Skip to main content

The far right is the military wing of mainstream Islamophobia

The hatred that led to the Christchurch massacre has festered for decades - and it has often taken a mainstream military form
Far-right activist Tommy Robinson poses with members of the British army (Instagram)

For years, right-wing media and conservative politicians have systematically accused mosques of being incubators of “extremism", fostering beliefs that teach young Muslims to hate the very societies in which they were born and raised. 

Their more liberal counterparts have not done much to counter these narratives. Indeed, some have kept silent in tacit agreement. But anyone who comes from the Muslim community, especially the young, know that the mosques do nothing of the sort. 

Mosques have been attacked all over Europe, Australia and the US ... as the rhetoric of the 'War on Terror' has become normalised

While correctly attempting to be seen as tackling radicalisation, few mosques have managed to become the centre of their community, where both spirituality is nurtured and politics - both home and abroad - is meaningfully discussed. Islamophobes, both obvious and hidden, see this as a success.

But as the tidal wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions rolls onward, that trend is finally starting to change. The Christchurch massacre was that watershed moment.

Targeting mosques

Late last month, I woke to the news that six mosques in my city of Birmingham had been attacked with sledgehammers. Initially, counter-terrorism officers were sent to investigate, but they concluded that the attacks were not terror-related. Instead, an individual was detained under the Mental Health Act.

In the same month that witnessed the horrific murder of 50 men, women and children by a far-right gunman at two New Zealand mosques, however, Muslim communities throughout the Western world had good cause to be worried.

In 2013, the Al-Rahma Islamic Centre in Muswell Hill, London, was burned down in a suspected far-right attack after the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby, who was stabbed to death by two men claiming vengeance for the killing of Muslims by British armed forces. Although the group denied involvement in the Muswell Hill arson, the letters EDL (English Defence League) - the far right, anti-Muslim organisation - were reportedly scrawled on the side of the building. 

In fighting Islamophobia, British Muslims need fairness not favours
Read More »

Weeks later, Ukrainian national Pavlo Lapshyn, a neo-Nazi who detested Muslims, placed explosive devices outside three mosques in the West Midlands. There were no casualties. 

Earlier that year, he had murdered 82-year-old Mohammed Saleem, as the elderly man was returning home from prayers at the Green Lane Mosque in Birmingham. I often speak alongside his daughter, anti-racism campaigner Maz Saleem. Lapshyn was given a life sentence for murder. 

In reality, mosques have been attacked all over Europe, Australia and the US by the state, politicians and the far right, accelerating as the rhetoric of the “War on Terror” has become normalised and incorporated into mainstream politics. 

Denouncing Islam

Last year, Austrian authorities announced they would close down seven mosques and expel imams paid by Turkey, accusing the mosques of “radicalisation” and encouraging “political Islam”. In 2017, Austria became the only country in western Europe with direct far-right participation in government.

In the US, the American Civil Liberties Union has documented anti-mosque incidents all over the country, and the numbers are staggering. Acts of violence include Quran desecration, anti-Muslim and racist graffiti, attempted bombings, and arson. 

In May 2015, around 250 armed anti-Muslim activists - “many wearing T-shirts bearing a profanity-laced message denouncing Islam”, according to a report in the Washington Post - gathered to protest against Islam outside an Islamic centre in Phoenix, Arizona. Later that year, members of the US far right turned up outside the Islamic Centre of Irving, Texas, armed with assault rifles to intimidate Muslims after the Bataclan attacks in Paris. 

Funeral services are held for victims of the 2017 Quebec mosque shooting (AFP)
Funeral services are held for victims of the 2017 Quebec mosque shooting (AFP)

Interestingly, when armed anti-Muslim “protesters” attempted to “rally” outside a Nation of Islam mosque in Dallas, Texas, they were confronted by heavily armed members of the New Black Panther Party. The result was predictable: the far-right members dispersed in a hurry.

In January 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette walked into the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City, Canada, and opened fire with an automatic weapon. He managed to kill six people, but brave worshippers prevented further carnage by placing themselves between his bullets and the congregation. 

The New Zealand attacker, Brenton Tarrant, was inspired by Bissonnette and had his name inscribed on a magazine of the gun he used to kill Muslims in al-Noor and Linwood mosques.

Called to ‘duty’

After the Manchester Arena terror attack, anti-Muslim icon Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, known as Tommy Robinson, described British Muslims as “enemy combatants who want to kill you, maim you and destroy you”.

In June 2017, during Ramadan, anti-Muslim “vigilante” Darren Osborne drove a van into a crowd of Muslims near the Muslim Welfare House in London. One person was killed before the angered crowd caught him. In the struggle, he said, “I want to kill more Muslims,” before being rescued by the local imam. 

Days before the attack, Osborne received direct messages from far-right Britain First deputy head, Jayda Fransen, and an email from Robinson that read: “There is a nation within a nation forming just beneath the surface of the UK. It is a nation built on hatred, on violence and on Islam.”

This anti-Islamic sentiment finds expression among individual soldiers, often to devastating effect

The night before the attack, locals in a Cardiff pub heard Osborne saying that “all Muslims were terrorists” and that he was a “soldier”.

During his trial, Darren Osborne told the court that he had intended to kill Jeremy Corbyn before carrying out his attack.

Recent revelations that British soldiers serving in Afghanistan used images of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as target practice on a firing range in Kabul should give cause for great concern.

The fact that British troops serving in a war zone would view Corbyn in the same light is evidence that the army has deep internal problems with far right ideology.

As leader of the EDL, Robinson liked to appear in public wearing military fatigues, tweeting an image of himself wielding an automatic rifle on an Israeli tank in the occupied Golan Heights. 

Last October, Robinson appeared in a photograph with young British soldiers, with smiles all around. It is unlikely they didn’t know who he was. Army leaders complained that co-opting military personnel and symbols was a known far-right tactic, and promised to discipline the soldiers involved. But nothing more has been said.

As Joe Glenton, a former British soldier who served in Afghanistan, said: “As a soldier, I saw open support and active membership of far-right groups.” 

Anti-Islamic sentiments

In 2010, the British army was heavily criticised for using mosque cutouts, with green domes, for target practice on a military shooting range at Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire. The Ministry of Defence argued they were simply depicting “generic Eastern buildings” to prepare soldiers for fighting in Afghanistan, before issuing an apology. 

This anti-Islamic sentiment finds expression among individual soldiers, often to devastating effect. In 2014, far-right British soldier Ryan McGee was jailed for making bombs. McGee was discovered with improvised nail bombs filled with 187 pieces of shrapnel to maximise damage. He had knives, axes and imitation guns, and had watched videos of victims being beheaded and shot in the head under a Nazi swastika flag. He also had an EDL “No Surrender” flag in his room. 

Why are Muslims speaking about justice in universities seen as a 'threat'?
Read More »

In 2017, five serving British soldiers were arrested as suspected members of the proscribed neo-Nazi group, National Action. The organisation had praised the murder of British MP Jo Cox by a far-right killer. Cox was described by National Action as a “traitor” for championing the rights of immigrants and for her closeness to Muslims. 

Last year, one of the men arrested, Lance Corporal Mikko Vehvilainen, was convicted for membership of and recruiting soldiers to National Action. Their stated aim was to “cleanse our lands”. 

Vehvilainen, who kept an array of daggers, machetes and Nazi memorabilia, was deemed an “outstanding” soldier during his service in Afghanistan. About his time there, he said: “When I was involved in killing [Muslims] it didn’t bother me one bit.”  

More than white supremacy

Although few of his victims were Muslims, Islam was a target of Anders Behring Breivik's hatred, as described in his manifesto.

In Christchurch, Brenton Tarrant was inspired by the Norwegian extremist and wrote his own “manifesto”. But this wasn’t just about far-right, white supremacist ideology - blaming his actions on this alone avoids a standpoint that is becoming all too common among his ilk. 

His actions stemmed from a belief harkening back to the Crusades and the war between Christendom and Islam. In his manifesto, Tarrant stated: “We are coming for Constantinople [Istanbul] … We will destroy every mosque and minaret in the city.” Only, he started at the opposite side of the world.

Mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik appears in a Norwegian court in 2017 (AFP)
Mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik appears in a Norwegian court in 2017 (AFP)

Tarrant’s rifles and magazines were emblazoned with the names of Christian military encounters with the Muslim world. They included the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683, the Spanish reconquista of Muslim Spain in 1492, and the Crusades during the Middle Ages. 

More than a white supremacist, Tarrant saw himself as a crusader against what is an all-too-common, warped perception of the dangers of the rise of Islam.

Tarrant had researched writings of white supremacists, such as Dylann Roof, who killed black worshippers at a Charleston church in 2015. But his inspiration lay elsewhere: “I have read scripts by Dylann Roof and many others, but the one I was truly inspired by was Knight Justiciar Breivik,” he wrote. This reference was to the Knights Templar, elite Christian warriors who spearheaded the Crusades and acted with extreme brutality. 

Foreign and domestic policies

Tarrant spent time travelling around Europe and visited sites of historical battles between the Christian and Muslim worlds. One of his destinations was Serbia. 

The Australian carried out his task dressed in military fatigues, looking and attempting to act like a soldier. He shot his victims - including toddlers and young children - looking at them, taking aim, and pulling the trigger, one by one. As he did so, he livestreamed his assault to the backdrop of Serbian nationalist music.

The song he played glorified Bosnian Serb nationalist leader, Radovan Karadzic, who was convicted of war crimes against the Muslims of Bosnia.

The dominant message of Tarrant was pro-white and anti-Islam, a mixture that is all too recognisable for Muslims the world over

Why do white supremacists, such as Tarrant, celebrate the genocide of white Bosnian Muslims by white Serbian Orthodox Christians? Is it because they don’t see white Bosnian Muslims as really “white”?

If this is the case, then Islamophobia is deeply tied to racism. If Tarrant and his ilk simply hate Muslims, whatever their colour, while identifying primarily with militant Christianity, this also poses questions about how people like him feel about the millions of black and Hispanic Christians around the world.

Either way, the dominant message of Tarrant was pro-white and anti-Islam, a mixture that is all too recognisable for Muslims the world over. It is increasingly revealing itself in the foreign and domestic policies of the so-called “civilised world”. 

Violence unleashed

Several years ago, the British government attempted to gag former British SAS soldier, Ben Griffin, after he revealed that detainees captured by his unit had been handed over to the US military and were sent to interrogation centres in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Guantanamo Bay.

Griffin became a peace activist after witnessing the violence British and US-led wars had unleashed on the civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a speech as Veterans for Peace coordinator, Griffin explained that the British army had “held children at gunpoint in their own homes”, while their fathers had been “hooded and tied and handed over to Americans to be tortured in prisons that the Red Cross did not have access to. Only five percent of those we raided had anything to do with insurgency.”

What is the role of Muslim women in fighting Islamophobia?
Read More »

When I met Griffin a few years ago, he told me that the dehumanisation of the Afghans and Iraqis by the British military was commonplace. That is how the abuses were tolerated, and it is why he had to leave. 

In his analysis of the British army as the military arm of the state, former serviceman Joe Glenton went further, noting that the UK military is in some respects a “far-right organisation”, operating “according to ideas that are recognisably of the right: submission, obedience, unaccountable power, nationalism, a commitment to remaking the world with lethal, racialised violence”. 

That racialised violence is rooted in those nations that inherited more than just the Union Jack as part of their identity.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern earned due praise for her exemplary role in offering genuine care and sympathy for the victims of the Christchurch massacre. To appear repeatedly in public donning the hijab was a courageous act, flying in the face of the far-right politicians and leaders in ascendance throughout the Western world. However, the fact that she approved extensions for deployments of New Zealand troops in Iraq and Afghanistan means she is not averse to policies and actions that contribute to the demonisation of Muslims globally. 

War crimes against civilians

Much of New Zealand’s Iraq operations have been carried out alongside Australian forces. It is not known whether Tarrant, an Australian citizen, had any close links to the military, but Australian troops have played a major role in bolstering and supporting the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. They have been accused of carrying out war crimes against civilians, just as British and US troops have. 

The documented claims include an Australian SAS trooper executing an elderly, unarmed detainee; an SAS soldier killing a man with a prosthetic leg, which was taken back to headquarters as a novelty beer-drinking vessel; an SAS commando killing a handcuffed detainee by kicking him off the edge of a cliff; and two Australian soldiers killing five Afghan children during a raid, among other incidents.

Australian soldiers are pictured in southern Iraq in 2006 (AFP)
Australian soldiers are pictured in southern Iraq in 2006 (AFP)

Forty-one Australians and 10 New Zealanders died fighting for their governments in Afghanistan as part of the “War on Terror”. Perhaps Tarrant was seeking revenge for these deaths from the Muslims of Christchurch, or maybe he just hated foreigners in general, and Muslims in particular. Either way, he was enacting his rage against people who had been demonised by the most powerful forces in the world.

The far right’s violent, and frankly unrealistic, “solutions” to the problem of immigration and Muslims may be too dramatic for most people, but their views have been echoed by politicians who operate in the mainstream. 

In fact, far-right views have become so normalised that “respectable” politicians and journalists often echo their sentiments, be it through populist or even reasonable-sounding policy language - especially when the target is Muslims.

Cajoling and deception

In Britain, although the “War on Terror” is currently being waged by a rightwing government, it was the Labour government of Tony Blair that began it through all manner of cajoling and deception. And, while the US vitriol against the Muslim world began under the Republicans of George W Bush, the war continued in earnest under the Democrats of Barack Obama.

Far-right movements throughout the world were emboldened the day Donald Trump became “their” president. Hindu nationalists in India celebrated as much as the Ku Klux Klan in America. 

Russia can bomb Syrian towns and villages in the name of fighting Muslim 'extremists', just as easily as Myanmar can ethnically cleanse Rohingya Muslims 

While the leader of capitalist US can say “Islam hates us” and introduce a “Muslim ban” on immigration, communist China can imprison, torture and “re-educate” a million Uighur Muslims in the name of fighting extremism and eradicating the “mental illness” of Islam.

Russia can bomb Syrian towns and villages in the name of fighting Muslim “extremists”, just as easily as Myanmar can ethnically cleanse Rohingya Muslims in the name of “fighting Islamic terrorism” - a reason that is sure to gather support, even in the silent and weakened corridors of international organisations.

Christchurch must wake us up

Despite the overwhelming support and solidarity shown to the Muslim community in New Zealand, anti-Muslim hate crimes in Britain alone rose by 593 percent in the wake of the Christchurch attacks.

Whatever the true reason for Tarrant’s bloodlust, there is one thing we can be sure of: He is far from alone in his hatred of Muslims. The US and its allies are estimated have killed at least a million Muslims since the invasion of Iraq, equivalent to more than 100 dead Muslims for each dead American.

After Christchurch, Muslim commentators must call out the war on terror as much as far right violence
Read More »

In the words of one journalist: “If the United States wants to improve its image in the Islamic world, it should stop killing Muslims.” The US clearly doesn’t care about its image in the Muslim world.

Until we recognise just how much the most powerful nations in the world have contributed to the vilification of Islam and Muslims, acts of violence against us will become normalised at every level - and that is simply unacceptable.

Christchurch is a watershed that should lead us to greater vocalism, more cooperation and civil action by all, especially Muslims - an attitude of proactivity, not surrender; of compassion grounded in justice, which will change the world for the better.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Moazzam Begg
Moazzam Begg is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, author of Enemy Combatant and outreach director for UK-based campaigning organisation CAGE. Follow him on twitter: @Moazzam_Begg