FP Guide

FP’s Guide to Islamophobia

In light of the terrorist attack on New Zealand mosques, here are some essays that help explain a global trend of Islamophobia and right-wing hate.

Flowers left near the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 16. (Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)
Flowers left near the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 16. (Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

On March 15, shootings at two mosques in the city of Christchurch shook New Zealand—and the world. Three suspects are in custody for the attacks, which killed at least 49 people. At one of the mosques, the shooters left behind an anti-Muslim manifesto. One of the suspects is alleged to have had contact with Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian far-right terrorist who killed 77 people, including 69 people at a summer camp, in 2011.

As local police try to piece together what happened, we’ve gathered our top reads on Islamophobia and right-wing terrorism around the world.

In the United States, Islamophobia has a long history, but it appears to have ticked up in recent years. Writing in 2017, the journalist Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian warns of what she calls “Islamophobia Inc.” Starting in the years after 9/11, she explains, “a small but powerful network of funders and ideological activists has waged a major misinformation campaign, seeking to cast Islam as a diabolical threat that must be eradicated.” A number of websites, activists, and other organizations have rallied to this cause. They are influential in city councils and state legislatures, she cautions, and they “now have the ear of the president of the United States.” Indeed, U.S. President Donald Trump himself has retweeted anti-Muslim propaganda videos.

The Trump administration’s obsession with Islamist terrorists, write the reporters Emily Tamkin, Robbie Gramer, and Molly O’Toole, has made it blind to other forms of terrorism, including right-wing and anti-government extremism. That’s a sentiment echoed by Georgetown University’s Daniel Byman, writing shortly after a shooter gunned down 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburg. “After the 9/11 attacks,” he explains, “the United States focused on terrorism almost exclusively as a problem related to jihadis. Much less attention was paid to far-right violence. … That was a mistake.” In fact, he continues, “since 9/11, right-wing violence has killed 86 people in the United States. (Jihadis have killed 104.) After Saturday’s shooting, we’re probably going to have to add at least another 11 to the right-wing total.”

It isn’t just violent extremists whom we have to worry about. In fact, anti-Muslim attitudes persist among the general public too, point out the professors Lawrence Pintak, Brian J. Bowe, and Jonathan Albright. Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric, they explain, “energized an unprecedented number of Muslims to seek office” during the last U.S. midterm elections. But those candidates, especially the women, frequently faced discrimination. “More than 40 percent of women respondents reported receiving verbal threats, almost as many said they received text threats, and about 20 percent reported being physically threatened.”

Islamophobia is not unique to the American public. In China, explains Frankie Huang, a Shanghai-based writer, Muslim groups “report a growing number of attacks by groups labeling themselves as ‘anti-halal.’” Much of that Islamophobia, she argues, comes from abroad and trickles into China over social media. It “appears to be driven by conspiracy theories and false stories that begin on the Western far-right but are being transferred into Chinese popular consciousness through WeChat, the most popular messaging app in China.”

Foreign Policy’s James Palmer holds the Chinese government at least partially to blame as well. In mid-December 2018, he reports, the government did away with halal food standards. Weeks later, it shut three prominent mosques. Many others had already been shuttered or forced to remodel. Why now? “A newly powerful Han nationalism needs an internal enemy,” he explains, “and Islam fits the bill.”

In Europe, meanwhile, suspicion of Muslims has risen in the wake of the refugee crisis. Writing in 2016, the journalist Henry Johnson reports on a study that found that 40 percent of the German public wanted Berlin to ban Muslims from entering the country. The European Court of Justice, meanwhile, has upheld bans on women wearing headscarves in France and Belgium. And populists promoting suspicion of immigrants and Islam have had a strong showing in several European elections, notes Matthew Goodwin of the University of Kent.

In other words, it seems, the tragedy in New Zealand could have happened nearly anywhere.

Kathryn Salam is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

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