Forty-nine people died and forty-eight people were injured in an Islamophobic terrorist attack on Friday morning which targeted the Al Moore mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand. It’s the most severe terror attack in the nation’s history.
Media outlets have been quick to call attention to the fact that the shooter appeared to have been radicalized online, and that online spaces played a big role in his attempt to control the narrative surrounding the attack. To a certain degree, this is fair. The shooter even broadcasted the attack on Facebook Live. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube alike have been struggling to wipe this violent footage of the attack from their platforms.
Media outlets also pointed out that the shooter announced his intention to commit an act of terrorism on a notorious online message board that’s known for being welcoming to racists, sexists, pedophiles, and Islamophobes alike. They pointed out that the killer’s manifesto used the language of trolling and argued that it was designed for the internet, specifically with the intention of going viral.
Whether that is true or not, this internet-centric narrative of the attacks misses the point. Madihha Ahussain, a spokesperson for Muslim Advocates, told Motherboard that terror attacks like the one in Christchurch are a part of a larger, global fabric of Islamophobic violence.
“It is important to consider these both on and offline threats and acts of violence,” Ahussain said. “I think we have to consider them together and recognize that this is all a part of a broader challenge and the system of bigotry that has really proliferated over the years.”
Islamophobia far predates the internet. Islamophobia on the internet reflects Islamophobia, cultural violence and literal violence, and structural white supremacy that is embedded in the very fabric of countries (especially former colonizing countries) like New Zealand, and for that matter, the United States, and Australia.
Online spaces host casual instances of Islamophobia that make extremist sects of the internet possible. Casual, unchecked bigotry on major platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms have pushed the envelope in what type of hate is acceptable online. It’s this behavior that provides a path toward radicalization, and makes extremist sects of the internet able to thrive.
Whitney Philips, a professor of communications at Syracuse University, said that the ideas that we choose to tolerate on the internet is a result of the forces of the masses, not just the actions of people on fringe corners of the internet. If the kind of attack we saw at Christchurch could be neatly blamed on a small, white supremacy forum alone, it would be a far less difficult problem to solve. Sadly, the reality is much more complicated.
“The shifting of the Overton window is not the result of just a small group of extremists,” Philips said. “The window gets shifted because of much broader cultural forces.”
In an article for Motherboard co-written with College of Charleston professor communication Ryan Milner, Philips wrote that online extremism is able to proliferate, in part, because of a larger ethical crisis online. We can think of extremists online like “apex predators” in a food chain pyramid. In order to exist, apex predators rely on an entire ecosystem, including grass, insects, eventually to smaller mammals. Without all of these other organisms, apex predators would not be able to exist. In the same way, a steady-state of bigotry, hate, and Islamophobia makes it possible for extremists to flourish. This steady state of bigotry exists both online, and offline.
The internet is important as a medium because it enables this bigotry to exist on an international scale. Shahed Amanullah, a former senior advisor for technology at the US State Department, told Motherboard that Islamophobic terror attacks have always been thought as “domestic” and isolated, even when it’s quite clearly not.
“Here, you literally have somebody who spelled out that it is a transnational phenomenon, that it is rooted in ideologies that have been cultivated online, it’s rooted in a historical narrative that’s reinforced,” Amanullah said. “These people are positioning themselves as players in this global struggle. We took it seriously when Osama Bin Laden did it. When this guy did it, we need to take it seriously too. This is not an isolated incident.”
For this reason, we can make a connection between the violence in Christchurch, New Zealand and violence in the US.
“It is very important for us to think about [the Christchurch attack] in the context of what’s been happening around the world, but obviously here in the US, and how individuals are targeted on a regular, on a daily basis,” Ahussain said.
Ahussain told Motherboard that violence against Muslim-Americans have reached epidemic levels in the past few years. Two men burned down a mosque in Austin, Texas in January 2017. A mosque was burned down in Jacksonville, Florida in January 2017. Three men who tried to bomb Muslim immigrants in Garden City, Kansas were arrested in April 2018. Two men planned a massacre on a mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota in late 2018. A man burned down a mosque in Bellevue, Washington in March 2018. A man burned down a mosque in Victoria, Texas in July 2018. Men who planned a terror attack on Islamberg, New York were arrested in January 2019.
“The reality is that hate crimes against so many of the communities of faith that are already vulnerable have continued to increase over the years,” Ahussain said. “We need to think about this within the broader context of bigotry and hate violence that has already been challenging our communities for years.”
Christchurch isn’t an “internet” terrorist attack. We can’t prevent future attacks by translating the internet-speak in a killer’s manifesto, or tweaking a platform’s algorithm. The attack in Christchurch can only be understood is part of a global problem with Islamophobic violence. Local, smaller-scale instances of hate and bigotry are crucial in supporting and enabling larger-scale instances of terrorist violence around the world where people’s lives are taken.
In order to address this global social epidemic of Islamophobia, we need to take every single instance of Islamophobia seriously—both online and offline.
“If it was just a problem of the platforms, we would be in great shape,” Philips said. “The technologies themselves, they exacerbate existing tensions. The underlying problem is structural white supremacy… Structural white supremacy is something that’s more in the air, that people just breathe.”