Canadians of all backgrounds and faiths were shocked by the horrific attack that recently took place targeting Muslims worshipping in New Zealand. In any country, in any house of worship, we are appalled by this sort of thing.
These types of violent attacks have become tragically far too common. They take innocent lives, but they also seek to terrorize people as they practice their faith. Thus, these types of acts of terrorism amount to a broader attack on the religious liberty of the entire community.
This attack demonstrates again that there is a serious problem of anti-Muslim bigotry in western societies, with some manifestations in horrific violence. (There are, needless to say, other kinds of bigotry which are also a problem, but those are not the focus of this piece.) By anti-Muslim bigotry I mean views or actions that deny the inherent dignity of Muslim individuals or seek to deny them the love and respect due to all human beings.
Generalizations about how Muslims think or act are also a form of bigotry. In the extreme, this bigotry leads to violence and terrorism. Some choose to use the word Islamophobia to describe this bigotry, although that word can have other connotations—sometimes implying that the criticism of religion itself as opposed to bigotry towards individuals is the point at issue.
Regardless of the preferred wording, anti-Muslim bigotry is a problem which requires individual and collective action. Ideas matter, and bad ideas can have devastating consequences.
Notably, extremists on both sides want to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims living in western societies. In this respect, white nationalists and Daesh-types want the same thing. All of us must work together to reject the efforts to drive that wedge.
One under-discussed impact of anti-Muslim bigotry in the west can be seen in our response to anti-Muslim bigotry in non-western societies. The lack of response from western governments to the Rohingya genocide and to the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs likely have something to do with anti-Muslim attitudes that exist here.
Bigotry, even when it does not lead directly to violence, can lead to an indifference which in turn makes violence more probable. Moreover, although it didn’t get much coverage, the killer in New Zealand claimed to be directly inspired by the Chinese regime’s political values.
Canadian author Jamil Jivani argues in his excellent book, Why Young Men, that there are similar forces that tempt young men to violence across different backgrounds. Arguably, the forces that influence some people in their decision to join Daesh, and others to join gangs, are similar to the forces at play when people join so-called white nationalist groups.
Importantly, then, we need to look at terrorism and violence in all its forms and identify both its ideological causes and its social causes – while still holding individuals accountable for their choices.
Despite the obvious similarities between different kinds of terrorist violence, the political response is sometimes inconsistent, which may reflect different perceptions of the killer’s ideological associations.
After a terrorist attack in Boston in 2013, Justin Trudeau said: “There is no question that this happened because there is someone who feels completely excluded. Completely at war with innocents. At war with a society. And our approach has to be, where do those tensions come from?” Notably, he did not say the same thing in response to the attack in New Zealand.
In the New Zealand case, there was comparatively little discussion of possible feelings of “exclusion,” and instead there was a rush to blame anyone and anything that the killer may have been reading.
My general view on this would be that terrorism is terrorism—perpetrators must be held accountable; victims and potential victims must be supported and protected; and law enforcement must be given robust tools with which to respond. Regardless of tough talk this time around, Liberal legislation that took tools away from police to fight terrorism-related offenses certainly does not help the cause.
In the general aftermath of a terrorist attack, it is common to underline that the perpetrator is likely not an authentic exponent of the philosophy or ideology that he claimed. The 9-11 hijackers were not following the teachings of Islam; IRA bombers were not following the teachings of Christ, etc. Emphasizing this is generally a good practice.
The fact that a deranged mind found something in a particular text to justify his or her actions does not necessarily mean that the fault is with the text. Violent fanatics who claim to be Muslim are rejected by the Muslim mainstream, and violent fanatics who claim to be right wing are rejected by mainstream conservatives who believe in free markets, balanced budgets, and open, orderly immigration.
I hope that the necessary recognition of the problem of bigotry targeting the Muslim community does not lead to a chill on discussion about religious questions.
When I was quite young, shortly after the 9-11 attacks, I went to visit a mosque in the Edmonton area in order to ask questions about Islam. That interaction was the beginning of deepening appreciation of the richness of the Islamic intellectual tradition and the vibrancy and diversity of Canada’s Muslim community. It is in asking questions and engaging in dialogue that we develop greater understanding.
If the process of asking questions and of dialogue necessarily excludes those who hold bigoted assumptions, then such people will likely never learn to reject their bigotry. This can be a difficult area to work out, in terms of not wanting to give air to certain ideas, while still wanting to provide opportunities to challenge and question those ideas.
Regardless, I tend to think that the goal should always be to “call in” as opposed to “call out.” Calling someone out for being wrong may carry a level of personal psychological satisfaction, but it rarely actually moves the needle. The cause of justice is best advanced when people are given space to clarify and to change their views on things—even if the record of their former opinion will never go away.
After the New Zealand attack, it is clear that more must be done to effectively combat bigotry, to fight terrorism, and to facilitate greater dialogue. All of these things must be on our collective agenda.