The worst terror attack in New Zealand’s modern history took place on Friday, and the alleged perpetrator is an Australian.
Appropriately, this calamity has started a process of deep reflection in the man’s home country. Everywhere, decent Australians are asking, how did we get here? Do we own him?
There has been extensive, international discussion about the role of the online subculture of the far right in these events – the codes, memes and signals of internet-mediated white supremacy.
There’s been less reflection on the fact that any 28-year-old in Australia has grown up in a period when racism, xenophobia and a hostility to Muslims in particular, were quickly ratcheting up in the country’s public culture.
In the period of the country’s enthusiastic participation in the War on Terror, Islam and Muslims have frequently been treated as public enemies, and hate speech against them has inexorably been normalised.
Australian racism did not of course begin in 2001. The country was settled by means of a genocidal frontier war, and commenced its independent existence with the exclusion of non-white migrants. White nationalism was practically Australia’s founding doctrine.
But a succession of events in the first year of the millennium led to Islamophobia being practically enshrined as public policy.
First, the so-called Tampa Affair saw a conservative government refuse to admit refugees who had been rescued at sea. It was a naked bid to win an election by whipping up xenophobia and border panic. It worked.
In the years since, despite its obvious brutality, and despite repeated condemnations from international bodies, the mandatory offshore detention of boat-borne refugees in third countries has become bipartisan policy. (The centre-left Labor party sacrificed principle in order to neutralise an issue that they thought was costing them elections.)
The majority of the refugees thus imprisoned have been Muslim. It has often been suggested by politicians that detaining them is a matter of safety – some of them might be terrorists.
Second, the 9/11 attacks drew Australia into the War on Terror in support of its closest ally, and geopolitical sponsor, the United States.
Australian troops spent long periods in Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting and killing Muslims in their own countries. The consequences of this endless war have included the targeting of Australians in Jihadi terror attacks and plots, both at home and abroad.
The wars began with a deluge of propaganda. Later, the terror threat was leveraged to massively enhance surveillance by Australia’s national security state. Muslim Australians have frequently been defined by arms of their own government as a source of danger.
Two years after the war in Iraq commenced, the campaign of Islamophobia culminated in the country’s most serious modern race riots, on Cronulla Beach in December 2005, when young white men spent a summer afternoon beating and throwing bottles at whichever brown people they could find.
Cronulla was a milestone in the development of a more forthright, ugly public nationalism in Australia. Now young men wear flags as capes on Australia Day, a date which is seen as a calculated insult by many Indigenous people. Anzac Day, which commemorates a failed invasion of Turkey, was once a far more ambivalent occasion. In recent years it has moved closer to becoming an open celebration of militarism and imperialism.
Every step of the way, this process has not been hindered by outlets owned by News Corp, which dominates Australia’s media market in a way which citizens of other Anglophone democracies can find difficult to comprehend.
News Corp has the biggest-selling newspapers in the majority of metropolitan media markets, monopolies in many regional markets, the only general-readership national daily, and the only cable news channel. Its influence on the national news agenda remains decisive. And too often it has used this influence to demonise Muslims.
On Anzac Day 2017, a prominent young Australian Muslim woman, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, posted on her personal Facebook page, “LEST.WE.FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…)”, which appeared to draw an equivalence between the suffering of Muslims around the world today, and that of Australia’s diggers during the first world war.
News Corp outlets – especially the Australian – howled about her supposed disrespect for months. Opportunistic conservative politicians lined up to condemn her. Towards the end of the year, she decamped for London, and in a television appearance compared Australia to an “abusive boyfriend”.
On the other hand, News Corp has been far more solicitous to touring grifters from the “alt-right” movement. They gave softball interviews and free publicity to Milo Yiannopoulos, Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux ahead of their national tours. They also gave Gavin McInnes the soft touch, but his plans were aborted when he was denied a visa on character grounds.
More significantly still, News Corp has itself recently run campaigns based on white nationalist talking points.
A year ago, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph ran reports on the alleged plight of white farmers in South Africa, in a way that echoed far-right myths about “white genocide”. This worked well enough to elicit a short-lived policy proposal from the immigration minister to give white farmers “special attention”.
News Corp also had a big hand in promoting the idea over the last few years that “African gangs” were holding the city of Melbourne to ransom. This campaign was also in lockstep with the rhetoric of local neo-Nazis such as Blair Cottrell.
And last August, News Corp’s most influential rightwing pundit, Andrew Bolt, wrote a column which explicitly raised the prospect of demographic replacement – a recurring obsession of the white nationalists.
Bolt depicted a possible future in which a “tidal wave of immigrants sweeps away our national identity”. For Bolt – who has previously been found to have breached Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act – the country was under demographic attack.
This normalisation of white nationalist concepts is also visible in politics. Senator Fraser Anning has had a hit of global social media fame this week after he appeared to blame the victims of the Christchurch massacre, and again when a young protester cracked an egg on Anning’s bald pate.
Anning is hardly alone – white nationalist anxieties have continually surfaced at the heart of Australia’s political process. In 2016 the Australian Senate held an inquiry into halal food, in which senators asked questions which appeared to owe a debt to rightwing conspiracy theories about certification funding terrorism.
Anning himself was elected as a result of the revival of Australian anti-immigrant populist party, One Nation, whose recent elected members have included an alleged sovereign citizen. Last year the Australian Senate almost passed a motion that “It’s OK to be white”, which would have seen a 4chan meme approved by the national parliament.
Just last week, publicity-hungry former Labor leader Mark Latham, now running for state office with One Nation, suggested that self-identified Indigenous people be DNA tested before they receive welfare.
And at least until Friday, it looked like a desperate conservative national government might run a race-based election, reaching once more for the same playbook the party has used for decades. (In 2011, the current prime minister Scott Morrison reportedly recommended an anti-Muslim election strategy to his Liberal party colleagues). Former race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane said the government was “campaigning on fear, seeking to incite hysteria about asylum seekers and border security”.
Australia now has a public collection of open white nationalists – from antisemitic podcasters to would-be infiltrators of mainstream conservative parties.
They need to be understood in their proper context: the decades-long drumbeat of xenophobia and Muslim-hate, which has issued from some of the most powerful institutions in the country.
This is the environment in which Muslims, refugees and immigrants have come to be understood as enemies of Australia. It may be an environment that has nurtured white supremacist terror.
Writer: Jason Wilson is a Guardian Australia columnist.