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By Christian Christensen
The sediment of hatred and discrimination directed at Muslims slowly builds up over time and it is not only the most hateful and dark places online or in the world that lay the groundwork for explosions of hatred and violence such as this
The Christchurch terrorists, who earlier today took the lives of nearly 50 people at two mosques, were clearly consumed by both racism and hatred of Muslims. One posted a lengthy “manifesto” on white nationalism before he committed the crime. They spent significant time online, and were perhaps “radicalized” in chat-rooms and via social media.
In other words: we may make ourselves feel better if we think of their lifeworld as being made up of ideologies and spaces far outside of the norm. That their thoughts and ideas were of the type most citizens would never entertain, expressed in places most would never visit. That these thoughts and ideas would eventually be put into action in ways that violate the most basic notions of humanity and decency. Thoughts and acts of barbarity, divorced from civilized society.
Yet, as horrific and inhumane as these violent spaces may be, we see the shadows and ripples of the bigotry and discrimination they contain in far more everyday practices and places. On our regular television channels. In our mainstream newspapers. In our films. In our schools. In our politics.
Muslim refugees seeking to flee war are described in terms reserved for animals (“swarms”) or natural disasters (“floods”). When an act of violence is committed by a member of the Muslim community, the entire community is held to be collectively responsible and asked to condemn that violence…or else be judged complicit. Muslim pieces of clothing become items to ban. Muslim bodies become items to ban, with legislation stopping Muslims from even entering countries. Their ability to “integrate” is questioned, even when most Muslims are hard-working and valuable members of the community. When Muslims are elected to serve the public in political office, even then their allegiance is a topic for “debate.”
It is outlets such as the Daily Mail in the UK and Fox News in the US, together with a band of anti-immigrant and xenophobic websites, that have spearheaded these popular attacks on Muslims, portraying them as less than trustworthy, less than citizens and less than human. They are portrayed as people whose wearing of the hijab is sufficient proof that they are against, for example, the US Constitution.
Then, when acts of extreme violence such as Christchurch are committed against Muslims, these same outlets, their spokespeople, and the politicians whose anti-immigrant rhetoric they so willingly record and relay, throw up their hands in faux confused anguish, wondering with Thoughts-And-Prayers where all of the hate comes from. Of course, once the pain and attention has subsided, the cycle will begin again.
Even here, however, it is all too easy to allow the anti-immigration press, in conjunction with online forums and social media, to become alibis for a much broader process of vilification across all media, including those outlets now self-identifying as part of an anti-Trump resistance.
People may roll their eyes at the mention of the US/UK occupation of Iraq, thinking it was all such a long time ago, but consider the long-term effects of that occupation. How the destruction of the country, and the killing of thousands of innocent civilians, was made possible largely by the fact that those citizens were predominantly Muslim. Would the US so willingly and easily have killed that many Christians? How these thousands of deaths became footnotes for even the “progressive” press, forgotten once the sexiness of the televisual bombing of Baghdad had ended. How, ironically, we failed to ask ourselves as nations about our collective responsibility for these killings, committed in our names and with our tax dollars. And, how Muslim deaths remained footnotes under Obama and now Trump, with regular drone attacks killing scores in Yemen and Pakistan generating little or no coverage. The dead, because of their religion and poverty, just not worth our valuable time. And, if they were not worth it “There,” why would they now be worth it “Here”?
Or, when politics are covered in Europe by the supposedly “quality” press, think about how so-called “integration” is always framed as a one-way street, where the onus is entirely on the new arrivals, and where domestic racism and discrimination apparently play little or no role in how immigrants adapt to their new homes. These are issues often couched in the language of quasi-civility, but it is a quasi-civility that is stifling in its soft violence.
These are all factors that add to the sediment of hatred and discrimination that slowly builds up over time, laying the groundwork for explosions of hatred and violence. One tweet, one TV show, one newspaper article does not lead most people to kill.
As I wrote online earlier today after hearing what had happened: “It is a steady, daily flow of stereotypes, vilification and dehumanization that create an environment where violence is easier. Where a sense that those killed were ‘asking for it’ by their very existence.”
Christian Christensen, American in Sweden, is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrChristensen