Settler Colonialism Lurked Beneath the Christchurch Massacre

In the commentary connecting the bloody dots between the mosque massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the 2017 one in Quebec, Canada — an association made by the Christchurch attacker himself, by inscribing the name of the Quebec mosque shooter on one of his weapons — the fact that both acts of carnage occurred in white supremacist, settler-colonial states has received scant attention.

Emergent critiques of Islamophobia as a systemic, transnational phenomenon have tended to stop short of any truly materialist analysis and any deep historical reading of the conditions that support these mobilizations of anti-Muslim sentiment in settler societies like Canada and New Zealand (known to the Indigenous Māori people as Aotearoa) — in which the racism deployed to rationalize European genocide against Indigenous nations has long been intertwined with anti-Muslim as well as anti-Black, anti-Asian and anti-Jewish discourses. For example, the Doctrine of Discovery that continues to constitute the foundations of colonial sovereignty in settler states emerged from papal edicts permitting the seizure of non-Christian lands and property during the Crusades.

The relationship between Islamophobia and settler colonialism means that anti-Muslim violence cannot be addressed simply as a problem of “hate crime,” or ameliorated by more draconian immigration restrictions or anti-terrorist measures — the very types of measures through which the white settler state has been constructed. Indeed, our fear is that such initiatives have (and will continue to) fan the flames of Islamophobia, with the combined arsenal of both formal and informal state apparatuses and private and ad hoc vigilante-type violence.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s relationship of solidarity with Muslim communities in the wake of Christchurch has been beautiful to watch; our concern here is with the deeper structures of power and violence that too often remain out of sight. A similar set of national mythologies works to render the persistent and permeating presence of settler colonialism invisible in both Canada and Aotearoa/New Zealand: Both are represented as predominantly peaceful, pluralistic societies led by progressive governments, in stark and flattering contrast to their more powerful and prejudiced neighbors (the United States and Australia).

While both Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern have been praised for the alacrity with which they condemned the mosque massacres in their respective countries as acts of “terrorism,” the framing of “terrorism” serves to analytically sever the apparently exceptional violence of the far right from the everyday racial violence embedded in the very structure of the settler state itself.

Media commentaries depicting the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto as a “mirror image” of the discourse of ISIS perform a similar function. They imply that the mass violence at Christchurch can only be understood as an emanation of a foreign phenomenon — perpetuating Islamophobic representations of Muslims as the benchmark for barbarism — as if the historical ledgers of European colonialization are not replete with atrocities of far greater magnitude: deliberate mass killing and maiming, starvation, enslavement, torture and concentration camps.

The frequent description of the Christchurch killings in international media as the deadliest incident in Aotearoa/New Zealand’s history, portrayed as otherwise exceptionally irenic, erases events like the 1864 massacre at Rangiaowhia, in which as many as 100 Indigenous Māori were slaughtered in a military raid on a shelter for non-combatant women and children.

The assault was part of a war launched to dispossess the Māori of their land, a process that has continued by less overtly bellicose means such as extinguishment of title through land claim settlement processes — a tactic also employed by the government of Canada. As eminent Māori academic Margaret Mutu has observed, “large sections of the white population have strongly amnesic tendencies about the atrocities committed as they illegally seized control of huge tracts of Māori land.”

White supremacist ideology is not a pale, inverted reflection of ISIS, but a projection of settler colonialism’s own inherent systems of racism. The Christchurch mosque attacker’s manifesto, “The Great Replacement,” not only references memes of the contemporary far right, but also evokes themes deeply rooted in settler colonial discourse.

Concerns about inadequate white birthrates, for example, not only incensed the Christchurch shooter, but also motivated 19th- and 20th-century British imperial projects to transplant single women to the colonies to multiply the settler population; as one of the “founding fathers” of the colonial project in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, remarked: “in colonization [unlike nearly every other pursuit that occupies mankind in masses] women have a part so important that all depends on their participation in the work.”

Anxieties over environmental depredation — a recurrent topic in the Christchurch manifesto, in which the problem is attributed to an influx of racialized immigrants — produced government conservation projects that ultimately served to further increase settler control over natural resources in the name of rectifying the effects of ecocide largely produced by European settler exploitation in the first place. (For example, Aotearoa/New Zealand’s forest cover was denuded by 50 percent from the beginnings of intensive British settlement in 1840 to 1900, while in Canada the rate of destruction of the boreal forest is greater than in the Amazon).

The transnational conceptualization of white identity invoked by the Christchurch shooter to explain why he should not also be considered an immigrant invader from Australia is not an innovation, but a continuation of 19th-century imperial formulations of whiteness as a global category. “The imagined community of white men was transnational in its reach … [and] sought, in effect, dominance over four continents,” as Australian historians Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds write in Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality.

Fears of being inundated by non-white migrants not only stimulated 20th-century “White Australia,” “White New Zealand” and “White Canada” immigration policies, but also acts of murderous violence by individual white supremacists like Lionel Terry, who shot dead an elderly Chinese man in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1905. “I will not under any consideration allow my rights and those of my brother Britons to be jeopardised by alien invaders: to make this perfectly plain I have this evening put a Chinaman to death…. I have nothing to say except that my action was right and justifiable,” Terry wrote in a letter to the local governor — articulating a logic of racial entitlement echoed one century later by the Christchurch shooter, who attempted to justify his rampage as an act of self-defense.

The offensiveness of the “great replacement” thesis — that a “pure” white race is slowly but steadily being “replaced” by other races through migration and inter-marriage, but also by being ideologically challenged as well — lies not only in its representation of Muslims as an existential threat, but also in its erasure of the fact that the white populations supposedly being replaced in places like Aotearoa/New Zealand are themselves the product of a concerted effort to replace, in state-endorsed systematic processes, Indigenous nations. Over the course of the 19th century, the Māori population was halved from around 100,000 to 45,500, while the number of settlers in New Zealand increased from 1,000 to 770,000; Māori communities are now reduced to only 5-6 percent of their original land base.

The manifesto’s repeated denigration of racialized immigrants (particularly Muslims) as “invaders” and “colonizers,” without any apparent sense of irony, reflects the pervasive normalization of the idea that settler colonies are properly “white men’s countries” — a normalization reproduced in analyses undertaking to allay racist fears of “white genocide” or “replacement” by assuring white communities that they remain dominant and have nothing to fear from Muslim birthrates.

Robert Bowers, the killer in Pittsburgh, had used social media to spawn hatred, calling immigrants “invaders,” distributing racist memes and asserting that Jews were the “enemy of white people.” Before starting on his rampage, he posted, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”The idea of an oxymoronic “native White” population in danger of being replaced also drove the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as well as the murder of civil rights activist and attorney Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia. Both attacks occurred in the United States, another settler country founded and nurtured by the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the enslavement and incarceration of Black people, as well as the labor of Latinx and Asian bodies, which were then faced with deportation and exclusion once their work was done.

In Charlottesville, the fact that statues of Confederate generals were going to be removed prompted one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists in recent memory. They too yelled out, “We will not be replaced,” along with anti-Semitic slurs. When James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of protesters, injuring scores of people and killing Heyer, it was with the intention of clearing out those he felt were endangering the white race.

The president of the United States has in fact himself been one of the most vocal proponents of exclusion, deportation, indefinite confinement and punishment. But rather than attribute any of these behaviors to a single person or a “phobia” that has infected swathes of the population, it is critical to recognize that the very foundation of these nations is sunk into the bedrock of racism. The ideologies of racism are manifested not only in mass shootings by civilians, but also actions of agents of the state and its bureaucracies, as well as in the economic and political systems of deprivation and exclusion.

The disconnection of individual acts of mass violence from the systemic racism that produces them enables governments deeply invested in institutionalized Islamophobia to posture as opponents of interpersonal Islamophobia. Immediately after the Christchurch massacre, for instance, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered his condolences on Twitter, even while Israel’s military has destroyed 161 mosques in Gaza. In 2014, The Washington Post noted that such bombings hardly drew any protest at all, largely because they are so commonplace. So too are attacks on Muslims during holy days and prayers — the most horrific being the 1994 killing of 29 Palestinian men and boys and the injuring of many more at the Ibrahimi Mosque during Ramadan, by an U.S. Jewish settler who was later honored as a “hero” by many Zionists.

In nearly all these attacks, we see the resurgence of settler violence against those who are either holding steadfast to their land or making forceful claims to return and re-possess. The issue of land and territory is inseparable from the white supremacist fear of both “white genocide” and “replacement.” In both cases, whites fear losing a sense of ownership of public space and public discourse.

The persistent tendency to abstract racist “hate crimes” from the contexts of settler colonialism in which they have occurred perpetuates the belief that expanding colonial state institutions of “counterterrorism” can provide a solution to white supremacy, when in fact they are part of the problem. As former New Zealand Green Party MP Keith Locke warned shortly after the Christchurch killings, “Given the Islamophobic ethos of Western intelligence agencies, led by the United States, we should be against strengthening our anti-terrorist laws or allowing more intrusive state surveillance. Such an approach won’t help the Muslim community.”In fact, activist groups in New Zealand have made the connection between Israel’s persecution of Palestinians and the repression of the Māori. For example, Janfrie Waken from Palestine Human Rights Campaign-Aotearoa New Zealand notes: “The forces of America, Europe and Britain, enabled them to become not only the colonising group but also the military power that has enforced military occupation of the colonised, disposed people, the Palestinians. I would see Māori as being very much the brother and sisters of the Palestinian.”

To the contrary, it risks further imperiling the Muslim and Indigenous communities that have long been in the crosshairs of state counterterrorism. The first targets of the post-9/11 Terrorism Suppression Act in New Zealand were Māori and environmental activists, while Indigenous Land and Water Protectors in Canada defending their internationally recognized rights to free, prior and informed consent have been some of the primary subjects of national security surveillance and repression, alongside Muslims.

In his manifesto, the Christchurch shooter identified himself as a fascist — but fascism, as scholars like Aime Cesaire helped us understand, is little more than colonialism turned inwards. The state’s treatment of those contesting systems of white supremacy as terrorists obscures the terror inflicted by the white supremacist settler-colonial state itself. A political system built on colonial and racial violence will continue to produce violence against colonized and racialized communities: the massacres that kill quickly, and the insidious forms that kill slowly. To return to the rhetoric of “replacement,” if what is to be replaced are the violent histories and contemporary re-enactments of that original violence, then those are things worth replacing.