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New Zealand mosque terror attack: Govts should prepare for extremist backlash, not treat attack as one-off

The world has witnessed numerous terror attacks by radical extremists who have had a connection to Islam. However, the backlash against innocent followers of Islam have been far and few between even though sentiments after each such act by radical Islamists have been intense. The context being referred to here: the terror attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand on 15 March, 2019, that resulted in 49 having been killed at the Al Noor mosque, seven at the Linwood mosque located in the suburbs, and one person who subsequently died from injuries in the hospital.

The 49 that were gunned down were Muslims who'd gathered for the traditional Friday prayers, which most followers of Islam attend in neighbourhoods as part of community worship. The specific act of targeting innocent worshippers was initially not officially deemed as a terrorist act and was being treated as an action by a shooter. However, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern called the incident a terrorist attack in a press conference, saying the suspects held "extremist views" that have no place in New Zealand or the world.

 New Zealand mosque terror attack: Govts should prepare for extremist backlash, not treat attack as one-off

This image taken from the alleged shooter’s video, shows him as he drives and he looks over to three guns on the passenger side of his vehicle in New Zealand. AP

The Bangladesh cricket team, scheduled to play a match at Christchurch, had a narrow escape as they were alerted by sounds of fire just before entering one of the mosques. The perpetrators of the horrendous shooting are reported to have posted on social media their intent to carry out the act almost 20 minutes before they actually executed it and even live-streaming it.

In a social media post just before the attack, an account that is believed to belong to one of the attackers also posted a link to an unsigned 74-page manifesto filled with white supremacist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim ideas with explanations for an impending attack. Of the four suspects arrested, one was released but it is being reported that of the remaining three at least one is a woman and another 28-year-old man named Brenton Tarrant — allegedly one of the gunmen — who is an Australian national, presumably a white Anglo-Saxon.

Even as the investigations are on in a nation rarely known to witness violence of such a nature, it is necessary to analyse the status of transnational radical extremist violence. The demographics of New Zealand reveal an interesting fact. The Christian population of New Zealand came down from 2,027,418 (54.16 percent) in 2006 to 1,858,977 (47.65 percent) in 2013. On the other hand, the Muslim population went up from 36,072 (0.98 percent) to 46,149 (1.18 percent) and increase of 26 percent. This is due to immigration and possibly the decrease in Christian population due to emigration, primarily to Australia where a special quota for people from New Zealand exists. Interestingly, the migration of people following Hinduism saw an increase of 25,000 between two censuses, amounting to 38 percent increase. Backlash against immigrants in most countries, however, appears largely limited to Muslims which is what this act was.

It was not a lone wolf action because there were two gunmen acting in unison and vehicles strapped with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) found outside the mosques which could not be detonated post the shootings. Obviously, these were placed as part of a professionally planned action with intent of causing even more casualties once the worshippers attempted to escape.

While there have been Islamophobic attacks in US and Europe arising out of the backlash from sentiments connected with terrorist acts by entities connected to people following the Islamic faith, the tide of Islamophobia has been witnessing a downtrend. Islamist radical ideology however, has not experienced any major dilution although acts of terror in the last two years have drastically reduced from the high seen in the period of the rise of the Islamic State in West Asia. An Islamophobic backlash in a faraway Pacific country may appear out of sync with international trends, but highlights the power of online networks to keep alive a kind of communal hatred through radical ideology.

The internet is a world yet in discovery. Its effect on human psyche and the exponential capability it affords individuals and groups to self-motivate and absorb negative ideologies, has probably not yet emerged to potentially devastating levels. The Islamic State could run its empire through it and attract 40,000 foreign fighters to its ranks. Trigger events are not necessary to generate backlash since legacy literature and visuals are stored on the internet which can be randomly picked up any time and lead to isolated motivation; that can happen for any ideology, not necessarily Islamic radicalism.

In the instant event at Christchurch it is being said that the suspects were on no watch lists either in Australia or New Zealand: which is how it will increasingly happen. The internet remains the devil’s workshop where identities remain blurred and information is for the asking. New Zealand is a popular destination for immigrants because of its liberal environment, tolerance and positive value system. It has had no act of radical violence. In neighbouring Australia there have been low-level terror acts.

While the effect of immigration has not yet negatively disturbed livelihoods and status in the Pacific region, the trends from Europe and US are fast traveling there in terms of thinking and psyche. Ardern displayed quick thinking in immediately declaring the shootings as acts of terror, thus saving unnecessary criticism from the Islamic world. There may be a tendency to treat this unfortunate event in New Zealand as a potentially one-off act.

That would be a mistake because the social environment in nations with hybrid demographics, which include Muslims and other immigrants, will remain vulnerable. Immigration is unlikely to reduce due to backlash: as has already been witnessed in Europe. That and the increasing notoriety of the internet could create a lethal backlash which governments and communities would need to note for the future.

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Updated Date: Mar 16, 2019 12:19:38 IST

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