Shortly after the GREASE project officially began, the world was shocked by a violent attack, the nature of which was directly relevant to our research. On March 15, 2019, a lone gunman attacked worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand killing 51 people and injuring 40. The attack fueled public debate about religious diversity, violent radicalism and governance – all subjects being addressed by the GREASE research project. Acknowledging the event’s relevance, consortium members agreed to reflect on the significance and implications of the Christchurch attack from their individual, regional perspectives. The resulting essays are published below as the GREASE Blog.

Building on our initial blog effort, the GREASE consortium has since teamed up with a related project called BRaVE to launch a joint blog on a much larger scale using the OpenDemocracy platform. This ongoing blog – titled Global Extremes – reaches tens of thousands of readers around the world.

Any opinions expressed in GREASE blog posts are attributable solely to the author and are not necessarily shared by other consortium members, their institutions, or the European Commission.

The New Zealand Mosque Shootings

GREASE Blog Post #1

19 March 2019

Topic: The NZ Mosque Shootings

Professor Michele Grossman – Deakin University, Australia

What significance do the New Zealand mosque shootings have for debates concerning religious diversity and violent radicalisation in the Asia-Pacific region? 

The only surprise for Australians who keep their finger on the pulse of social and political dynamics in the region is that the horrific Christchurch terrorist attack occurred in New Zealand – in 2018 ranked at 114/138 (‘very low’) on the Global Terrorism Index – rather than in Australia itself. 

No one, least of all in Australia’s Muslim communities, is surprised that an event like this has finally occurred, because all the signs that it was coming were there: measurable rises in Islamophobia and religion-based hate crimes, increasingly reckless political dog-whistling aimed at Muslims and at Islam and aired through both conventional and social media, and the increased mobilisation and mainstreaming of far-right commentary and protest that only a decade ago could barely be heard rustling in the bushes on the nation’s backblocks.

Australian Muslims have experienced increasing precarity in their social and cultural sense of national belonging, and their ability to withstand repeated public political onslaughts against both their faith and, in many cases, their refugee status, has frequently been tested to the limit. 

Australians are no strangers to involvement in terrorist activities. In recent times, about 110 Australians have been involved as foreign fighters in relation to Islamic State, Al Qaeda and associated Islamist terror groups. They have also featured in a number of recent executed or disrupted domestic terrorist plots since about 2009.

In one sense, Christchurch does not disrupt this, because it is an Australian citizen, Brenton Tarrant, who is responsible for the Christchurch massacre – he is no different to other ‘foreign fighters’ mobilising in response to a self-declared war in countries not their own. But in another sense, Christchurch changes everything. In particular, it alters permanently the complacent assumption made by many politicians and ordinary people that terrorism can be equated exclusively with Islamist motivations and aspirations. 

Tarrant’s avowed fealty to white supremacist ideology; his reliance on poisonous yet historically familiar narratives of invasion, pollution, ethno-statism and existential conflict in relation to non-European peoples, and his canny and sophisticated use of social media –just like Islamic State – to amplify the messaging and impact of his violent action reveal that it is toxic narratives of existential threat and avowed victimhood, wherever they may fall on the political spectrum, that underlie all appeals to and justifications for violent extremism. 

The dangers posed by this, and made manifest in the slaughter in Christchurch, mean we can no longer tolerate the category error of limiting this to assumptions about Islamism, and Australia, like other countries, will need to recalibrate, strengthen and broaden its social cohesion and counter-terrorism policy and strategy settings accordingly.

One more point I think it’s crucial to make: For those inclined to frame this as an instance of ‘reciprocal radicalisation’ (i.e., a right-wing-extremist response to Islamist terrorism), this is a grave oversimplification. The white supremacist arguments and rationales advanced by Tarrant in his manifesto are old narratives – stretching back historically into at least the 19th century – that significantly predate modern Islamist terrorism by decades if not centuries. They are far more race-based then religion-based, though at times in such narratives religion and race are conflated.

What opportunities (or risks) do you see in addressing issues raised by the New Zealand mosque shootings?

Western societies across many regions, including Australia as well as Europe and North America, have created increasingly permissive environments for deep social divisions and hostilities to be chronically inflamed rather than tempered or ameliorated. The events in Christchurch offer the chance to re-examine this permissiveness in relation to responsible political leadership, media sensationalism and bias, and a stronger balance between freedom and regulation of social media and the internet. We routinely limit the abuses and harms caused by modes of speech and behaviour in many other domains of social and political life, and there is no reason why digital environments should be exempt from such efforts.

In Australia, it is also an opportunity to re-connect with and nurture the fundamental decency of many ‘everyday’ citizens, who right across the nation have shown enormous compassion and support to their Muslim neighbours, friends, colleagues and total strangers in the aftermath of the Christchurch terrorism event. This outpouring of condolence and comfort defies on many levels the demonisation of Islam and immigrants that is such frequent fodder for media and political commentary.

What action can be taken by stakeholders at any level to prevent this incident from being duplicated or exploited for nefarious purposes?

Lone actor attacks of this kind are notoriously difficult to anticipate or detect. Police and government measures, for example through surveillance or ‘watch lists’ of persons of interest, cannot be relied on in isolation and will never be able to detect the full potential array of specific emerging threats or copycat actions that Christchurch and events like it may fuel. It is false hope to assume that governments can be held wholly responsible for the emergence of terror linked to a range of flashpoints in our midst. 

Most important is that people in local communities are willing to come forward, to each other and to authorities, about concerns they may have in relation to someone near to them, and to avoid being mere ‘bystanders’ who think this is someone else’s problem. Equally important is to actively live the values of social and civic embrace for everyone in our communities and to avoid the sterile exclusivism of toxic identity politics. Finally, government stakeholders can do more to consider legislation that limits or eliminates access to the means to perpetrate violent action and the kinds of social influence that enable it, whether through measures like gun control or stronger media and social messaging and regulation of social media platforms. 

Professor Michele Grossman is Professor of Cultural Studies and Research Chair in Diversity and Community Resilience, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia.

GREASE Blog Post #2

Topic: The NZ Mosque Shootings

20 March 2019

Mehdi Lahlou – University Mohammed V, Morocco

A young Australian terrorist attacks two mosques in New Zealand, killing 50 people and injuring dozens. He does this during midday prayer on Friday, the most sacred prayer in the Muslim world. What was he trying to achieve? What led him to commit this heinous act? And what lessons can we begin to draw from this?

The attacker – who was licenced to carry weapons and used two semi-automatic rifles and two shotguns at the time of his attack – may have wanted to show that Muslims cannot be safe anywhere in the world; that a globalized war is being carried out against them – not just in Europe, North America and Asia, but from now on in Oceania too, more particularly in New Zealand, one of the most peaceful countries in the world and one of the most distant from the zones of political, religious or migratory turbulences. 

It appears there are strong ties between the criminal action of Brenton Tarrant in Christchurch and the supremacist and racist theories conveyed in the U.S. by the American extreme right movement (alt-right). That movement is represented in Europe partly by Steve Bannon, the former advisor of U.S. president Donald Trump who probably also advises the Rassemblement National in France and probably the Italian far right party of Matteo Salvini . 

The terrorist seems to have been inspired partly by a conspiracy theory about white population replacement – the notion that the populations of countries in the North – which are supposed to be White and Christian – are being replaced by Muslim populations coming primarily from the Maghreb and the Middle-East, thanks to movements of migrants and refugees in recent years. This is despite the fact that the Muslims represent less than one per cent of the whole New Zealand population, that is to say 50,000 people out of 5 million.

So, what lessons might we possibly begin to draw from this horrible crime, just a few days after it occurred? Here are some suggestions on how to approach that question:

  1. Seriously analyse the impact of population replacement theory on radicalisation within certain fringes of extremist movements in parts of Europe, America, Neo Zealand and Australia. 
  2. Scrutinise the ideological and political motivations behind the refusal of certain governments – such as the United States, Hungary, Israel, Austria and Poland – to sign the Global Compact for Migrations as it was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations during the summer of 2018 and by the Intergovernmental Summit on Migration organized at the end of the same year in Marrakech, in Morocco. 
  3. Consider that terrorists are feeding off of one another, that their engine is powered by hatred of the other, and that this hatred becomes more vicious in a world where international agreements are not respected, where the language of war replaces that of diplomacy and where a “might is right” mentality dominates relations between people and nations.

Mehdi Lahlou is Professor of Economics at the National Institute of Statistics and Applied Economics (INSEA) in Rabat, Morocco, and an associated professor at University Mohammed V (Rabat).

GREASE Blog Post #3

Topic: The NZ Mosque Shootings

21 March 2019

Zawawi Ibrahim – Strategic Information and Research Development Center, Malaysia.

The first thing that the Christchurch killings reveal to us is that no matter where you are in this world, you are no longer safe from acts of terrorism. The incident also reveals to us that in communities where there has not been any discord or history of conflict on the basis of religious/cultural diversity or its immigrant population, all it takes is an act of ‘lone wolf’ terrorism to instil a general fear of terrorism. 

Another important lesson to be learnt from this is that violent acts of non-Muslim extremism – such as those motivated by white-nationalist-supremacy ideology – are no less ‘terrorist ‘ in nature than those waged by Muslim extremism.

The response to this particular incident, however, also shows that most people do not condone any form of violence or terrorism waged in the name of their religion or nationality. This is especially significant for those who indulge in stereotyping or homogenizing terrorist discourses relating to a particular religion. Moreover, the NZ case shows how forthright political leadership that stands up for minority communities and religion is crucial to restore faith in the system of governance.

Zawawi Ibrahim is affiliated with Malaysia’s Strategic Information and Research Development Center and is currently working as Professor of Anthropology in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences and the Institute of Asian Studies at University Brunei Darussalam (UBD). 

GREASE Blog Post #4

22 March 2019

Topic: The NZ Mosque Shootings

Anna Triandafyllidou – European University Institute, Italy

The massacre at the Christchurch mosques in New Zealand has brought home very difficult memories of terrorism and violent extremism in Europe, both far-right and jihadist in nature. It’s been just over a year since a far-right supporter shot and killed a Senegalese man in my current hometown of Florence, Italy. The victim, Idy Diene, was killed just because he was black. That happened on March 5th, 2018. And just yesterday an Italian citizen of Senegalese origin hijacked a school bus in Milan, threatening to kill the 50 children on board. His apparent aim was to ‘vindicate’ the people who have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in search of protection or simply a better life.

Europe has grown increasingly polarised in recent years. This polarisation is both socio-economic and political-ideological. The 2008 financial crisis and a decade of austerity have increased economic insecurity, precarious work, welfare gaps and most notably anger among both working and lower middle class people across Europe. This has combined with a growing mistrust towards political elites and discontent with parties that have dominated the post-1989 political landscape. 

The influx of refugees from Asia and Africa during the last 5 years in particularly has further increased popular anxieties. These were quickly manipulated by far-right and populist parties for electoral gains, leading to a significant rise of xenophobia, racism and overall anti-immigrant and particularly anti-Muslim hostility. We have thus witnessed the mainstreaming of far-right ideas and racist discourses offered to the electorate as a new version of ‘sincere’ political discourse or telling the ‘truth as it is’. 

While these parties have not invited people to take the law into their hands directly, many statements of political leaders – such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini or Hungary’s Viktor Orbán – have expressed disrespect towards the rule of law and democracy. These vital principals are deemed less important than a presumed ‘national interest’ of ‘defending’ the country from ‘invaders’ ‘Islamisation’. They argue that there is nothing wrong in violating the law if the reason for it is ‘defending one’s own people’. 

Unfortunately, such discourse fosters polarisation in society, breaks down social cohesion and eventually provides a breeding ground for violence and terrorism. Such discourse produces legislation that undermines democracy and the independence of the judiciary, as witnessed recently in Poland, Hungary and Italy. It also breeds both far-right and jihadist extremism and leads to tragic events like those of Paris in 2015, Brussels and Berlin in 2016, and like those of Christchurch in March of this year. 

The victims are always normal citizens, of very diverse backgrounds, of different religions and ethnic origins and of different nationalities. Indeed the enemy of extremists is neither Islam, nor Judaism, nor Christianity nor the West nor the East for that matter. The enemy is democracy, the rule of law and social cohesion, justice and solidarity. 

Killings like those at Utøya in Norway in 2011, at the nightclub in Orlando, Florida in 2016, at the Quebec city mosque in 2017, at the Tree of Life Synagogue at Pittsburgh in 2018, or the bombs and shootings in Paris in 2015 and in Brussels in 2016, the lorry massacres in Nice and Berlin in 2016, the bombings at the Sousse in Tunisia in 2015, and the latest tragic shooting at the mosques of Christchurch in New Zealand – they all have one thing in common: It’s not about opposing or supporting a religion or culture. It’s the desire to kill. To impose one’s will through violence. To spread panic. To attack democracy. When such events take place, we should make no mistake. What we need is not to keep minorities under surveillance or to create a climate of mistrust and prejudice. The answer to these events is to build strong and resilient communities that prevent young people from falling prey to extremism, communities that channel discontent into democratic participation and regular political action.

Professor Anna Triandafyllidou holds a Robert Schuman Chair at the Global Governance Programme of the European University Institute (Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies) where she directs the Cultural Pluralism Research Area.

GREASE Blog Post #5

23 March 2019

Topic: The NZ Mosque Shootings

Vivian Gerrand – Deakin University, Australia

Building Resilience to Violent Extremism and Polarisation after the Christchurch Terrorist Attack

On March 15th I was with my daughter participating in the Melbourne School Strike for Climate. Stopping for a coffee after the rally, I checked Facebook on my phone. A post from a Muslim American friend on the other side of the world alerted me to an attacker in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. He’d seen the perpetrator’s livestream video and could not bear to repost it. While children around the world were focused on protesting for climate action, a young white supremacist was committing a massacre. And he was doing it in a remote part of the world that was on low alert for terrorism. We would later learn that the perpetrator, an Australian citizen, had killed 51 people and injured around 50 more, many of them seriously.

As New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern has emphasised in her eloquent response to the tragedy, the gunman’s actions remind us that violent extremism is not the domain of any one group of people. Acts of terrorism in the Global North are typically tied in tabloid media to Muslim-background minorities. But the Christchurch massacre reminds us that terrorism is also the province of the far right, something that has received comparatively little attention. Indeed, incendiary hate rhetoric of the far right is regularly given a platform by  prominent world leaders politicians, and a media that have been conditioned by assumptions of white innocence.

Radicalisation and resilience

Extremist groups of all stripes make a range of promises in order to seduce and recruit people. To be effective, there must be an existing vulnerability in an environment conducive to their messaging. Those recruited typically perceive themselves as victims. Lack of employment, purpose and future-orientation often feed this vulnerability. These ‘push’ factors make it easier for violent extremist groups to recruit people with their unique selling points or ‘pull’ factors. Some are attracted by what appears to be an offer of restored entitlement or dignity. In the case of recruitment to violent extremist groups such as the   Incel movement, recruits may see themselves as victims of feminism. Other groups deploy white ethno-nationalistic and anti-Muslim  narratives on social media that claim white Europeans are under existential threat. This vision ignores – and is in direct opposition to – the dignity of others. 

This illustrates one of the key features of violent extremist ideologies: exclusivism, or a worldview that privileges  us overthem. Together with a refusal of complexity, partitioning the world into black and white sustains this mentality. When we reflect on the conspiracy theories of white supremacist groups (the notion, for example, that they are victims of ‘white genocide’), we can witness their violent logic as a response to a perceived threat, however unrealistic. For if we are to successfully address this phenomenon we must understand that perception often counts for more than reality

Resilience as strength

Resilience-based approaches to addressing violent extremism focus on what is keeping people resistant to violence, rather than what is making them vulnerable to it. Instead of asking why people are radicalising to violence, the question becomes  why aren’t more people radicalising? Given the terrible injustices endured by so many, why aren’t more turning to terrorism? Resilience experts have pioneered a way of thinking that shifts the burden of being resilient from individuals, and focuses instead on  resilience as a socio-ecological phenomenon. In this paradigm, resilience is a dynamic process that can be enhanced or diminished by the allocation and negotiation of intersecting contextual factors and social resources.

What resources do we need and what contextual factors should we address to prevent further terrorist attacks like the one in Christchurch?

Three things strike me as particularly urgent: 

First, we need to dramatically improve how we regulate media reporting on and offline to ensure that it respects the dignity and rights of the communities it represents. The democratic governance of social networking sites and mainstream media platforms should therefore be our top priority.

Second, we need to increase our focus on interactive and inclusive engagement through investment in resources that nurture future-oriented convivial culture and democracy – the arts, interfaith education and inclusive sporting opportunities. Peer-led mentoring should be encouraged. We must invest in resources that foster a sense of meaningful participation in society, that give us time to reflect and to interact with one another.

And finally, we need to mitigate risks from environments that foster extremist hate and contempt for socio-cultural otherness, especially in contexts marked by structural social inequalities. Violent extremists exploit the widening polarisation of societies based on economic and political inequalities. They promote enhanced narratives of felt victimisation and disadvantage while attributing blame for such disadvantages to the very people who actually struggle most with their effects. It is this polarisation – and the skewed distribution of local, national, regional and global resources – that must be addressed if we are to build true resilience to socially and politically motivated violence.

Dr Vivian Gerrand is a Research Fellow at Deakin University and a co-investigator of the EUI led BRaVE Horizon 2020 Coordination and Support Action that is designed to build resilience to violent extremism and polarisation. Vivian also coordinates the Addressing Violent Extremism and Radicalisation to Terrorism Research Network (AVERT).

GREASE Blog Post #6

27 March 2019

Topic: The NZ Mosque Shootings

H.A. Hellyer – Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), UK

As part of my work, I pore over extremist literature a great deal – often written by extremist Islamists, but also often by white nationalists. Having examined the manifesto of the suspect in the New Zealand mosque shooting, I see clear parallels between it and the hodgepodge of nonsense found in the manifesto of Anders Breivik, the white supremacist behind the massacre in Norway in 2011. It’s hardly surprising that there would be similarities in the language used by Breivik and the Christchurch suspect. The shocking thing is how much of their rhetoric can be found in the mainstream media and political discourse.   

Phrases similar to those used by both the suspect in the Christchurch massacre and Anders Breivik are found in the writings and speeches of US President Donald Trump (‘I think Islam hates us’) and his former political advisor Steve Bannon (Islam is ‘the most radical’ religion in the world). They echo the words of popular talk show hosts like Bill Maher (the Muslim world ‘has too much in common with ISIS’) as well as noted writers like Melanie Phillips of The London Times (‘Islamophobia is a fiction to shut down debate’) and Rod Liddle of The Spectator (Islam is an ‘illiberal, vindictive and frankly fascistic creed’).

The point is this: while all of those writers and personalities aren’t the equivalent of the terrorist who carried out the outrageous attack in New Zealand on March 15, their rhetoric makes the discourse of the terrorist that much more possible. 

Unfortunately, the caustic language used to describe Muslims of the West is not that rare. In fact, it’s been mainstreamed in ways that we have been ignoring.  Take for example the Australian senator Fraser Anning, who said the attacks highlighted the ‘growing fear over an increasing Muslim presence’ in Australian and New Zealand communities. If that is not blaming the victim, I am not sure what is. 

In response to his statement, much of the Australian political spectrum broke out into a collective condemnation. That was good to see. But the fact remains, as Australian talk show host Waleed Aly pointed out in the aftermath of the attacks, that: ‘Everything we say to try to tear people apart, demonise particular groups, sets them against each other. That all has consequences, even if we’re not the ones with our fingers on the trigger.’ More than a few Western politicians and public figures have tried to benefit from trading in identity politics where demonising Muslims is considered a vote getter. 

Just a week before the Christchurch attack, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro berated a Muslim congresswoman for wearing a Muslim headscarf – declaring that doing so meant she wouldn’t be loyal to the US constitution. Pirro isn’t a terrorist: but can we truly deny that the rhetoric she uses about Muslims and Islam in this fashion does not make the discourse that underpins the New Zealand shootings more palatable and possible?

Can we truly continue to pretend that as we see the rise of white nationalism, it has no link to far more extremist and far more violent manifestations? Do we not recognise that there is a cost to this sort of wilful ignorance: that such rhetoric becomes more and more mainstreamed, but we only notice when catastrophes like Christchurch take place? When this manifesto, for example, calls Donald Trump a ‘symbol’ of ‘white identity’, can we really afford to ignore that?

We cannot pretend any longer that the rabidly anti-Muslim discourse that we have allowed to become mainstream has no real impact on the actual lives of our Muslim communities. This rhetoric creates a new, much higher threshold for what is considered to be beyond the pale of normal discourse – and that in itself gives succour, even if indirectly, to the extremist who carried out this abysmal attack in Christchurch. Make no mistake: there is indeed a war going on. But it’s not a war between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West. It’s a war between extremists and all the rest of us. 

Dr H.A. Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.