IntersectionalityRace The Christchurch Mosque ‘Shootings’: Why Are White People Never Called Terrorists?

The Christchurch Mosque ‘Shootings’: Why Are White People Never Called Terrorists?

What the Christchurch mosque 'shootings' tell us about the media's racialised rhetoric surrounding terrorism and the ways in which it contributes to racism, Islamophobia and white hegemony.

On 15 March 2019, during Friday prayer, a man consecutively opened fired in the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand. The attack killed 50 people and injured 50 others and is being called the “deadliest mass shooting in modern New Zealand history”. Brenton Harrison Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian man has been accused of carrying out the attack. Not only did Tarrant live-stream a part of the attack, he uploaded a 73-paged manifesto labelled The Great Replacement, which recorded his white supremacist beliefs behind the attack. Brenton Tarrant has been called a ‘mass shooter’, a ‘right-wing extremist’, a ‘white nationalist’, an ‘attacker’ and a ‘gunman’, and his actions have been called an ‘attack’, a ‘mass shooting’ and even a ‘massacre’, but almost nowhere has he been called a ‘terrorist’ and his actions an act of ‘terrorism’.

Let’s look at the definition of terrorism for a second. According to NATO, terrorism is “The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence against individuals or property in an attempt to coerce or intimidate governments or societies to achieve political, religious or ideological objectives.” According to the Tarrant’s ‘manifesto, he carried out the attack “to most of all show the invaders that our lands will never be their lands, our homelands are our own and that, as long as a white man still lives, they will never conquer our lands and they will never replace our people.” He has also called himself a ‘kebab removalist’, disclosing that he came to New Zealand with the specific purpose of carrying out an attack on the country’s Muslim community. Brenton Tarrant’s actions literally and figuratively fit the textbook definition of terrorism, yet the failure of the media and law enforcement authorities to call him a terrorist, reveals the ways in which we as a society racialise terror.

Terrorism has become synonymous with Islamic extremism, which not only reinforces the prevailing climate of Islamophobia but also attempts to justify it. It was precisely this Islamophobia that fuelled Friday’s terrorist attacks, and it is about time mainstream media begins to take accountability for its racialized rhetoric surrounding terrorism and the ways in which it contributes to racism and Islamophobia, while perpetuating white hegemony.

the failure of the media and law enforcement authorities to call him a terrorist, reveals the ways in which we as a society racialise terror.

In light of the terror attacks on Friday, there has once again been a hue and cry on the rise of ‘white nationalism’ and ‘right-wing extremism’. The intermittent nature of this debate in countries that pride themselves on their ‘war against terror’ stands testament to the ways in which acts of terrorism committed by white and/or non-Muslim identifying people are not viewed as being part of a white supremacist ideology and system. Instead, terrorism committed by ‘White’ perpetrators is viewed as separate instances of violence caused by individual pathology.

When Dylan Roof, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, opened fire at a Black congregation prayer service in Charleston (California), killing 9 African Americans people, in the hopes of starting a ‘race war’, his act was seen as a ‘hate crime’ and not as an act of terrorism. The FBI did not think that Roof’s intention of starting a ‘race war’ and establishing the white race as ‘superior’ was enough of a ‘political motivation’. His history of social withdrawal, drug abuse and access to right-wing extremism through the internet was made publicly known.

In 2015, Robert Dear fatally shot three people and injured nine in a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, his actions inspired by a ‘warped understanding of the Christian faith’ and its anti-abortion stance. In 2016, Omar Mateen, a Muslim identifying man, fatally shot 49 people from a gay nightclub in Orlando, citing homophobic and Islamic extremist motivations. He was rightly called a ‘domestic terrorist’, but it also begs the question as to the likes of Roof, Dear and Tarrant have always been called ‘mass murderers’ and not ‘terrorists’.

When an act of violence is called a ‘mass murder’ or a ‘hate crime’, it becomes de-politicised – an individual act whose motivating ideology is seen as an aberration, rather than a part of a system or climate. By calling Roof’s act of killing African American people in a place of worship a ‘mass murder’, the media and law enforcement ignores the deeply political system of right-wing extremism and white nationalism that has allowed his racist ideology to fester and manifest in such a violent way.

Not only does the media racialise terrorism by coining ‘White and/or non-Muslim’ identifying people as ‘terrorists’ less often, it also does so in the narratives they peddle. Roof was labelled as ‘mentally disturbed’, while Dear’s ‘Christian extremism’ was conveniently overlooked, or rightly called a ‘warped understanding’ of the faith.

The FBI did not think that Roof’s intention of started a ‘race war’ and establish the white race as ‘superior’ was enough of a ‘political motivation’.

However, Mateen was not accorded any of these concessions. His ‘Islamic faith’ was in the limelight, not his ‘warped understanding of it’, and not many media accounts covered his history of mental illness. “When a Muslim commits an act of terrorism, he or she is seen as representative of the faith and community, while a white person who commits an act of terrorism is represented as an individual with a biographical, political and psychological narrative that causally explains him or her away as a ‘bad apple’, aberration, deviant or psychopath” reads an article in openDemocracy.

This argument is in no way an attempt to explain away the atrocious act committed by Mateen, rather it is a commentary on racially skewed ways in which the media portrays acts of violence and thereby contributes to the rhetoric of all ‘terrorists are Muslims’, while reducing white nationalism to an individual ideology and not a system of extremist thinking.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, “right-wing extremists collectively have been responsible for more than 70 percent of the 427 extremist-related killings over the past 10 years, far outnumbering those committed by left-wing extremists or domestic Islamist extremists”. I wish I had this statistics handy for every time a ‘right-leaning’ relative said, “All Muslims are not terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.”

But the truth is, we are constantly surrounded by narratives of radical Muslim ‘terrorists’ killing in the name of their religion and white ‘mass murderers’ killing in the name of their ‘personal’ (albeit right-wing extremist) ideology. We as a society are creating a skewed notion of reality and it is time we question it for two reasons.

Also read: Uri: An Endeavour In Igniting Over-The-Top Nationalist Passions With Tired Clichés

First, because the media’s double standards and hypocrisy in its reporting fuels a Islamophobic and racist climate, which not only leads to the profiling of non-White and/or Muslim identifying people, making them questionable for their identity and faith, but also because the New Zealand Mosque attack is the most recent testament to the violent manifestations of this Islamophobia.

Also read: Being Muslim In The Aftermath Of The Pulwama Attack: A Glimpse Into The Hatred Surrounding Us

Second, it is about time we recognise that white supremacy and nationalism are not only individual modes of thinking but an ideological system and network that has gone unchecked. In his manifesto, Tarrant calls Donald Trump a ‘symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose’. When one of the leaders of the free world is being exalted by a domestic terrorist, one begins to question where the real ‘war on terror’ lies.

Featured Image Source: i Newspaper


  1. stemindianfeminist says:

    Well I respectfully. This is an issue which has troubled me for a long time.
    But I think , credit should be given where it is due and in this case it is , Jacinda Ardern has repeatedly called it what it was a ‘terrorist attack’ and most international media has also labelled it the ‘right’ way

  2. Tamilisai Selvaraj says:

    Timothy McVeigh was also rightly termed a terrorist after the Oklahoma Bombing. It was also dishonest to call Tarrant ‘right-wing’ since
    i)ethnonationalist violence is not unique to the right and
    ii)Tarrant stated that he admired the CPC’s system of government which cannot be called ‘right-wing’.

  3. sarin jose says:

    What about Timothy McVeigh?

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