Today’s news from New Zealand is gut-wrenchingly sad. Our hearts break not only for those murdered and for their loved ones, but also for our Muslim brothers and sisters everywhere who will today feel even more frightened and unsafe than they did yesterday.
Our sadness today should be matched only by our rage. A pox on all our houses. We have allowed anti-Muslim prejudice to grow across western democracies to a level where this attack was inevitable. How dare the politicians and media whose rhetoric has enabled anti-Muslim prejudice to become mainstream cry their crocodile tears over the bodies that their self-interested words helped to slay. How dare we not be doing more to hold those who spread prejudice and fear to account.
Earlier this week I was part of a delegation to Srebrenica organised by UK NGO Remembering Srebrenica. We visited the graves of the more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who were rounded up and murdered by Serb forces while the world did everything in its power to look the other way. The failure to protect Bosnia’s Muslims should be at the heart of our collective memory, a constant reminder that when left unchecked, the manipulation of division and fear has catastrophic results. And yet, how many people know that next week Radovan Karadzic, chief political architect of the Bosnian genocide, will finally face justice for charges of genocide and war crimes?
Perhaps more people will know about it now because one of the perpetrators of last night’s massacre in Christchurch appears to have played a song praising Karadzic as he drove to one of the mosques. But what a terrible trigger to refocus our attention.
It is easy when met with such barbarity to cite evil as its cause. But the unpalatable truth is that many of those who commit these dreadful acts have come to believe what they are doing is right, that they are protecting their group, their country, their loved ones from an outside threat. It is what makes acts of identity-based violence different to other forms of violence. Hate-based attack is never spontaneous because hate is something constructed, learnt, and normalised.
Today anti-Muslim hate is rising. Recent research from Protection Approaches, an NGO, showed more than 31 per cent of the British population believe Muslims are a threat to Britain. That’s 16.5 million people over the age of 16. Let that sink in. People who hold these views come from across the socio-economic spectrum although the young are far less prejudiced than the old.
In the coming days, many will say that social media is to blame for rising hate, that it has allowed those who hold dangerous views to perpetuate rapid radicalisation. Many will say the way to defeat prejudice, hatred and extremism is to flood online and offline spaces with counter narratives – positive messages about communities who are often targeted, in a largescale, low cost bid to change hearts and minds. Except it doesn’t work.
Articulating a positive message of inclusivity is important but it must be supported by substance. It doesn’t do for our Minister for Communities to simply honour each July the victims of Srebrenica; if we truly want to protect our Muslim communities, community building must once again become the priority. Greater emphasis must be given to inclusive programmes that build capacity and increase representation of all who are and feel marginalised. And we must resource long term education programmes to help people of all ages analyse information and think critically about rumours, stereotypes, and other prejudices.
We all see signs of worsening social disintegration, political polarisation, and rising prejudice. We owe it to the victims in Christchurch and to our own Muslim communities, to each contribute, whoever we are, to building diverse, inclusive, caring societies.
Andy Fearn is co-executive director of UK-based NGO Protection Approaches.