Deep-rooted hatred against Islam persists, says Joram van Klaveren, the former far-right European politician, who was once a close ally of Geert Wilders.
When Brenton Tarrant live-streamed the massacre of Muslims at two mosques in New Zealand, viewers noticed his guns were covered with inscriptions - racial slurs such as ‘Migration Compact’ and ‘Kebab Remover’. One read ‘Vienna 1683’.
That last one is a reference to the year when the Ottoman Empire fought a bloody war with the Holy League, a Christian European alliance that included Russia.
Tarrant, 30, who has been imprisoned for life, without any possibility for parole, for the killing of 51 Muslim worshippers in the city of Christchurch on March 15, 2019, was well-versed in white supremacist propaganda.
He cherry-picked historical events to justify targeting Muslims, who according to him, are migrating in large numbers and have more babies, something that threatens to turn white Europeans into a minority.
Muslims make up 5 percent of Europe’s population, according to Pew Research.
“What Tarrant and the others from the far-right do is that they bring these stories out of history, twist them around and use them to scare everybody,” says Joram van Klaveren, a former lawmaker of the anti-Muslim Party for Freedom (PVV) of Netherlands.
“They don't say that we in Europe should be thankful to Muslims for algebra, maths and hospitals - the things we borrowed from the Islamic civilisation.”
Klaveren was a close associate of Geert Wilders, the Freedom party leader, and for years worked as his spokesperson on Islam. He once submitted a bill in the Netherlands parliament that called for a ban on Islam because it permits violence against women.
But in 2018, Klaveren renounced Freedom party’s politics. While researching a book that was supposed to highlight the dangers posed by Muslims, he ended up writing Apostate - a book about his conversion to Islam.
Klaveren is now a board member of the Islam Experience Center, which promotes Islam’s understanding in Europe and actively promotes Muslim causes.
A time for reflection
What happened at Christchurch was the worst terrorist attack in New Zealand’s history. It was also one of the most gruesome against Muslims anywhere in Europe.
New Zealand’s immediate response was widely appreciated. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, her head covered with a scarf, was alongside mourners during funerals, gun laws were tightened and the court handed the maximum punishment to Tarrant within the country’s laws.
But there are concerns that authorities are not keeping track of white supremacists like Tarrant who openly exchange anti-Islam propaganda online.
Just weeks back, New Zealand police arrested a man who posted messages on 4Chan message board - also frequented by Tarrant - threatening to attack the same mosques in Christchurch that were targeted by Tarrant.
Police were able to nab the guy only after a tip-off from a user, leading to criticism of the slow response of New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service.
Two years since the Christchurch attack, not much has changed in the way right-wing politicians spew hatred against Muslims, says Klaveren. And they still appear to be a formidable political force in a few countries.
In the Netherlands, PVV, which is already the second largest in the parliament, is expected to do well in national elections being held this week.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is expected to win another term in office, hasn’t done much to inspire confidence in the Muslim community either.
“Our government doesn't want Islamic organisations and mosques getting funding from abroad. But it’s okay for a Church or a political party to get funds from abroad.”
Nevertheless, the New Zealand attack made European Muslims realise that they have to come together and that has encouraged them to better organise themselves.
“Also politicians now know that there will be consequences to what they say and do.”
A crisis of Christianity
Tarrant’s infamous manifesto, which he wrote before carrying out the attack, spoke about the perceived threat that Muslim migrants pose to white Europeans. It’s a view that’s shared by many others as reflected by a rise in Islamophobic attacks in countries such as Germany.
“That perception hasn’t really changed,” says Klaveren. Especially as Europeans are not being given the true picture of Islam, he adds.
“More often they see the news of terrorist attacks and young Muslim migrants shown as hooligans. A combination of this worries people. There are Muslim organisations, which are doing a lot of charity work but it never gets the media coverage.”
Many Europeans have an inherited fear of Islam because of a history of wars that Muslims and Europeans fought centuries ago.
At the same time, the rise of the nationalist right-wing politics has coincided with the rapid increase in Europe’s secularisation, says Klaveren.
“A lot of people, in a sort of spiritual way, have lost their God. There is emptiness in their heart. They go do drugs, they start drinking, they go partying, and they join the ranks of extreme-right nationalists - do everything to fill up the hole,” he says.
“Then they are confronted by a group, in this case the Muslims, who are still very practicing. They do believe in God, it's clear what we think and what we want to do. And it scares them. The extreme right misuses this fear.”