At the age of twelve, my classics class at the high school devoted an entire week to the ancient war between the Persian Empire and Athens. We were told that the battle of Marathon and Salamis (490 and 480 BCE) represented civilisational encounters between Europe and the ‘barbarians’, west and east. The unlikely victory of the ancient Athenians, the argument went, not only set the scene for the subsequent classical ‘golden century’; it had also determined the course of European civilisation ever since.
Then our teacher posed us a question: can you think of other events in history where the entire course of history was at stake? We tried all sorts of answers, imaginative and clumsy, but they were all dismissed by the teacher as incorrect. She then talked to us in emotional detail about the story of the Battle of Tours in 732 CE, where Charles Martel led a coalition of Christian forces against the Muslims armies who, having secured a stronghold in Spain, sought to extend their control eastwards into the continent. She then jumped another eight centuries or so to speak about the importance of the naval Battle of Lepanto (1571 CE), when an allied Christian fleet arrested the naval expansion of the Ottoman Empire near the coastal Greek town of Nafpaktos. In both cases, the ‘west’ won against the ‘east’. ‘Civilisation’ was saved.
Staring at the photo of the assault rifle with which the perpetrator murdered more than 49 people in two mosques of Christchurch, New Zealand and sent shockwaves across the world, the small and long forgotten episode from that increasingly distant day of my childhood resurfaced in impeccable clarity, only this time the hues of my memories darkened. For someone with a Greek background, this image speaks deafening volumes of how a seemingly innocuous historical cliché can be literally weaponised by the far right. The ugly word ‘Turk eater’ (Turkofagos) slapped in large capitals on the barrel of the rifle seemed a bizarre detail in this rogue tapestry of hatred and terror – yet it was one that I had encountered so many times in school books, celebrations for the anniversary of the Greek War of Independence, and other popular annals of Greek national(ist) history. In his alleged online manifesto, the perpetrator of the Christchurch attacks reserved special spite for the ‘Turks’ as the historical sharp edge of the Muslims’ conquering drive of the ‘Christian’ west – a spiteful synecdoche for a transnational and diachronic Islam. They, and others of Muslim faith before and after them, were accused by the perpetrator of ‘invading’ Europe and plotting the elimination of the white ‘European’ race. Like a contemporary self-proclaimed Martel, in the most unlikely lands of New Zealand, the attacker decided to make his final stand, dealing death and spreading terror in the wake of his chillingly über-modern passage from the flashing limelight of notoriety that was live-streamed on social media.
The delusion of an organised ‘invasion’ by foreign races consumed the perpetrator of the attacks in Christchurch. Was it the same fiction that had prompted the prime minister of Hungary Viktor Orban to claim that “we don’t see these people [the refugees coming into Europe] as Muslim refugees. We see them as Muslim invaders”? Or the Czech president Miloš Zeman to explain that “I see the migration crisis as an organised invasion”? Was the referendum on Brexit not decisively swung after a co-ordinated campaign that focused on a scare-mongering cocktail of invoking the threat of immigration overload and stoking fears of ‘Turks’ pouring through the border gates at Dover? Did the star of the Lega Matteo Salvini not build his bona fide populist capital on the back of public rallies reverberating with the same word (“it is not immigration; it is INVASION; it is military and economic and cultural and demographic occupation”)?
The fault lines that separate the far right from the populist right-wing mainstream remain significant and real. The Christchurch attacker, like his forerunners in Oslo, Charleston or Pittsburgh, ventured lethally into transgressive mass violence. But their exclusive vision of community belonging and their conviction that their world is confronting a hostile ‘invasion’ and ‘occupation’ by menacing others is anchored in persistent popular beliefs and attitudes that populists have serially normalised, legitimised, vented, and warped into pugnacious binaries. The prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, was right to declare that the victims ‘are us’; but it is time we recognised that the perpetrator too is at least as much a part of ‘us’ as the victims are. It is important that, behind the brutal, extreme sensationalism of the act itself, we never lose sight of the far more mundane beliefs and attitudes that underpinned and justified the Christchurch attacks – ideas of racial nationalism, nativism, exclusivist identity construction, as well as well-rehearsed prejudices steeped in centuries of misinformation and historical clichés.
Professor Aristotle Kallis is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, School of Humanities, Keele University. His profile can be found here:
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