Islamophobia has too long been excused by the western world

This week, 58 Africans died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed all 157 people on board. Much of mainstream international media omitted the names and nationalities of the African passengers, in what seemed like a bigoted erasure of their lives. To boot, the legitimacy of Africa having a sound airline is being questioned. 

We all know that western media doesn’t consider brown lives to be important so it was not surprising, nor was the ignorance particularly astonishing. 

It breaks my heart to say that neither was the attack on Christchurch. 

There is nothing about this attack that shocks me. And that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? There was no shock and horror when more than 1 000 Muslims were killed in anti-Islamic attacks in Chad in the 1970s. Those were just Africans, right? Not many people know about the 2008 Tibetan unrest where a Mosque in Lhasa was burned down and Chinese Hui Muslims were assaulted by rioters. Also in 2008, a 16-year-old of Turkish origin was beaten to death with baseball bats and hammers by three Danish kids. Does anyone remember US citizen Mohamed El Makouli being stabbed to death in his own home by a neighbour? Thought not. 

How about the 2016 Munich shooting at the Olympia shopping mall? Ten people were killed and 36 others injured. The perpetrator, boasting that he shared a birthday with Adolf Hitler, expressed admiration for Germany’s right-wing AfD party, repeatedly uttering anti-Turkish abuse. Then there was Anders Brevik, who in 2011 killed 77 people over immigration. He declared himself a knight dedicated to stemming the tide of Muslim immigration into Europe and in his manifesto, describes opposition to what he saw as the Islamisation of Europe as his motive for carrying out the attacks.

I can list so many more. There’s actually a Wikipedia page for Islamophobic attacks listed in alphabetical and chronological order by country with columns for the numbers of people killed and injured. Nifty, right? While many attacks on Muslims over the years (read: decades) have been in war-torn areas and in third-world countries that apparently don’t matter (see Ethiopian Airlines crash), so many have been perpetrated by white extremists – including the British empire. (Yes, they were white extremists, too.)

It’s all not surprising. 

The Quebec City mosque shooting, the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre, the Malegaon bombings, Finsbury Park in London … the list is ongoing. We can’t update our Facebook profile frames fast enough but the thing is, there are hardly any of those for brown victims (they’re dispensable unless they’re from a western country) and none for poor countries (what are those, even?). Thoughts and prayers abound. Hashtags galore! Demands for politicians to say something meaningless that will be quoted in the papers and forgotten the next day as they go back to curbing immigration and racist rhetoric. There will be – quite glaringly – no discussion on how accepted the Islamophobia that motivated the attack has become.

Every Friday, some of my in-laws go to a mosque. My mother-in-law prays diligently and I know what that time is like. Jummah is a holy and sacred time. It’s a gathering, and the name ‘jummah’ is derived from the Arabic word for ‘congregation’. It’s a time of introspection and self-discovery through an affirmation of one’s relationship with Allah. It’s a time when one is quiet in their own head and meditative in the ritual. It’s a vulnerable time spiritually, but also quite literally. 

Then someone comes along and guns them down like fish in a barrel. 

The rhetoric that led to this is astoundingly commonplace. ‘Peaceful’ isn’t a term I would use to describe praying Muslims. All faith is inherently peaceful. The description insinuates that when Muslims are not praying, they’re inherently non-peaceful. The nine victims at Charleston were not described as ‘peaceful’. Neither were the 11 killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Sutherland Springs, in which 26 congregants were killed in 2017, wasn’t called a ‘peaceful church’ in the media. 

Yes, places of worship are peaceful places, as are the faiths they honour. Mosques are also places of fierce debate on socio-political issues and intense discussion on practising faith in a fast-changing world. They’re modern marvels through which people come and go, finding a tiny space of belonging in a world so unforgiving and harsh. 

But Australian senator Fraser Anning called Islam a “savage belief”, “the religious equivalent of fascism”, and “simply the violent ideology of a 6th Century despot”, and that the cause of the bloodshed was due to New Zealand’s immigration policy allowing Muslims into the country. And that’s not all, folks. 

“I will not allow the creation of an integrated Muslim community in Slovakia,” its former president Robert Fico said last year. Swedish Democrat Monika Wollmer said: “Muslims have no business here. They want to destroy and take over the country. I hate all Muslims to the extent that I get sick when I see them.” A politician in Denmark, Mette Frederiksen, the leader of the Social Democrats, said: “A school with a foundation in Islam is not part of the majority culture in Denmark.” 

Tory Zac Goldsmith ran against Labour candidate Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral race in a campaign fuelled by racism. They used loaded language, describing Khan, a British Pakistani Muslim, as “radical and divisive” and even suggesting that he is a closeted “extremist”, warning that Khan could not be trusted. In fact, the UK Foreign Office is apparently where one has to go to discuss Islamophobia against Muslim UK citizens, according to Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons.

And let me not get started on Donald Trump. 

I can easily reconcile the two faces of Islam I see before me. One is the Islam I see among my family and friends. The love, the community, the food, the joy, and the beauty in their faith. The other is one of the terrorists who use Islam (or any religion for that matter) as a tool for oppression. What I can’t reconcile are the faces of western selective concern where victims of a bombing in Paris are defenceless citizens while the humanity of the 51 people who died in Christchurch is still up for debate. 

FYI, the church has killed more people than we can ever even begin to count. Raped hundreds of thousands of children. Burned people at the stake. Tortured people. Colonised and enslaved hundreds of nations and tribes. Committed genocide. But we’re not denouncing Christianity as a terrorist religion, are we? No? That’s what I thought. 

The way in which Islam is portrayed is not primarily a question of offensive language. The real issue is the ideas and beliefs that lie behind the offending words. The idea that Muslims do not belong in the so-called first world and that they are a threat to the west filter into how Muslims are treated and seen in their own country the world over, and also shape the public’s attitudes towards foreign Muslims seeking refuge or moving elsewhere for whatever reason, be it a job or a change of scenery in their lives – which people are fully entitled to do regardless of religion. Hell, social media tried to rationalise the attack on Oak Creek Sikh temple in 2012 by saying “the attacker thought it was a mosque”. 

New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern responded almost immediately and swiftly altered gun laws, and there has been an international outpouring of grief and support, but why did it have to take 51 lives for this to happen? Why is it that these 51 people’s humanity is still being questioned by groups that even now try to justify the attack? It’s all a little too late; definitely for these 51 people and their families. The world has let the anti-Islamic rot fester for too damn long.

We’ve been saying it. The biggest threat we have in the world is not immigration or one single religion. It’s white supremacy. It always has been. So it’s not surprising in the least that 51 innocent people were killed in their place of worship. News agencies have been framing the killer in Christchurch – who smirked as he appeared in court today – as an angelic blonde boy who turned killer by virtue of circumstance while white people use the proverbial they to blanket every Muslim they have ever come across while maintaining that they’re not racist, but. 

Note: When I tried to get this article published on a British news website for which I occasionally freelance, they said it borders on hate speech. Like, what?! I guess we’ll just have to make do with thoughts and prayers.