Brenton Tarrant, the terrorist of the New Zealand Christchurch massacre who killed 51 people in different mosques last year, was sentenced to life in prison without parole today. The verdict will no doubt provide some solace and closure to the survivors of the attacks, as well as to families of the victims. However, the phenomenon that produced him continues, and the question remains: how long will it continue before we address not simply the end result of this kind of bigotry, but the causes of it?
It is not as though this was the first time such a massacre took place. Almost a decade ago, a Norwegian Islamophobic white supremacist carried out one of the brutal terrorist attacks on European soil in recent history. Anders Behring Breivik detonated a bomb in Oslo, murdering 8 people; he then went to a youth camp, and killed another 69. His motivations were all clearly laid out in the manifesto he deliberately left for people to find. He was a bigot who hated Muslims, lauded white supremacy, and viewed himself as a soldier in a new crusade to save western civilisation.
In that regard, the two terrorists had a great deal in common. But what they also had in common wasn’t simply violence – it was the sources of the ideas that contributed to their motivations for violence. And those ideas aren’t limited to the likes of these two solitary individuals who were responsible for so much death and violence in Norway and New Zealand. The ideas of European Identitarians, an extremist far-right movement, affect and impact the politics of so much of the western world, and beyond.
Take Australia, where the white supremacist group, the United Patriots, was hailed as the "nationalist movement in Australia" by the terrorist of the mosque massacre. That group remains present and active in Australia; and trying to divide their rhetoric from that of the terrorist would be dishonest. That is especially true of its rhetoric on religious minorities, especially Muslims.
It would be far too easy to simply wipe our hands clean of the likes of the perpetrators of the Norwegian and New Zealand massacres, by simply condemning them as individuals. But they did not come out of nowhere. The director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, for example, noted earlier this year that such right-wing extremism, was manifesting in “small cells”, to disseminate “hateful ideology”. Those small cells themselves feed off of rhetoric that has been mainstreamed in Australian political discourse on the one hand, and are linked to international white supremacist groups on the other
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the threat has increased, with white supremacists exploiting audiences under social isolation to increase their propaganda drives.
It is not just in Oceania. Europe has seen a steady mainstreaming of far-right discourse, particularly on Muslims, over the past decade. Whereas the rhetoric existed before then, it was limited to far-right groups – today, much of that is no longer considered beyond the pale for mainstream political parties. The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, compared Muslim women wearing the face veil to “letterboxes”, while repeated incidents of Islamophobia in the governing Conservative party have failed to be properly investigated.
Viktor Orban, Hungary's Prime Minister, is openly far-right, depicting migrants as "Muslim invaders" – but his party is part of the political mainstream. A mainstream where Mr Orban feels completely empowered to declare: "Is it possible to successfully reject migration, to protect families, to defend Christian culture, to announce a programme of national unification and nation building, and to create an order of Christian freedom?" That line itself would have been entirely in place in the manifesto of the New Zealand mosque massacre terrorist.
And it goes beyond Europe. In a few months, American voters will go to the polls. There is a significant possibility that US President Donald Trump will be defeated by the Democrats; but that will not mean that the damage of the past four years will be undone. During Mr Trump's term, there has been a deepening and mainstreaming of Islamophobia and bigotry of different types, from the highest levels of America's democratic system – and that is not going to be undone overnight. Whoever eventually takes over the Republican Party, whether after this election or thereafter, will inherit a party that mainstreamed so much harmful discourse. It is a party where the likes of Laura Loomer, a political activist and conspiracy theorist, can stand a good chance of becoming a Republican congresswoman for Florida, even while calling Islam "a cancer on society", and demanding an Uber without Muslim drivers.
Of course, it is entirely possible that the future will see braver western politicians genuinely standing up to the scourge of the mainstreaming of white supremacist narratives. But it would require a backbone that hitherto has not been very forthcoming, on the scale that is needed. Because, alas, it seems to be a vote getter. And that in itself bodes badly for the years ahead. One hopes that the families of the victims of the New Zealand mosque massacre can find some solace in the verdict – but we have a lot more work to do if we are going to ensure noting like that can happen again.
Dr H A Hellyer is senior associate fellow of the Royal Institute (RUSI, UK) and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the US