Exterminating the Other: The Christchurch massacre, Islamophobia, and settler colonialism

In 1904, the Otago Daily Times received and published a letter addressed to its editor in which the writer explained in earnest that 

Many people do not understand who Assyrians are or how they come here. As a matter of fact, our race is one that stands high in history and in the scale of civilisation, and one of the chief reasons why we leave our own land is that, being all Christians, we have found life unbearable there under the iniquitous rule of the savage Turks, under whose control unhappily our country at present is. We are practically driven into other lands. 

Part of a series of heated exchanges that spanned the duration of several weeks, the letter itself came as a response to diatribes, by that time not infrequent, against the presence of ‘hawkers’ and other ‘undesirables’ crowding the streets of Ōtepoti/Dunedin. 

The ‘Assyrian hawkers’ in question were in fact migrant workers originally and predominantly from Mt Lebanon, though they had by then become accustomed to the derogatory moniker as a result of fierce anti-immigration debates in the late nineteenth century. At the height of these, politicians railed against the Assyrians, alongside the Asiatics, Hindoos and Chinamen, as they sought to enact restrictions on immigration and itinerancy in order to preserve the white race and its ways of life. 

The excerpt above is noteworthy in its reference to the ‘savage Turk’, and in this way it is not unusual where the narratives of other Lebanese diasporas in the early-twentieth-century Anglo world are concerned. What is striking is that, as historians have noted, experiences of Turkish tyranny were exaggerated and narratives of ‘persecution’ were in fact a myth, one whose provenance can be mostly attributed to a rising Christian Lebanese nationalism opposed to Ottoman rule. Partly, however, it can also be attributed to its popularity as a discursive staple of diasporic identity in the ‘New Worlds’ of the Americas and Australasia. 

That this myth should be recruited in migrant claims to the fraternity of enlightened, European civilisation speaks to the currency of anti-Muslim sentiment in budding settler cultures, not least that of New Zealand. In this case, one’s racial credentials as a migrant from the Middle East itself are contingent not only on a socio-historical proximity to Europe but also on the repudiation of the scourge of Islam, or in terms more appropriate for the time, ‘Mahometanism’. Indeed, and as one writer put it, the ‘cult’ presented a singular threat to Christian, European civilisation. Published in a Catholic periodical, the tract was particularly concerned with Islam’s appeal to the natives and the exponential rate of Muslim conversion across the empire, opining that Mahometanism ‘is developing throughout the whole of Asia and Africa a power of expansion and fecundity of proselytism far beyond that of Christianity’. This view, moreover, was by no means simply that of a fringe, evangelical camp but had both political and scholarly purchase, the quote itself having been taken from an academic lecture on the ‘British Empire in India’. 

As we have witnessed more recently, such discourses tend to culminate in material consequences of the most grotesque variety. A year after the debate in the Otago Daily Times, Lionel Terry, a white supremacist and author of a manifesto not unlike those with which we have today become familiar, walked into Wellington’s Chinatown and shot and killed an elderly, disabled Chinese man. Terry’s popularity was such that thousands signed a petition for his release after he was admitted to a psychiatric facility, and when he escaped his confinement, locals of the Otago bush hid and fed him. 

Thus it would be remiss to interpret such episodes as historical aberrations or as expressing  targeted forms of racism exclusive to and exhausted by the violent incident itself, as in a simple matter of excessive ‘Islamophobia’ or ‘Sinophobia’. The Terrys of yesterday and the Tarrants of today were instruments of a cultural logic that structures the collective ethos of settler society itself. This is a society that, whether latently or otherwise, feels it is perpetually under threat, and as such furnishes itself with the means to eliminate whatever it deems to instantiate this threat. 

More than any other colonising group, settlers have embodied the colonial tendency and the collective will to exterminate, rather than subjugate, the colonised. Regardless of the structural imperative it consummates—whether that of territorial acquisition or securitisation—this tendency must provide through racialisation the necessary cause of its enactment. In other words, the colonised must be discursively ‘prepared’ for extermination. It is sufficient to consider in this regard the racial constructions of Indigenous peoples as a ‘dying race’ unfit for survival, let alone progress; or that of Jews as the parasitic and unproductive element of financial capitalism; or that of Muslims as a radically ungovernable and proliferating alien other. In all these respects, populations are racialised in such a way as to render their continued existence as superfluous, if not directly detrimental to that of the dominant group. These become, ultimately, redundant populations, unlike, for instance, those racialised as the essential sources of labour for the coloniser. 

It is in this way that the history of Islamophobia has dovetailed with the history of Indigenous dispossession in New Zealand. The cross-fertilisation of Empire’s racial discourses is best captured in this recounting of the 1860s Hauhau resistance in Taranaki under the leadership of Te Ua Haumēne: 

Te Ua had succeeded in imbuing his fanatic disciples with an unquestioning Moslem-like faith in the potency of the Hauhau cult…[h]e was the Mahomet of the Taranaki people…and his pretences to supernatural power has parallels in the records of the Mahdi’s wars in the Soudan, and in other campaigns waged under the banner of Islam…[a]nd many a deluded Hauhau fell to the rifles of the white men before the Maori confidence in the efficacy of [Te Ua’s] charm was shaken.

What is at stake here is not simply colonial difference but how colonial difference affects colonial practice. The Hauhau and the Muslim are not simply alike in their difference from white men but they are alike in their irredeemable, and hence dispensable, otherness. This was a far cry from earlier characterisations of Māori as warrior-like but noble and ultimately susceptible to the civilising effects of Christianity and enlightenment. While the latter facilitated the establishment of missions and mercantile trade during the early stages of colonisation, it quickly gave way to more sinister racial tropes as the hunger for land required the liquidation of its prior occupants. Accordingly, the discourse of ‘fanaticism’ proved instrumental, as ever providing a warrant for unchecked colonial violence. 

In an important way, this discourse signalled the end of Europe’s aspirations to absolute hegemony, and to its ability to organise the native’s consent to its civilisational prerogatives. Irrational, unpredictable, and beyond saving, religious ‘fanaticism’ appeared to the European as a marker not of imperial hubris but of the ungovernable and thus eradicable nature of the savage. By the time of the Taranaki wars, the British were already reconsidering their subjects’ capacity for civilisation due to their experiences in India. Convinced of the corrosive and corrupting influence of Islam, some offered a novel interpretation of the then-recent Sepoy mutiny (1857), again highlighting the cross-referential efficacy of racial discourses. Imagining Islam and Hinduism as New Zealand volcanoes, a missionary journal theorised that under British rule, Hindus had ‘long been torpid and inactive’ like Ruapehu, while Muslims, like Tongariro, ‘had continued to emit smoke’ before finally erupting in an explosion of violence. Insofar as it symptomatically registered deeply set colonial anxieties, this was a fitting metaphor. Proving no less futile than the mastery over nature, the failed quest to master humanity could only be sublimated as so many threatening others destined for extinction. 

In white supremacy one hears a petulant and contemptible, but no less dangerous, howl of desperation: the morbid desperation of those who want the entire world at their heel and encountering in reality a resistance to their whims. What is exemplified by, but certainly not exceptional to, settler colonialism is its capacity to channel and instrumentalise this very desperation as a site for the reassertion of colonial power. From frontier wars and Indigenous genocides to the global war on terror to mass shootings at synagogues and mosques, extra-legal and exceptionalist violence abounds where whiteness is structured in narratives of its own decline and even reversal. The inability to impose one’s will on the universe becomes equated with the excessive demands and presence of a racial other; or, what is the same, the racial other as in itself an excess. Thus, in the Christchurch mosque shooter’s myopic fixation on the ‘invaders’, an entire history of white-settler anxiety resonates. While the terms in which this anxiety finds expression are wont to change from one iteration to another, with ‘fertility rates’ substituting ‘conversion rates’, the modality of power it makes possible remains the same: elimination of ungovernable and dispensable others.

About the author

Faisal Al-Asaad

Faisal Al-Asaad is an Iraq-born writer and researcher based in Aotearoa/New Zealand. His main research interest is in social and critical theory, and his writing focuses on race, settler colonialism and Islamophobia.

More articles by Faisal Al-Asaad

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