After Christchurch, it’s time to examine how mainstream media and political institutions in Canada have enabled the ideological swamp that gives rise to violent anti-Muslim threats
The shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, last month have been difficult to process.
The premeditated killing of 50 people, including young children, at two mosques shocks the conscience. The fact that such a horrific act of violence was live-streamed on Facebook like a video game adds another level to the monstrosity.
But in the days after the massacre, I kept coming back to the same piece of writing.
The “salient feature” of Western countries in Europe, Canada and elsewhere “is that they’re running out of babies,” it reads. “The longer the long war gets, the harder it will be, because it’s a race against time, against lengthening demographic, economic and geopolitical odds. By ‘demographic,’ I mean the Muslim world’s high birth rate.”
The passages come from Canadian author Mark Steyn’s 2006 book America Alone: The End Of The World As We Know It, an excerpt of which was published in Canada’s premier national affairs magazine, Maclean’s, later that year.
But you would be forgiven for thinking Steyn’s words came from a more recent text warning about demographic decline and Muslim domination – the 74-page manifesto posted online by New Zealand mosque shooting suspect Brenton Tarrant covers very similar territory.
The anti-Muslim discourse that has long been tolerated – and even promoted – by establishment media and political institutions in Canada has dangerously boomeranged.
Counter-protesters confront anti-Muslim demonstrators at City Hall in 2017.
THE STAPLES OF WHITE NATIONALISM
Fears of demographic decline and the supposedly astronomical birth rates of Muslims are staples of the modern white nationalist movement, usually framed by online hate groups in terms of an “invasion,” “cultural replacement” and “white genocide.” Those were certainly the themes of the New Zealand mosque shooter’s manifesto. They have also been themes in the writings of Steyn, who emerged at the height of the War on Terror as one of the leading proponents of the racist conspiracy theory of “Eurabia” – the supposedly looming takeover of European culture and politics by the Muslim hordes.
A former National Post columnist, Steyn continues to be a fixture on the far-right, including as a regular on the talk circuit in the U.S. Last year he was bestowed with the inaugural George Jonas award, “which recognizes and honours one individual who has contributed significantly to advancing and preserving freedom in Canada,” by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. (Its founder, Calgary-based lawyer John Carpay, recently compared the “totalitarian” rainbow pride flag to swastikas.)
One of Steyn’s loudest warnings was that something like 40 per cent of Europe’s population could be Muslim by 2020.
That his predictions were wildly unlikely – according to Pew Research Center, Muslims make up just 4.9 per cent of Europe’s population – did not stop Steyn from being treated as a serious figure by the conservative media establishment.
The excerpt republished in Maclean’s was under the ominous headline The Future Belongs To Islam, and would lead to a protracted human rights complaint filed by Mohamed Elmasry of the Canadian Islamic Congress against Steyn and the magazine, which turned him into a martyr for free speech on the right, as well as among most mainstream Canadian pundits, including at Canada’s national broadcaster. The CBC’s Neil Macdonald compared the human rights proceedings against Steyn to something “you’d expect to hear about in Saudi Arabia or Iran, not the West.”
Steyn is hardly alone in singling out Muslims for scorn. Ezra Levant, the former Reform staffer-turned-Rebel Media “commander”, rode to national prominence by republishing the infamous Danish Muhammad cartoons in his then-magazine the Western Standard – and thanking his lucky stars when someone brought a similar human rights complaint. Regardless of the merits of publishing the cartoons, or of human rights tribunals weighing in on such matters, it was hard not to see the whole thing for the self-promotional stunt that it was.
Nevertheless, even Rick Mercer praised Levant as a defender of free speech in one of his trademark back-alley rants, noting that “he [Levant] happens to be a friend of mine. I’ve known him for over 10 years.”
We know a lot more about Levant now than we knew then. He would go on to lead the nightly lineup of Sun News, the nakedly racist network that produced reports on “Islam’s war on the world,” among other journalistic coups.
When Sun News went down in flames, Levant started Rebel Media, the online hate factory that helped launch or rejuvenate the careers of several of North America’s most prominent white nationalists, including Faith Goldy, who was recently banned from Facebook.
Indeed, it’s shocking to recall just how normalized anti-Muslim fear-mongering became in the first decade of the 21st century. British historian Niall Ferguson predicted that “youthful Muslim society” would “colonize” Europe. Financial Times columnist Christopher Caldwell warned that Muslims were “conquering Europe’s cities, street by street.” Celebrated essayist Christopher Hitchens branded the religiously motivated terrorism of 9/11 “Islamofascism.”
Hitchens was right to worry about a new fascist threat he was just wrong about its makeup.
Vigil for the victims of Christchurch massacre at Nathan Phillips Square March 15.
MAINSTREAMING OF ANTI-MUSLIM HATE
The resurgence in the last few years of far-right forces across the so-called Western world should alarm everyone, but it’s no surprise that so much of the dehumanizing War on Terror language about Muslims and Islam has become a part of the white supremacist and white nationalist world view.
As far-right politicians have gained power in Europe and the Americas, they have been largely united in their antipathy toward Muslims, particularly refugees fleeing instability and violence in the Middle East and North Africa.
Anti-immigrant attitudes were key to the “Leave” side winning the Brexit vote in 2016, with right-wing leader Nigel Farage parading a billboard around the country that depicted a long line of refugees as a threat pushing Britain toward its “breaking point.”
And the same U.S. president who said “some very fine people” were among the fascists marching in Charlottesville continues to maintain a Muslim ban.
In Canada, meanwhile, the idea that right-wing extremism poses a threat to democracy is mocked. Last week, Conservative senator Leo Housakos offered before the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade that he “would find it disturbing to think… that white supremacy is a threat to our way of life in Canada, to our communities or democracy.”
The same committee had just heard from the head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service earlier in the day. David Vigneault says CSIS is “more and more preoccupied” with violent right-wing and white supremacist threats, citing the 2017 Quebec mosque shooting and 2018 van rampage in Toronto as examples.
It’s long past time to examine how mainstream media and political institutions have enabled the ideological swamp that gives rise to horrific acts of far-right violence.
The victims are obviously not just Muslims. They include worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and parishioners at a Black church in Charleston, among others.
The New Zealand massacre highlights the danger that hateful ideologies pose to us all. But the events in Christchurch cannot be viewed in isolation, and they cannot be separated from the role media has played in mainstreaming anti-Muslim hate.
The New Zealand gunman called his online manifesto The Great Replacement. He may as well have called it Eurabia.
Ishmael N. Daro is digital editor at news program Democracy Now!