout history, governments and religious institutions have enforced racist legislation, segregation, xenophobic policies, and the notion that white people are inherently superior to people of color. These institutions continue to be controlled by white people, and if white leaders and white individuals truly believe in justice for all, we must do much more than “be a nice person.” We must use our influence to change the system and to challenge injustice.
White ministers need to decry racial violence and anti-immigrant sentiment from their pulpits, making it abundantly clear that their religion does not advocate racism, xenophobia, or Islamophobia. They must condemn Brenton Tarrant’s abhorrent actions in clear terms, in case any member of their flock sees him as some sort of hero. Politicians and other leaders need to humanize and defend Muslims while expressing zero tolerance for extremists who threaten the lives or peace of their fellow citizens — all citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs, immigration status, or ethnicity. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is an excellent role model for world leaders; she has handled her nation’s tragedy with beautiful compassion, wisdom, and crystal clear condemnation of the attacker and his motives. Similarly, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau demonstrated superb leadership and a humane, loving response to the victims in Christchurch (and Muslims in general) in his recent address to the House of Commons.
Indeed, when they put their mind to it, people can make quite an impactful statement against extremist violence. In January 2015 when Muslim gunmen killed 17 people in Paris, there was an immediate global reaction. The phrase “Je suis Charlie” trended on social media and in fact became one of the most popular hashtags in the history of Twitter. Approximately 3.4 million people marched in anti-terrorism rallies throughout France, and 40 world leaders — most of whom were white — marched alongside a crowd of over 1 million in Paris.
While several political and religious leaders have made public statements condemning the terrorist attacks in Christchurch, there is much less activism on the streets and even on social media following this particular atrocity. Many Muslims who expected words of solidarity, unity, or comfort from non-Muslim family or friends were disappointed by the general lack of interest, even after a mosque was burned in California with a note left in homage to New Zealand.
In a public Facebook post, Shibli Zaman of Texas echoed many Muslims’ feelings when he wrote, “One of the most astonishing things to me that I did not expect — but, in hindsight, realize that I probably should have — is how few of my non-Muslim friends have reached out to me to express condolences and sorrow.” His post concluded, “But I have learned that practically none of my non-Muslim friends care.”
Ladan Rashidi of California posted, simply, “The Silence. Your silence is deafening. And hurtful.” Although her words were brief and potentially enigmatic, her Muslim Facebook friends instantly understood what she was talking about and commiserated with her.
Why do words and actions matter so much in the wake of a tragedy?
Because they have the power to heal and to unite. Muslims feel shattered right now, and the lack of widespread compassion or global activism only heightens the feeling that we are unwanted and “other.” If 50 innocent Muslims die from terrorism, and the incident does not spark universal outrage, but one Muslim pulls the trigger and the whole world erupts in indignation, then what is that saying about society’s perception of the value of Muslim lives?
To the compassionate non-Muslims who have delivered flowers, supportive messages, and condolences to the Muslim community in New Zealand and elsewhere, I thank you sincerely. You renew our hope in humanity.
To the white people who care enough to acknowledge their privilege and use it to the best of their ability to bring about justice and peace, I salute you. Please persevere in your noble goals. Please continue to learn about institutionalized racism and attempt to make positive changes. Do not shy away from discussions about race and do not doubt or silence people of color when they explain their feelings. Our discomfort, our defensiveness, and our professed “colorblindness” should not dominate the conversation every time we hear the word “racism.” We should listen more than speak and put our egos to the side. I am still learning to do this, and while it is not easy, it is crucial to true understanding and transformation.
To the rest of you who have remained silent, for whatever reason: I ask you to look inside yourself and think about whether you are really satisfied with a system that values some human lives so highly over others. If you are not a white supremacist, nor a bigot, nor a racist — if you truly oppose these ideologies — then you must do more than remain in your comfortable bubble. Speak up. Spread love. Fix problems on whatever level you can, to the best of your ability. If you are in a leadership position, the weight on your shoulders is heavy; do not shirk your duty. To be passive, selfish, apathetic, or lazy is to enable hatred to thrive, and then, whether you intended to or not, you are on the side of the extremists. Which side are you on? Decide and act.
“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case, he is justly accountable to them for their injury.” — John Stuart Mill, On Liberty.
For the past decade, writer Laura El Alam has been a regular contributor to SISTERS Magazine, Al Jumuah, and About Islam. Her articles frequently tackle issues like Muslim American identity, women’s rights in Islam, support of converts/reverts, and racism. A graduate of Grinnell College, she currently lives in Massachusetts with her husband and five children. Laura recently started a Facebook page, The Common Sense Convert, to support Muslim women, particularly those who are new to the deen.