On Christchurch and Settler Violence
Reflections on how to read far-right terrorism today.
This has come as a bolt from the blue…It just feels like it’s not what would happen in a place like New Zealand.
- Lianne Daizel, Mayor of Christchurch
It would be worthwhile to study clinically, in detail, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century that without his being aware of it, he has a Hitler inside him, that Hitler inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon, that if he rails against him, he is being inconsistent and that, at bottom, what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man …
- Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism
After the attack on two mosques in Christchurch that left over 49 dead, many tropes about New Zealand resurfaced: this is not the “Kiwi way” or “we don’t do this in New Zealand”. Even one Guardian columnist who set out to show how the recent attacks refute these tropes couldn’t help but reproduce them. “New Zealand”, she writes, “is generally safe, and stable. In these times, that makes it an idyll”. If you read the piece, you could be forgiven for believing that the only fault of New Zealanders was that they had become “complacent”.
What is ironic is that the column provides much of the ammunition one needs to break the myths it tends to peddle. Citing a sociologist, the author admits that in Christchurch, “there’s a bit of a tradition of white supremacy”. That’s an understatement.
Built on occupied Maori land in 1840 by white European settlers, Christchurch remains a white city that does not welcome non-white migrants. A month before the Christchurch attack, hundreds of city residents gathered to protest against “growing” migration.
What migration one might ask? Christchurch is put at 84 percent white European by the latest census. The fact is that “peaceful” Christchurch has been a hotbed of white supremacists since the 1970s. Far-right protests in the city have targeted Chinese, South Asian and Korean migrants since at least 2004. Christchurch is even known as a “skinhead”city.
But why then did the attack on two mosques provoke the mayor to claim that it was a “bolt from the blue”?
The living legacy of settler violence and plausible denial
The answer is simple enough.
We are told that there is a difference between settler violence and far-right terrorism in settler countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. But to put it simply: this difference does not exist.
While indigenous movements should be credited for securing apologies for settler violence from settler governments, these apologies came as calculated moves to push the question of settler violence to the past. In Australia, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised in 2008 about the “stolen generations” before using “child welfare” as an excuse to start another military operation against aboriginal communities in Australia’s Northern Territories.
The history of settler violence in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand is too long to be re-told here. What I want to argue is that we should treat far-right terrorism in settler countries as a continuation of settler violence. These settler states have used a three-pronged strategy to maintain racial domination: state violence, selective immigration policies and racist violence.
The long histories of state violence, migration policies, and racist violence have worked together to maintain white control over polity and economy in these countries.
The greatest success of settler states has been to de-link white fascism from settler violence, which has allowed them to claim that settler violence is in the past, and the far-right is something new. We are told that settler states are now “liberal” and “multicultural” – and the far-right is a threat to this multiculturalism.
But if liberalism and multiculturalism is a system of racial domination by English or French speaking white people, then we must reject it.
Half a century ago, the global political order and world capitalism were rooted in a racial hierarchy. Can we really say that this is no longer the case?
If New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s gesture of hugging Muslims (and veiling like them too) can mask her stance on cutting immigration in the country, then settler colonialism has won the battle.
There is something wrong with our politics of resistance if those crying out against Islamophobia are now suffering from “Jacinda-mania” after a few hugs, some tears and a promise of gun reform.
We could talk at length about New Zealand’s attempt to be “better white settlers”. We could also talk at length about Ardern’s attempt to restrict already restricted non-white immigration into New Zealand, while being able to dodge the narrative that she was “another Trump” (Ardern after all came into power via an alliance with New Zealand First, a far-right nationalist party whose name mirrors Trump’s “America First” slogan).
But that is not the point here. The point is to not see the far-right as a fringe tendency, but as a continuum of the white conquerors that butchered indigenous peoples and the white mobs that lynched them. The point is to argue for the need for solidarity amongst peoples of colour in settler states against ongoing settler violence.
Non-white communities continue to live in settler states under the threat of all three forms of settler violence. They must live in fear of deportation, police violence and far-right attacks.
Trump is not an aberration in the history of settler states. But the fact that Trump is being treated as an aberration should concern us. In the history of the former colonial centres and their settlements, white supremacy has had a happy marriage with liberalism and humanism.
Maybe there is a part of us that would like to believe that liberalism and humanism in settler societies became divorced from white supremacy after the defeat of Hitler. But if we dig a little deeper, we know that the answer is not the one we hoped for.
Cesaire told us Hitler was not an aberration in the history of white civilization.“Hitler did to the white man what the white man did to the colonized”, he wrote.
Fascism and the far-right does not stand outside western civilization, as we are being told today. It lies at its very heart.
Far-right terrorism today and its targets
This brings us to white far-right terrorism today.
Much has been written about the rise of white far-right terrorism. Some would like us to believe that this is a response to Muslim terrorism. Some would like us to believe it’s a response to crime by Latino and black migrants.
We are to believe that a new world order was created after 9/11.
But who are the targets of far-right terrorism today?
Consider Anders Brevik, the white supremacist who killed 77 people at a Norwegian Labour Party youth camp in Oslo in July 2011.
Brevik’s targets were “cultural Marxists”: those traitors of the white race who were enabling an “invasion of Muslims”. But what does it mean for the first act of the current wave of far-right terrorism to be a white man killing white children in not-so-diverse Norway?
Brevik’s target was not migrants in and of themselves, but rather what he misidentified as “cultural Marxism”. Brevik’s fears mirrored those of Europeans fascists from the 1920s. The real enemy was a worldview that posited a radical egalitarianism against one that believed in inherent racial hierarchies.
In the last decade, the hit list of far-right terrorism have included a Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin, anti-fascist activists in Greece and Charlottesville in the US, Jewish centres in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, black churches in South Carolina and Kentucky, a Labour MP in the UK, and mosques in Quebec, London and Christchurch.
Far-right terrorism today has three enemies: migration, multiculturalism and Marxism. Its target is not a single community, but to maintain a global world order structured by racial domination.
Settler violence and the migrant question
We are told that migration policies are just migration policies. They are not tools deployed to protect racial hierarchies. We are told that migration policies and the project of white domination of settler society are not linked.
This cannot be further from the truth. It is worth re-telling the story of migration policies in Australia and New Zealand to see how it was – and continues to be – deployed as an instrument of settler violence.
The white colonisation of Australia started in 1787, when Britain decided to make it a prison camp. Going to Australia was not a choice for many of its first white settlers. They arrived as convicts, forced to undertake labour in the colonies in service of the mother country. These were the white people that white society had discarded. New Zealand became the home of some escaped white British convicts. Much like America, Australia and New Zealand could have charted a different course. They could have chosen to reject the racist ideals of their mother countries. But this was not to be.
Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada became the frontiers where white racism could be unleashed without check. As new land was colonized, indigenous inhabitants were either subjugated or butchered.
White settler violence was not peripheral. It was the bedrock of white settler states – just as primitive accumulation in Europe was the bedrock of bourgeois private property.
Settler violence is the story of what white migrants enacted against native populations – and what they continued to enact against new waves of non-white migrants.
Violence started against Australia’s Aboriginal communities and New Zealand’s Maori communities was quickly re-directed towards thousands of Chinese workers, who arrived to Australia during the country’s goldrushes of the 1850s, and to New Zealand in the 1870s to build infrastructure. It was this violence, supported in fact by Australia’s labour movement, that led to the first articulation of White Australia and White New Zealand Policies.
Document after document from parliamentary debates on immigration bears witness to a simple fact: Australia and New Zealand were committed to building a system of racial domination. Violence and migration policies worked together as tools to ensure this remained the case.
Australia passed its first formal Immigration Restriction Act in 1901. That year, the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901 was also passed, which led to the deportation of 7,500 Pacific Islanders working on plantations in Queensland.
Australia’s first Prime Minister Sir Edmond Barton even declared “the doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman.” Hardly charting a different “Kiwi way”, New Zealand followed suit. It passed its first immigration restriction act in 1920. On the other hand, both countries offered subsidized ten-pound tickets to British citizens looking to settle until the 1970s.
The so-called open migration policies that exist in both countries today came out of necessity. World War II meant that Europe needed to re-populate. Surplus white populations to migrate to the Australian continent were no longer available. Thus, the slogan to “populate or perish” was raised – with an aim to encourage white settlement over non-white. Former Australian Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell, who opened up the country’s immigration policy in 1947, said at the time: “we have 25 years at most to populate this country before the yellow races are down on us.” In this, he was pioneering the contemporary far-right’s discourse of “white genocide”.
Non-white migration, on the other hand, would only be allowed to ensure that white domination continues. Immigration policy was opened to non-white peoples in the 1960s based on how “useful” they were to white Australia and New Zealand.
Migration policies today continues the same logic. Many non-white immigrants into Australia are still tied to particular forms of labour. The Australian state continues to tighten migration policies, intercept more migrant boats before they reach their shores, and build more deportation camps in Papua New Guinea.
A non-white migrant must always be reminded that his place in a white settler state is precarious. The non-white migrant must behave – or be deported. And he must live in fear.
Everyday settler violence in white settler states
This is where the “new” far-right comes in. Their task is to create a hostile environment for the millions of non-white migrants that live in white settler states today.
White violence against migrant communities today continues two and a half centuries of white settler violence against indigenous and non-white migrant populations. It is hard to believe that looser migrations policies – instituted by necessity – have gotten rid of that legacy within a few decades.
Mainstream politics in settler countries remains committed – as former Australian prime minister (1996-2007) John Howard’s stance against Asian migration aptly illustrated – to maintaining white hierarchies. It is within this context that white settler violence continues in settler states today – of which far-right terrorism is but one manifestation.
White mob violence, race riots and murder are the everyday forms of white settler violence that non-white migrant communities in Australia and New Zealand face.
In Christchurch, the murder of Korean migrants in the 1988 and then 2004 sparked race riots. In Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, crimes, beatings and robberies against Indian students and taxi drivers sparked a series of protests against “Hinduphobia” between 2008 and 2010. Much of the protests were directed against the racist attitude of the police force, with both the police and the government continuing to deny any racially-motivated crimes were being committed in the first place. The result was a 46 percent drop in the number of Indian citizens applying for student visas to Australia.
The race riots in 2005 on the Cronulla beach in Sydney are part of the same story. The riots started when a mob of 5,000 white Australians gathered on the beach and began chanting “Australian Pride!” and “We grew here, you flew here!”.
While the Australian far-right was not directly involved in organizing the mob, it continues to memorialise it. Australian National Day itself is a day when white Australians can have a field day re-enacting the settler violence that gave them this land.
There is little difference to the far-right mobs that have gathered in the US to defend confederate statues.
In the US, the trajectory of settler violence is not hard to trace.
The subjugation of Native Americans is a fairly obvious one, but it is the treatment of African Americans that tells the story of how settler violence continues to be enacted till today.
Slavery, beatings, rape, and lynchings were all part of the early white settler violence against African Americans. This legacy effectively continued until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, till which point the notorious Jim Crow legislation remained in place as well as the murder of black activists continued unchecked.
The US would like us to believe that somehow Martin Luther King changed all that – and forget the fact that he was trailed by the FBI and was eventually murdered. The violent breakup of the Black Panthers, many of whom still remain in jail six decades later, is part of the same history.
That brings us to settler violence in the US today: the American police force continues to operate as a settler army, which has murdered thousands of black men in the US for no reason. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues to raid Latina communities in the US to instil the fear of the white man in them. White vigilantes on the US-Mexican border continue to patrol it for traces of non-white skin crossing over. Deportation continues to apply exclusively to non-White immigrations. Deportation camps and jails continue to remain places to remind non-white inhabitants of the US that their position is subject to white approval. If not, the police are there to give the unwelcome reminder that they could be shot for no reason.
It is hard to see how the far-right occupies a fringe place in white settler countries.
Good white settlers, bad white settlers
Far-right terrorism is one part of the glue that keeps racial hierarchies in place in white settler states.
While the Christchurch attacks shocked even the New Zealand government, committed though it is to maintaining racial hierarchies, it is clear that their response has left much to be desired.
Australian senator Fraser Anning provided the perfect punching bag by issuing a statement right out of Hitler’s textbook. He blamed the Christchurch attack on “migration by Muslim fanatics”. “We are not him”, is what every other white politician began to shout over one another. No one wanted to be left behind. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued the strongest of condemnations, swiftly followed by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
This was a chance for all of them to receive another baptism – to be forgiven for their own complicity in spreading hatred against non-white migrants. This was also a chance to be forgiven of the original and ongoing sin – settler violence.
The brunt of responsibility was shouldered by Jacinda Ardern, whose election campaign promised to cut immigration and whose coalition partner was none other than the far-right nationalist party, New Zealand First.
Who better to make the case that white settler society deserved a baptism for its sins.
By turning the issue into one of “gun reform” and “whether or not to name the perpetrator”, Ardern scored many brownie points by following the updated rulebook of white political correctness.
It is as if the white world needed the Christchurch attack so that they could witness Ardern restore faith in white civilization. “See how good white people can be”, we are told after every breath Ardern takes. “You can’t copy [her] love”, one anthropologist even recently wrote.
Love does not lie outside the apparatus that keeps power in place, we must tell our anthropologist friend. And Jacinda’s love is not unconditional.
“I will not take his name”, Ardern tells us before going into a long spiel about who else we should not name.
Should we should not name the white supremacists who filmed themselves throwing a pig’s head outside the Al Noor mosque in 2016, the same Christchurch mosque where 42 people were killed this year? Should we not name the hundreds of white New Zealanders who told immigrants to “integrate or get out” on February 2nd of this year? Should we not name Ardern’s own Labour Party which, in 2012, proposed an immigration policy that favoured rich English-speaking migrants over poor non-English speaking ones? Should we should not name Ardern herself, whose own term in power is only possible through an alliance with the anti-immigrant New Zealand First party?
Should we not name the white settler society of New Zealand and Australia?
In refusing to name, Ardern refuses to hold accountable the long history of settler violence against indigenous and migrant communities in New Zealand. She masks the nexus between white far-right terrorism, ongoing state violence and deportation policies directed at non-white migrant communities.
In refusing to name, the good white settler can atone for the sins of the bad white settler. There is no need for confession. There is no need for pardon. There is no need for punishment.
By refusing to name the white terrorist, the brutal loss of Muslim lives in Christchurch can be treated as the act of a “lone” actor, rather than what it actually is: part of the toolkit to keep racial hierarchies in place in white societies.
Our presence in settlers states and the wider white world threatens these racial hierarchies. We must recognise that in our fight to build a new world in these settler colonies, the difference between the much-loved duo of Jacinda Ardern and Justin Trudeau and the much-loathed Donald Trump and Scott Morrison is only in appearance.
Non-white migrants face the same enemy whether in the form of migration policies, the state’s coercive apparatus or white terrorism: settler violence. This is what our struggle must be directed against.
Hashim bin Rashid is a doctoral candidate at SOAS. He has worked as a journalist and teacher in Pakistan as well as being part of progressive activism.