This essay, on the relationship between anti-Muslim bigotry and far-right terror, was my Observer column this week.  It was published on 24 March 2019, under the headline ‘Silencing Islamophobes is as futile a response as banning the Qur’an’.

What drove Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch gunman, to commit his heinous acts? It’s a question that has, understandably, occupied much media space . A key debate has been over the role of anti-Muslim hatred and its entrenchment in mainstream society.

In an open letter, Britain’s counter-terror chief, Neil Basu, called out the mainstream media for the ‘messaging’ that fuels far-right terrorists. It’s a theme echoed by many on the left.

Rightwing commentators such as Melanie Phillips have dismissed such criticism as itself ‘peddling hatred, lies and incitement‘. Spectator columnist Douglas Murray insisted that the only person responsible for the massacre was ‘the gunman himself’. But, he protested, ‘that hasn’t stopped all manner of people on social media… seeking to apportion blame’ on people such as himself.

This was the same Douglas Murray who, two years ago, after jihadist attacks in Britain, claimed that Jeremy Corbyn was ‘guilty of facilitating the extremists’ and that while there was only a small number of terrorists there was a ‘far larger number of people who provide the mood music for these people’. Presumably, ‘mood music’ matters and the apportioning of blame is legitimate only when it comes to Islamist terrorists.

Hypocrisy is not confined to the right. Many on the left saw the Christchurch attacks as evidence that free speech had gone too far. Few, though, would have seen the Manchester Arena bombing in May 2017 or the Paris massacres of November 2015 as a ‘free speech issue’. Fewer still would support the likes of the Dutch populist politician Geert Wilders, who has demanded a ban on the Qur’an, which he damns as ‘hate speech’ that leads jihadists to commit mass murder.

There are, of course, differences between Christchurch and the Manchester bombing or the terror in Paris, differences in context and causation. But double standards are no more acceptable on the left than they are in the writings of figures such as Murray. He is right that ‘mood music’ matters. Creating or contributing to a culture that sees migrants, especially Muslim migrants, as ‘invaders’, insists that Muslims undermine ‘western values’ and regards the promotion of ‘white racial self-interest’ as a legitimate goal inevitably leads to Muslims being seen as a problem.

There is, though, no straight road from this to the horrors of Christchurch. I have written about the complex social and political roots of western jihadism. The same is true of white nationalist terror too. We need to understand, for instance, the ways in which social and political grievances become refracted through the politics of identity to take the form of hostility towards migrants and Muslims and how this can lead some to acts of terror. To see a direct line between Murray’s writing and the Christchurch killings is no more plausible than the claim that the Qur’an explains jihadism.

Tarrant’s ‘manifesto’, which he published online to justify his acts, is a grim clutter of anti-Muslim hatred, white identity politics, hostility to globalisation and a defence of environmentalism. The Christchurch attack, he writes, ‘was not an attack on diversity, but an attack in the name of diversity. To ensure diverse peoples remain diverse, separate, unique, undiluted and unrestrained in cultural or ethnic expression and autonomy.’

It’s a kind of rabid mishmash of left and right that is often found on the white nationalist fringe, as well as among jihadists. It reveals far-right terror to be a more complex phenomenon than many on the left want to believe.

Many rightwing commentators, including Murray and Phillips, argue that they are not hostile to Muslims, simply critical of Islam. It’s an important distinction, but also one that’s gravely misused.

I have long argued that the very term Islamophobia is problematic because it conflates criticism of Islam and hatred of Muslims. As I wrote in a report by the anti-racist Runnymede Trust, this conflation enables both Muslims ‘to attack criticism of Islam as illegitimate because it is judged to be “Islamophobic”’ and ‘permits those who promote hatred to dismiss condemnation of that hatred as stemming from an illegitimate desire to avoid criticism of Islam’.

We can see this in contemporary discussions in which those promoting hostility to Muslims as people are able to say: ‘Not me, guv. I’m just criticising Islam.’ There’s a parallel here with the antisemitism/anti-Zionism debate. Antisemites often use anti-Zionism as cover for their odious views. At the same time, many exploit the fact of such antisemitism to damn all anti-Zionism as unacceptable and to try to close down debate.

The line between legitimate criticism and illegitimate bigotry is crossed when criticism of ideas or beliefs becomes transposed into prejudice about people. There is, though, also a large grey area on the borderlands of bigotry in which commentators are not overtly anti-Muslim but play on themes and tropes of bigotry, such as the ‘colonisation’ of Europe by Muslims or ‘the Great Replacement’, the conspiracy theory about white Europeans being replaced by non-Europeans that provided the title for Tarrant’s manifesto. ‘Europe will not be Europe and the peoples of Europe will have lost the only place in the world we had to call home.’ No, not Tarrant in his manifesto but Douglas Murray in his bestselling 2017 book The Strange Death of Europe.

It’s not just figures on the right who inhabit this grey area. Liberals demand restrictions on Muslim immigration as a necessity to defend secular society. Social democratic parties across Europe have ramped up rhetoric against Muslims and migrants, citing a need to stem the rise of the far right. The creation of Fortress Europe, and of Fortress Australia, and their immoral immigration policies, have helped legitimise the idea of continents under siege from marauding migrants.

All this is why the calls for stricter censorship to curtail anti-Muslim bigotry miss the point. The dehumanisation of Muslims and of migrants is a process that happens in many ways and through many agencies. Banning rightwing thinkers hostile to Muslims will no more stop terrorism acts than banning the Qur’an will stop jihadist fighters. Anti-Muslim bigotry was just one strand of Tarrant’s warped worldview. Should we censor, too, the identity politics and anti-globalisation sentiments that also provided the frame for his intent?

Condensing complex issues into easy solutions, imposing meaningless forms of censorship and finger-pointing at the most visible targets have been the stock responses to jihadist terror. We should not replicate that when it comes to far-right terror.


  1. Weiss-Nix

    From my experience any criticism ref. Islam or traditions is quickly silenced by labeling it as prejudice and mere generalization – or with accusations that the critics are Nazis.
    Of course, you have to generalize because you cannot discuss individual opinions, Islam practices & traditions.
    Religions or ethnic groups in general have to face criticism as a group….otherwise the members of the group can always escape from responsibility….The group is responsible for the individual and vice versa. We are living in families, communities and societies with basic values and rules how to live together – and not as individuals only.

  2. Andrew

    Thank Kenan, thoughtful as always.
    Would like to think the next time you get invited down to Australia you might be able to pay NZ a visit as well.
    Yours would be an important counterbalance to a lot of the identity politics driven (the term being only a device to silence voices of ‘people of colour’ apparently) responses to Christchurch.
    The standard tropes about defence of free speech only being a right wing excuse to defend bigots, and anything not in line with critical race theory being ‘white supremacy’ have been common place.
    Those in NZ who’s reflective response would be to view the Muslim community as simply a ‘threat’ has been unsurprisingly largely silent. Hopefully reflecting on the dignity which has been the hallmark of the community’s response.

  3. damon

    Our modern diversity has certainly set people up in different opposing camps in how they make sense of any of these things. Who is right? Or who is more right than others that oppose them?
    It’s a complete head-on car crash of opposite political cultures.
    Personally, I’d like the different sides to talk things through with each other. But they won’t.
    If you (one) are not prepared to debate with Douglas Murray, because you think he’s too right wing, racist or Islamophobic, you may just be part of the problem yourself.
    The Christchurch killer was probably driven more by his own narcissism than anything else.
    But he fed off this mess of what we’ve created that is a sorry excuse for any kind of debate or narrative around the wider issues of how the world changes and mixes together. A short time ago, he was just a clueless school kid, so I don’t think we should be looking at what were his ideas and motivations all that closely. He’s only latched on to this world of conflicting views over identity and changing societies comparatively recently.

    Other people have been arguing about these things much longer.
    The problem is I think, the entrenched views. They’re irreconcilable.
    Do we really have “Fortress Europe” when there has been such wide scale immigration into Western Europe over decades? A small town like Luton has a Muslim population of 50,000 I’ve read.
    Does that make any difference?
    Does it make it any different to Basildon or Carlisle? It does of course ….. but that’s a Douglas Murray kind of argument, so people who don’t want to talk about that, will counter another way.
    By questioning the person who mentions such a thing probably.

    In their world view, east Africa (where I am now) is just the same as east Europe.
    “What’s the difference? It’s just people” they will insist. When I see men and boys here in Ethiopia hitting small donkeys with big sticks (there are donkeys everywhere here) – I do see a very big difference between the cultures.
    We used to treat horses like that in Britain a hundred and fifty years ago. The same with allowing orphan destitute children to scavenge and beg in the streets. But according to people who insist that everyone and everywhere is the same, a small and pretty homogeneous country like Slovenia (population two million) should really have about two hundred thousand people from Africa and poorer parts of Asia, move there so that it can become modernly diverse. Even if people in Slovenia don’t really want that kind of future.

    As for particularly anti-Muslim bigotry ….. it’s just something we’re stuck with at this time.
    Hopefully the world can change and “grow out of it”. But it won’t be for a couple of generations – if ever.
    As faultlines can run so deep. Turkey’s leader was even showing part of the Christchurch killers video at election rallies. We are kind of stuffed in my opinion.

  4. Cable Strada

    When you wave your hands and blow smoke about this issue, you never address one highly salient point. Unlike whites, the Muslim community and other communities of colour are overwhelmingly in favour of tough action against “free speech”, i.e. hate speech that endangers them and leads to such atrocities as the Christchurch Islamocide. Your own sister paper, the Guardian, has published a letter by hundreds of Muslim leaders from right around the world calling for an end to the lethal toxicity of “free speech”:

    Letter: Muslim leaders condemn the Christchurch attack and call on authorities to increase efforts to combat Islamophobia

    […] The massacre of Muslims did not just begin with bullets fired from the barrel of Tarrant’s gun. Rather it was decades in the making: inspired by Islamophobic media reports, hundreds and thousands of column inches of hatred printed in the press, many Muslim-hating politicians and unchecked social-media bigotry.

    I support open borders because, inter alia, I know that the Muslim community and other communities of colour have no time for “free speech” and other white male fetishes of the so-called Enlightenment. Open borders are the quickest way to smash white hegemonic racism and create a progressive, egalitarian society. BAME migrants want better lives for themselves and their children. They do not want racists like Douglas Murray and Donald Trump to supply the theory that guides the practice of homicidal Islamophobes like the Christchurch shooter.

    In the light of this overwhelming Muslim / BAME opposition to “free speech”, I reach a sad and unescapable conclusion. Namely, that you, Kenan Malik, are a coconut like Salman Rushdie. You are brown on the outside and white on the inside. The two of you are not consciously racist or Islamophobic, but you nevertheless side with racists and Islamophobes, and advance their toxic agenda. Fortunately, you and Rushdie are a small minority among the Muslim / BAME community. As the numbers of BAME folk in Europe and the United States increases, so increases the pressure against “free speech” in its perverted white male sense and for free speech in its genuine sense, i.e. speech that advances progressive causes.

    For example, Somali-American Congresswoman Ilhan Omar opposes the racist discourse of Donald Trump and supports the progressive discourse that calls out Israel and its American supporters for their complicity in the oppression of the Palestinian community.

    Ilhan Omar, Diane Abbott and other BAME women are the intersectional female future. You and Rushdie can join them or continue to fetishize the toxic white male past. The choice is yours.

    • damon

      “Open borders are the quickest way to smash white hegemonic racism and create a progressive, egalitarian society.”

      Cable Strada, could I ask you which European countries would be outside your rather alarming “plans”?
      Ireland, or Iceland? Latvia and the Baltic States? Poland or Hungary?
      Or must all succumb to overwhelming waves of new immigration?
      Your ideas sound a bit like the New Zealand killer was relishing.
      He wanted to promote strife and conflict along racial lines.

      • Cable Strada

        Such “plans” are only “alarming” to white racists. I do not want to promote strife and conflict: I want to abolish the manure heap where those things grow. The manure heap is called “free speech”.

        • damon

          Calling a person of colour a coconut is racist by the way.
          It sounds like you’d like a bit of a dictatorship.
          Maybe a bit like Turkey right now. Or Egypt.

    • Andrew

      So self appointed ‘community leaders’ and people claiming to speak on behalf of their communities get to speak for all Muslim/BME people and anyone who doesn’t toe this line is a ‘coconut’.
      Why is anyone non white or Muslim forced to be represented by these people on pains of being accused of being ‘white’.
      Would these self same community leaders views on gay rights and women’s rights be part of the self same ‘progressive future’?
      Also, how exactly is accusing some of loyalty to another country for supporting a particular policy position ‘progressive’
      Would say Southall Black Sisters also be ‘coconuts’ for their criticism of women being pressured into using Sharia tribunals?
      How exactly is enforcing a blasphemy code ‘progressive’?
      Does shutting down speech also apply to Christians or is it only appropriate for religions where the majority of adherents have brown skin?
      I don’t get the sense you’ve really thought this through.

      • Cable Strada

        If you disagree that BME communities are overwhelmingly opposed to “free speech”, i.e. hate speech, you are welcome to provide evidence to the contrary. Top tip: it isn’t there. For example, BAME communities in the UK vote overwhelmingly for the Labour party, which (I am glad to say) has no time for “free speech”. In the United States, BAME communities vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic party, which (I am glad to say) has no more time for free speech than Labour does. This is why open borders will hasten the progressive future, by swamping the white racists who vote for the toxic Tories and the repulsive Republicans.

        To repeat my invitation: Ilhan Omar, Diane Abbott and other BAME women are the intersectional female future. You, Kenan and Rushdie can join them or continue to fetishize the toxic white male past. The choice is yours.

        (But I suspect, with a name like “Andrew”, that you will be far too enamoured of white male privilege to do the right and decent thing.)

        • Andrew

          I think i’m coming to the conclusion we’re all being trolled. An argument this incoherent can’t be for real.

      • Cable Strada

        Yeah, my arguments are so “incoherent” that comrades of mine, deploying the same logic and facts, have successfully supported the Muslim community in closing down hate speech at Bristol University. The Muslim community led the way because, as I said, they have no time for “free speech” in its false white male sense:

        “Islamophobic” Free Speech Soc event cancelled after pressure from UoB Islamic Society

        UoB’s Free Speech Society has been forced by the University and the Students’ Union to cancel a talk this evening entitled “Extreme Speakers vs Free Speech”.

        The decision comes after increased pressure from BRISOC (Bristol University Islamic Society), who criticised the event as insensitive in light of the Christchurch mosque shootings on the 15th March.

        In an open letter to the University, students voiced concerns over Emma Fox, a member of the Henry Jackson Society think tank, talking at the event.

        Progressive students at Bristol say this:

        This isn’t a matter of “free speech”, it simply a display of the lack of empathy that that group maintains. Anti-Muslim voices and pseudoscientific ideas being given space and platforms and affording them validity unquestionably cause real harm in society for many people of colour. We must not allow these charlatans of “free speech” to put our Muslim friends and siblings in danger, especially in the current political atmosphere.

        Solidarity to all Muslim people in this difficult time.

        Death to fascism. No pasaran.

        Solidarity to Muslim people means shutting down Islamophobic “free speech” wherever and wherever it rears its toxic head. That looks pretty coherent to me, Andrew.

        • damon

          Cable Strada, I looked up the report that Emma Fox had compiled about extremist behaviour at British universities ….. and it’s this that you anti free speech activists want suppressed I think.
          What exactly extremism is or isn’t is precisely what needs to be discussed.
          But what I’ve seen from looking up many of the names of speakers who have been giving talks at universities, many of them do seem to be somewhat “dubious” …. to say the least.
          All kinds of Islamists and cranks – like the people from Cage for example.

          I understand why the easiest thing to do in situations like this, is to “shoot the messenger” and call her a fascist etc. But I think it’s actually an underhand tactic to prevent unflattering information coming to light.

          Have you even looked through what she’s put together in her report?

          Click to access HJS-Extreme-Speakers-and-Events-Report-.pdf

        • Cable Strada

          “I’ve found that people who say “No pasaran” are usually idiots.”

          And I’ve found that people who support “free speech” are always either haters or enablers of hate. As examples of the first group I give you Donald Trump, Victor Orban, Matteo Salvini, Douglas Murray and Katie Hopkins. Notice what they have in common. No doubt you share that toxic commonality too.

          I stand in solidarity with Bristol University Islamic Society and their successful campaign to close down “free speech” and protect the Muslim community from its toxicity. I invite you to join me. But no doubt you will prefer to stay on the wrong side of history.

  5. damon

    “As examples of the first group I give you Donald Trump,”

    That’s an odd example to give, seeing how Trump has attacked the media so vociferously.
    I think you are quite a good example of a political view that has to be challenged and analysed though Cable Strada. I’m not going to say that I fully support Emma Fox’s view and her report on extremism ….. as that also needs a thorough analysis. Some of the people she’s listed as being extremists may be on it just because of her own biased interpretation. I know that right wing anti-Corbyn and strong Israel supporters are guilty of their own very strong sectarianism and distortions too and that some of these political events and talks at universities may be perfectly legitimate.

    But my suspicion is that you and your colleagues have not even gone as far as to look at them.
    What really freaks those people (on the far left) out is that someone who is not a natural ally, has been coldly watching and taking notes about what kinds of activities the different political students societies are undertaking at universities.
    It doesn’t look good when it’s written down and speaker’s known reactionary views and previous statements are highlighted for all to see.

    As I say – some of the speakers could be being unfairly maligned by being included in such a report.
    Or even if there are “extremists” involved, it still could be legitimate debate.
    But where’s the scrutiny from the people who got this event closed down, and would be mobilised again if someone as harmless as Germaine Greer should be roumoured to be giving a talk anywhere on a campus …… where’s the scrutiny of the events highlighted in Emma Fox’s report?

    I think the answer is, that there is none. Your “No Pasaran” is just sectarian posturing.
    The far left and the Islamophobic right …. are almost equally guilty of making this whole issue the mess it is.
    There’s no need to hide, spin and obfuscate. We just need to look at the facts.

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