Europe's counter-terrorism policies and operations must also cover Far Right extremists and the expanding influence of their hate-filled white supremacist ideology, says Shada Islam.
It’s 6 March and I am walking around Christchurch, New Zealand, amid shuttered cafes and stores and the impressive but now-damaged Cathedral - all stark reminders of the devastating earthquake which destroyed parts of the city in 2011, killing 185 people and injuring several thousand.
I leave Christchurch hoping the town can find happiness again. But it’s not to be.
Ten days later, the horrific terror attacks on the Al Noor and Linwood mosques plunge Christchurch - and all of New Zealand - into further grief, sorrow and sadness.
The sorrow isn’t New Zealand’s alone. Leaders across the world, including many in Europe, have rushed to condemn the violence and the tragic loss of life. But condemnation isn’t enough.
The world has many important lessons to learn from the Christchurch massacres - and Europeans should pay special heed.
With Far Right populist groups and parties on the rise in Europe, increased anti-migrant and anti-Muslim political rhetoric, elections to the European Parliament around the corner and copycat terrorist acts already taking place in many European countries, EU institutions, governments and politicians need to urgently address some difficult questions with courage and honesty.
After initial hesitation, Far Right killers are now rightly described as ‘terrorists’
There's been no dearth of warnings. Given their continuing and legitimate focus on Islamist-linked terrorism, European governments and security services pay less attention to the rise in power and outreach of Far Right extremists and the expanding influence of a hate-filled white supremacist ideology which targets Muslims and Jews.
After initial hesitation, Far Right killers are now rightly described as ‘terrorists’. Are other European countries ready to follow the example of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, which earlier this year put a group within the Far Right Alternative for Germany (AfD), associated with nationalist firebrand Bjorn Hocke, under surveillance due to its status as a threat to democracy and suspected association with neo-Nazi groups?
The agency’s new head, Thomas Haldenwang, has warned that Germany’s population of right-wing extremists currently amounts to 24,000, of which more than half are ‘violence-oriented’. Have other countries expanded their surveillance and investigation operations to include Far Right extremists? And since these networks are global in nature, are international intelligence agencies responsibly tracking and sharing information on potential White Supremacist threats?
The Christchurch terrorist, Brenton Tarrant, broadcast his attack live on Facebook in a post which was widely shared before it could be removed. Tarrant, like other Far Right extremists, also used social media to disseminate propaganda, coordinate training, organise protests, raise funds, recruit members and communicate with other extremists across countries and continents.
Most social media companies have policies on taking down Islamist-violence linked content. Will similar actions be taken to stop other, equally deadly racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic posts? Are European governments ready to press them to do so?
Since anti-Islam hatred and Muslim-baiting unites Europe’s myriad Far Right groups and is embraced by mainstream politicians, will EU governments and institutions finally pay attention to constant warnings, including from their own agencies, of the rise in Islamophobia in Europe?
Muslims across the EU face discrimination when they are looking for work, when they are on the job and when they are trying to access public or private services, according to the European Fundamental Rights Agency. An individual's first and last name, skin colour and the wearing of visible religious symbols like a headscarf “may trigger discriminatory treatment and harassment”, it added, prompting Commissioners Frans Timmermans and Věra Jourová to insist that EU institutions will “not tolerate intolerance”.
The New Zealand tragedy has shown - again - just how much words matter
Such comments, combined with the appointment of a European Commission ‘Coordinator on combating anti-Muslim hatred’, are constructive. But as the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) and other Muslim organisations warned last year, EU institutions are doing little to craft meaningful policies that combat Islamophobia. Are EU institutions, including the European Parliament and European political parties currently undergoing election preparations, ready to walk the talk on diversity so that they truly represent all Europeans?
The New Zealand tragedy has shown - again - just how much words matter. Far Right diatribes that depict Muslims as an unwelcome presence in a mythical pure-white and Christian Europe are an unfortunate and toxic reality. Even more dangerously, too many men and women in power are embracing similarly false narratives.
In the US, President Donald Trump is setting the example through his own anti-Muslim diatribes. But many European politicians aren’t that far behind.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s rants against the supposed threat posed to ‘Christian identity’ by an ‘influx’ of Muslims remain unchecked, as do most anti-Muslim statements by others in and out of power. Are European politicians now ready to recognise the deadly power of their words and stop their reckless shifting of acceptable political discourse?
And can mainstream media, which gives these headline-hungry men and women so much space, now start holding politicians to account and speak truth and fact to power - and take a hard look at the public impact of their mostly negative and highly stereotypical coverage of Islam and Muslims?
Finally, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern showed true leadership, compassion and grace in her dignified response to the attacks. She also took immediate action to reform the country’s gun laws.
European leaders can learn some important lessons from the tragedy and start acting responsibly and courageously to build a truly inclusive Europe which protects and promotes the interests of all its citizens. But will they?
Shada Islam recently took part in a New Zealand government study tour of EU experts to mark the centenary of World War One.
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- Friends of Europe: Terror and the city: boosting urban resilience to violent extremism
- Europe’s World: Social media - a new frontier of counter-terrorist operations, by Jon Coaffee
- Debating Europe: How can Europe be more active in the fight against terrorism?
IMAGE CREDITS: geralt/Pixabay