How the far right still threatens New Zealand, a year on from the Christchurch attacks

The country’s failure to challenge the roots of fascist ideology has emboldened extremists.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The days after the atrocity were full of silences. Catches in the breath. Slaughter defeated language and smashed comprehension. It made emotions hollow: blank disbelief, numb rage, immobilising grief. A few short slogans were salvaged from the hush. They provided a common language of mourning, the necessary patois of pain. “They are us”; the gentle Islamic greeting “salaam alaikum”; the injunction “never again”.

What was unleashed on 15 March 2019 stunned New Zealand. A fascist, strapped into black combat gear and carrying several firearms, entered the Al Noor mosque then the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch during Friday prayers and shot worshippers, many of them migrants. Such barbarism defied some of New Zealand’s comforting myths: that the nation was a serene and tolerant multicultural haven, that what happens out there cannot happen here. It rent the nation from its bearings.

The trial of the alleged killer, Brenton Tarrant, is looming this June. He stands charged of 51 counts of murder, 40 of attempted murder and one terrorism offence (Tarrant has pleaded not guilty). Ahead of the anniversary, however, the shock of reliving and remembering the attack is mingled with the shock of realisation that members of the far right are unafraid and undaunted. They sneered at the nationwide demonstrations of solidarity – the rallies in public squares, the spontaneous joining of hands around other mosques. They scoffed at Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s humility before the widows. Far from being intimidated, the far right was galvanised by the attack. The atrocity gave them license, imprimatur, inspiration. The bodies of the victims were not yet cold when fascists began turning an executioner into a saint. 

The government’s response last year seemed to be swift, decisive, and earnest. New Zealand’s incumbent Labour Party instantly introduced a ban on semiautomatic weapons and launched an initiative that sought to bring social media titans to heel for fostering extremism. By her sensitive example, Ardern set the tone of commemoration. “Speak the names of those who were lost rather than the man who took them,” Ardern instructed parliament four days after 15 March. “[He] may seek notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing, not even his name.” It was an admirable sentiment, and her scorn was mirrored by the chief censor’s outlawing of Tarrant’s manifesto and the live-streamed video of the pogrom. 

But this is silence of a different kind. An unhelpful kind. Such proscriptions have created a kind of vacuum in New Zealand society – a gap where serious consideration and analysis should be. The press has systematically failed to accurately identify the far right, either in New Zealand or internationally. The word “fascist” is never heard, either in relation to the killer himself (an idoliser of British fascist Oswald Mosley and Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik) or the wider movement. Instead, they use allusive and sometimes outright misleading descriptors: “racist”, or occasionally “white supremacist”, “identitarian” or “nationalist”. The worst cliché of all is “lone wolf”. All of these vastly different terms are often used interchangeably. 

Indeed, there has been no serious attempt to dissect fascist ideology, its borrowed culture war language, apocalyptic environmentalism, and accelerationist desires. And more precisely, there is little interrogation of how the bloody colonial history of New Zealand (and Australia) provides a unique gateway to fascism. For active fascists, the century of plunder and oppression directed against the Māori population of Aotearoa (the indigenous name for New Zealand) is not a shameful past that must be atoned for, but a model for a desired future genocide.  

On the surface, this may seem like the struggle of a small nation alien to radical politics to negotiate the traumatic wake of slaughter. But it is indicative of a wider confusion: in New Zealand, 15 March is talked about as if it were a perversity, a once-in-a-generation catastrophe, an exogenous shock unlikely to be repeated. 

If the attack was an aberration, if one cannot bring oneself to call the threat by its right name, it removes the responsibility to studiously work for its eradication. It makes the fascists feel safer, more willing to spraypaint swastikas on public buildings, vandalise the electorate offices of minority MPs, and leaflet and poster university campuses with impunity – all of which has been done, and worse. A few weeks ago, a member of Action Zealandia – a fascist organisation posing as a boy scout activist clique – photographed himself wearing a skull mask, sitting in a car outside the Al-Noor mosque. 

As the first anniversary of 15 March has approached, security services began raiding members of Action Zealandia (AZ), some of whom are reported to have been communicating with and organising alongside other fascist parties in Scandinavia, Australia and the United States. AZ is reported to have at least one (current or former) soldier in the New Zealand military

However, the responsibility for suppressing fascism cannot be left to the security services alone. They may be able to prevent another 15 March and have the ability to smash cells (as the dismantling of neo-Nazi group The Base in the US has shown), but legal suppression is no substitute for the lasting defeat of the ideology which powers it. Judicial tactics are only one part of a wider political confrontation. 

Nor can that confrontation, that creation of a resolutely anti-fascist culture, be left to the minority communities who are most threatened. The assumption is that they must draw attention to their own assassins, and do so in the face of widespread dismissal. Before March 15, New Zealand’s tiny Muslim communities were protesting their own surveillance by the security services, urging them to instead look at the imminent menace outside their doors. As Anjum Rahman, the brave spokesperson of the Islamic Women’s Council, has incisively warned: “It's all very well to come and lay flowers at the mosque and have a cry and a hug. But what are you actually going to do to counter fascism in this country?”

Like Breivik before him, Tarrant intends to portray himself as both abject victim and willing martyr, to wield proceedings as a bullhorn. That trial will be a measure of the New Zealand’s fortitude, its ability to discern propaganda from irony, and to mobilise against those who would attempt to emulate the shootings. 

There is another duty, another way of honouring the survivors, their families and the dead: to abandon that pained silence and give no inch to fascism. 

James Robins is an award-winning journalist and historian. His first book, “When We Dead Awaken: Australia, New Zealand, and the Armenian Genocide”, is out in September 2020

Free trial CSS