Masjid An-Nur mosque in Christchurch on the first anniversary of the terrorist attack, in 2020. (Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)
Masjid An-Nur mosque in Christchurch on the first anniversary of the terrorist attack, in 2020. (Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

PoliticsMarch 15, 2022

How the Christchurch terror attacks ‘sparked a wave of hatred’ in Australia

Masjid An-Nur mosque in Christchurch on the first anniversary of the terrorist attack, in 2020. (Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)
Masjid An-Nur mosque in Christchurch on the first anniversary of the terrorist attack, in 2020. (Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

A new study reveals a surge in Islamophobia in Australia in the second half of March 2019. But how about New Zealand? And what does it say about the online-offline interplay?

Within hours of the Christchurch mosque massacre in 2019, Queensland senator Fraser Anning had worked out who was to blame for a monstrous, white supremacist act of terrorism. Muslims. “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration programme which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place,” he said.  

That statement was resoundingly, overwhelmingly rebuked in Australia, in New Zealand and around the world amid an outpouring of solidarity with the Muslim community in Christchurch. But as a new report published today in Australia reveals, it was the thin edge of a hateful, Islamophobic wedge. Released on the third anniversary of the Christchurch terrorist attacks, Islamophobia in Australia finds that, across the Tasman, “the Christchurch massacre sparked a wave of online and offline hatred against Muslims”. 

‘The anti-Muslim hate chain’

March 2019 saw widespread expressions of support for Muslim communities in Australia and New Zealand from “officials, interfaith groups and the broader Australian society”. But, the report observes, there was at the same time a surge in “loud minorities spreading hate”. 

The study draws on 247 verified incidents online and offline from the start of 2018 to the end of 2019 that were reported to the Islamophobia Register Australia. Easily the biggest uptick in reports came in the fortnight following the mosque attacks, when the “ecosystem” that incubated the terrorist “became hyper-visible online”. The rate of reporting of real-world encounters jumped four-fold. Accounts of Islamophobia online tallied 18 times higher than before.

The Australian experience was in keeping with a rise in anti-Muslim hatred witnessed across much of the world after the attack, said the report’s chief investigator, Dr Derya Iner, of the Charles Sturt University Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation. “We are not just experiencing this in Australia. Similar things are happening in other parts of the world. We need to acknowledge this is a local manifestation of a global movement,” she told The Spinoff from New South Wales.

Mourners in Christchurch at a vigil for those killed in the mosque attacks, on March 24, 2019 (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

In the days after the 2019 attack, the report found, “hate rhetoric was so monolithic and entrenched as a norm among the hate groups that anyone questioning it was harassed and silenced by the group members as traitors or terrorism sympathisers.”

Offline examples of Islamophobia since March 2019 have included verbal abuse, hate stickers and graffiti, as well as assault and vandalism, with attacks on mosques prompting “memories of Christchurch [to be] triggered”. Online, documented messages range from blaming Muslims for the mass-murder to cheering the Australian terrorist on, criticising him for not killing more children and a pledge to kill 10 Muslims at the start of “civil war in Australia”. 

The report notes: “Public declarations by such extremists did not face any investigation or penalty regardless of multiple reporting and referrals to the police by different parties.” 

The findings, it concludes, support the assessment of Islamophobia as a “continuum”, in which “Christchurch-type attacks are the last link in the anti-Muslim hate chain.”

Islamophobia in New Zealand

Speaking on the eve of the third anniversary of the terrorist attack, Jacinda Ardern told a press conference yesterday: “We all owe the Muslim community in New Zealand our commitment to standing up to Islamophobia every single day. It’s about all of us.” She added: “It still feels very raw for many. And I have no doubt that will only be greater still for the community. It’s not just for us to remember. We have obligations – as ministers, as cabinet, as a government – to keep fulfilling all the commitments we made to the community on that day and the days thereafter.”

Jacinda Ardern with members of the Muslim community in Christchurch in 2019. (Photo: Supplied)

Across the three years since the terrorist appeared at the masjids Al Noor and Linwood, the Muslim comminity in New Zealand has continued to face Islamophobia, whether it be bomb threats at the site of the original attacks, anti-Muslim flyers distributed by a Baptist pastor, or the targeting of Muslim students by bullies at a Dunedin school. 

Those are just the examples that surface in the mainstream media. Anecdotally, at least, instances of Islamophobia in New Zealand “may have decreased in the first few months after the attacks”, said Aliya Danzeisen from the Islamic Women’s Council of NZ, but quickly “began to grow again, incrementally increasing”. 

New Zealand Muslims had also become a target, she said, among some of the groups angry about Covid restrictions. “There’s an intensity that is getting higher … We are a prime target for them.” She noted, too, the report’s focus on the gendered nature of so many of the Islamophobic incidents identified. “Of the hate that our community faces, it’s the women that take the brunt of it.”

Any effort to assess the frequency or severity of Islamophobia in New Zealand in the shadow of March 15 relies on anecdote because there was no established New Zealand equivalent to the Australian register on which this new report draw. Set up in 2014, Islamophobia Register Australia followed similar examples abroad. It was designed to test the veracity of perceptions that Islamophobia was on the rise.

Azad Khan had begun piecing together something similar in New Zealand in 2018. The project became essential after the March 2019 attacks. His Foundation against Islamophobia and Racism (Fair NZ) has so far collected about 50 reports of Islamophobic incidents, but he’s not yet satisfied the data is sufficient to draw too many conclusions or issue analysis publicly. “I’m sure there are more than 50 out there that haven’t been reported to us,” he said. Critically, “we don’t have the baseline data to say what it was like pre-2019.” 

The number of incidents reported was roughly consistent in 2019 and 2020, but has dropped since. Khan isn’t cheering yet, however. That is unlikely to reflect any fall in Islamophobia, so much as a diminishing of the “media frenzy” around the challenges in the Muslim community. That in turn impacted the awareness of the register.

“People are still reporting through the register. We just need to keep letting people know it’s here,” he said. “What we do is all voluntary. We’re doing it on top of our normal nine-to-five work. It needs a lot more resource to scale it up.” He was hopeful that was on the cards. “Those conversations are definitely happening. We are looking at ways to build our capacity and bandwidth.”

Khan can only wish such an exercise had been in place earlier. “One of our weaknesses pre-March-2019 is there were lots of hate crimes happening, but the Muslim community and other minorities were not taken seriously because no one was collecting the data, which meant when we went in to say, ‘hey, these particular incidents are happening,’ the authorities said they want data, they want evidence, and there was none,” he said.

“For whatever reason the Human Rights Commission and enforcement agencies like the police weren’t doing it. Why, we don’t know. It could have been a resourcing issue, or maybe they did not see this as a real threat … Recording and reporting is essential if we are to make some substantial policy changes within New Zealand.”

Police have committed to improving their recording of hate crimes, but notwithstanding shortcomings in their approach, it is clear that only a fraction of incidents are reported. Just 29% of the offline incidents in the Australian report were reported to police. For online cases, it was 9%. 

Khan has seen something similar. “People within our communities have different reasons for not reporting [to police]. It could be fear or backlash or reprisal, or just they don’t have the confidence or trust of the enforcement agencies because of the way they’ve been treated in the past … In most cases, probably as much as 90% of those that are reported to us, they do not want us to report it to the police.”

The value of a register, said Iner, was more than just to measure the number and nature of incidents in Australia. With reports coming from or on behalf of victims, as well as from witnesses of perceived Islamophobia, the register was able to collect documented evidence of online statements or images that had since been removed, and it offered insight into “what mobilises people to report and what impact it has”.

Race relations commissioner Meng Foon. Photo: supplied

The Human Rights Commission was unable to provide any data on complaints of Islamophobia yesterday, but in a statement, the race relations commissioner Meng Foon said he was “concerned to be hearing regularly from people I am engaging with, that after the initial outpouring of aroha for the Muslim community across Aotearoa, there continue to be examples and experiences of Islamophobia … From the school yard, to the workplace, to social settings, there continue to be reports of unacceptable behaviour towards the Muslim community.”

Foon said he was frustrated by a lack of follow-through on a promise to introduce new hate speech laws. Over the weekend the minister responsible, Kris Faafoi, told Newshub Nation the process had been delayed, and “we’re still working on it”.

“Since 2019 we have also been waiting for hate speech legislation to be strengthened in order to protect vulnerable communities such as religious groups,” said Foon. “I am disappointed with the slow response to the implementation of what was a Royal Commission of Inquiry recommendation after the March 15 terror attacks around hate speech reform. Implementation of such recommendations is a very serious matter. It needs to happen so we can learn from the mistakes of the past and make sure they don’t happen again.”

The online-offline ‘multiplier effect’

To shrug off online examples of Islamophobia is a mistake , said Iner. For targets, “the impact is real, because these people are real. The fear is real.” Beyond that, there is a “multiplier effect”, in which violence expressed online feeds into real-world examples and vice versa. The Christchurch terrorist was in part inspired online. His propaganda posted online inspired others around the world. That interplay was true at a range of scales, said Iner. “These things trigger more hate and more action in real-life scenarios.”

Her reports summarises it this way: “The Christchurch terrorist and his copycats proved that offline and online operate hand-in-hand for easy, speedy and massive impact while leaving target communities in fear and anxiety between blurred lines of the offline and online world. Effectively engaging online platforms before and after their attacks, far-right terrorists triggered a series of offline and online hate crimes (such as violent attacks in real life and inciting violence in online platforms). The nature of these attacks proves the sheer division between offline and online is an illusion.”

In the leadup to today’s third anniversary of the mosque attacks, some have attempted to weave Christchurch-themed conspiracy threads into the tapestry of the movement opposing Covid restrictions. During its day-long livestreams of the protest and on its Telegram channel, Counterspin Media spruiked a foreign-made conspiracy video based on the malign fabrication that the murder of 51 people in two Christchurch mosques was a “false flag” operation. 

The pseudo-documentary has been deemed objectionable by the New Zealand chief censor, David Shanks, who previously banned both the terrorist’s manifesto and his livestream of the attack. “This exploitative film presents the same harm to the public as the March 15 livestream, while adding a layer of toxic disinformation,” Shanks told The Spinoff. Both police and the Department of Internal Affairs confirmed the prohibition order had been referred to them, together with information about those who had shared it.

On his Telegram page yesterday, meanwhile, far-right QAnon conspiracy theorist Damien De Ment, a New Zealand based American who has been an enthusiastic backer of and participant in the parliamentary occupation, spruiked “false flag”  theories around the Christchurch mosque attacks and “NZ hoax terror”.

The vast majority of the online incidents reported by the Australian study, however, were encountered on a far more familiar social network: Facebook. Reflecting the platform’s popularity among the wider population and its exploitation by far-right extremists groups, 86% of 109 reported cases took place on the social media giant. Among the Australian report’s recommendations is that platforms such as Facebook should “take more responsibility for stopping the severe levels of hate in online communities, such as dehumanisation and disgust, which lead to wanting to remove/kill, and should be monitored carefully”.

It adds: “The non-coincidental timing of inciting extreme hate and incitement to violence on social media suggests the need for intense monitoring and strategic moves by counterterrorism organisations.”

Aliya Danzeisen. Photo: RNZ / Luke McPake

As the place of digital platforms in the development and dissemination of extremist ideology, disinformation and hate speech comes increasingly under the microscope, the Islamic Women’s Council NZ has urged a coronial inquiry into the Christchurch attacks to include within its scope the role such online properties had in radicalising the terrorist, said Danzeisen, “so that we can learn from that, either to motivate the platforms themselves to do a better job of moderating, or so we as a community can set societal expectations for these companies”.

The report from Australia revealed again how “online hate transitions to offline harm”, she said yesterday. It should send a clear message to the government about the urgency of “regulating social media and digital platforms”, she said. “Because they are not adequately moderating their own products.”

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