Another response to the Christchurch tragedy

In a recent post, I wrote about our need to make sure that people who do evil things are somehow distinguishable and distinguished from ourselves.  We’re not evil people.  We could never do evil things.  Therefore, there must be a factor which differentiates us from them.

They’re Muslim.  It’s such a handy explanation because it explains nothing.  To white middle Australia, absolutely no understanding of Islam is required, but it’s a monolithic Other.

But sometimes violent people aren’t Muslim.  There must be another reason why they’re not one of us.  Maybe they are mentally ill?  Autism has been particularly convenient on this front because we all know that autistic people are weird.  The ambiguous nature of mental illness really means that they either have a diagnosis or we can suspect that they were undiagnosed.

The more I thought about this schema, the more I realised there was a bit of a gap: and it’s when an atrocity occurs which is what the mainstream secretly want to see in the world.  What happens when somebody attacks those whom we already demonise, whom we already suspect are a problem in society, and who need to be dealt with?

For decades, we have watched as public debate created a new imaginary in the place of Islam.  I have my grandfather’s copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.  When I was growing up, Islam was a figure of culture, art, and politics.  But this was a time when terrorism was something that the Irish did.  After the 11 September attack, Islam was recast as this medieval, intellectually backwards philosophy which kept entire nations oppressed.  Islam and Arab merged in the public imagination, with the two concepts becoming increasingly interchangeable.

This substitution meant that ‘Islam’ was something that you could see.  The same function occurred in the hijab controversies.  Even though Catholic nuns might wear habits, the visual association between the hijab or headscarf and Islam meant that it was something that could be seen and opposed.

And this triggers the rest as night follows day.  Now that Islam was something that could be seen, politicians and commentators in the media now wanted not to see Islam.  It was divisive.  It was a threat.  It was ‘confronting‘.  Somebody needed to have the courage to make a stand against it.  We could round them all up and deport them to wherever they had come from.

But you’re not allowed to be racist, mind.  It wasn’t because we thought that one race was better than another — ‘Islam isn’t even a race‘ — and certainly we would not want to be divisive in our multicultural Australia.  It’s just that we have legitimate concerns that [checks notes] Islam isn’t feminist enough for liberal Australia, and headscarves might be a security risk in banks, and there does seem to be a strain of radical Muslims who present a security threat to Australians.  We needed Islamophobia to be dressed appropriately in the language of rationality and understandable concern.

It’s the final step in this dance that there are people who take it ‘too far’.  Your low-grade, shifty Islamophobia is fine.  It’s why pop-atheists can still break bread with Richard Dawkins.  It’s why politicians who’ve spent the past 364 days suggesting that there is something wrong with Islam can happily wish Islamic Australians a happy Eid.

Those who do evil are just those who take our ordinary stock and trade too far.  It’s an extreme and twisted version of us.  It is a version of us that is so concentrated that it is somehow impure.

Even as the news was filtering through about what was happening, people were on Twitter trying to diagnose the issue.  Lefties, by and large, were trying to demonstrate that the shooter was not one of them: alt-right, spent too much time on bad internet sites, was influenced by a horrific ideology of hate.  Otherwise reasonable people became internet detectives, sharing whatever rumours and gossip they could to demonstrate that the attacker was proof of everything they hated about their political opponents.

But on the conservative side of politics, it was a different story.  Having spent years demonising Islam, the pivot had to be that the attackers simply took things too far.  It was an evil act because it did what the politicians and commentators wanted, but not in the way that they wanted it to happen.

Having people who go ‘too far’ is entirely part of the identity.  The Richard Dawkins can disguise their Islamophobia by pointing to the violent racists and the Fraser Annings to show what ‘real’ Islamophobia is.  Mark Latham can spend his time posing with Milo and saying that Indigenous Australians should submit to blood tests before receiving benefits (whatever those benefits might be), but he’s not really racist because the real racists are those who take these views too far.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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