PBS NewsHour


Why New Zealand mosque suspect represents 'social movement'

Deadly terror attacks in New Zealand Friday caused global shock, but the extreme anti-immigrant, white supremacist ideology of the suspected Australian gunman is not new. Judy Woodruff talks to Humera Khan of Muflehun, a nonprofit fighting hate and extremism, University of Chicago’s Kathleen Belew and Matthew Knott of the Sydney Morning Herald about the scope of this malignant "social movement."

AIRED: March 15, 2019 | 0:11:31

JUDY WOODRUFF: We explore the broader questions about the ideology behind this act of terror

with Humera Khan.

She's the executive director of Muflehun.

It's a nonprofit organization that works to prevent the spread of hate, extremism and

violence in the United States.

Kathleen Belew is an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago and has

written extensively about white supremacy movements..

And Matthew Knott, he's a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald based in New York.

Before moving to the United States, he covered Australian politics.

And we welcome all three of you to the "NewsHour."

Matthew Knott, I'm going to start with you.

This man moved to New Zealand from Australia just a few years ago.

Tell us a little about the political climate in Australia right now.

MATTHEW KNOTT, The Sydney Morning Herald: Yes.

It's absolutely devastating for people in Australia that this has happened, not just

because we're so close with New Zealand -- we consider ourselves two halves of the same

whole, really -- but the fact, when it emerged, that it was an Australia has really shocked

and made people so upset in Australia, that it was an Australian responsible.

And it does reflect some of what has been happening in our politics in recent years.

There has been a growth of anti-Islamic rhetoric.

One of the parties that has held the balance of power in our Parliament since our last

election in 2016 is called One Nation.

And one of its principal planks of its policies is a very strong critique of Islam.

The leader of that party, whose name is Pauline Hanson, described Islam as a disease that

needs to be vaccinated against.

So this has been a big part of our political rhetoric over recent years.

So, it's very disappointing to see -- to see this playing out this way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were telling us that some of this thinking has become normalized in


MATTHEW KNOTT: Yes, that is the thing.

This party, One Nation, came to the fore in the '90s, predominantly protesting against

Asian immigration and against benefits for indigenous Australians.

And that was -- the party was basically stamped out of existence by the mainstream parties,

who said that wasn't acceptable.

And then it has come to the -- come back to prominence in recent years with anti-Islamic

rhetoric, and that has proven more acceptable to the Australian public.

After winning four seats in the Australian Senate, the government and the opposition

both needed the votes of this party to get anything done.


And I want to...

MATTHEW KNOTT: And so it has been normalized in our discourse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Humera Khan, you have spent a lot of time looking at extremism like this.

You have read this man's manifesto, what he called his manifesto today.

What came through to you?

HUMERA KHAN, Executive Director, Muflehun: So, I think there's a few things here.

One is that there's nothing -- there's nothing particularly new in there which we haven't

seen in previous manifestos.

So, he's drawing on ideologies from a spectrum of right-wing groups, right?

But you see the similarities of what has been repeated before.

So you hear the stuff which has been used by -- which is being used by the neo-Nazis,

by the white supremacists.

There's a variety of -- so he's pulling from it.

He mentions manifestos of previous attackers, and he is inspired by them.

So, in that sense, there wasn't -- the content wasn't new, but it was being put together.

And I think what is really important or something we shouldn't underestimate is how malignant

that ideology is.

And it is ideological extremism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How malignant is it?

How widespread is it?

You obviously have studied this.

How powerful is it?

HUMERA KHAN: Well, you saw the attacks in New Zealand, right?

But this is not the first, right?

We also saw the attacks in Norway.

But if you look at just in America, we saw the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue, right?


HUMERA KHAN: In Quebec, we saw an attack on a mosque where nine people -- or six people

were killed.

So this is nothing new.

And we are seeing these attacks on houses of worship, which have been going on for a

long time.

We saw Dylann Roof attack the church in South Carolina.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In South Carolina.

HUMERA KHAN: South Carolina.

So the thing is that this is another person, but it's the same.

It's versions of the same ideology.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is white supremacy, or a version.


HUMERA KHAN: Yes, exactly.

So it's the spectrum of right wing.

And they don't hesitate to actually -- again, so, when they mobilize, like every other terrorist

groups, they are willing to kill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kathleen Belew, again, you have also spent time studying this.

What are -- what should we be learning from this by now, after all these incidents?

KATHLEEN BELEW, University of Chicago: You know, this is a social movement.

I think this is the most important thing to understand.

This is an action carried out by the white power movement.

It has decades of history in the United States and beyond.

It is part of a social groundswell.

Its members are deeply connected with one another.

And they're ideologically driven, as my co-panelists have said.

That means that we have to think about how to connect these disparate acts of violence

together into one story, so that we can start to think about formulating a response to this

as a movement.

These aren't lone wolf attacks.

These aren't individual errant madman.

These are political actors who understand what they're doing to be motivated and purposeful.

And the other thing about acts like this -- and I -- again, I'm a historian.

I study the period from the Vietnam War to the Oklahoma City bombing, which is the moment

of sort of formation of this movement and its kind of first wave of intense radicalization

and anti-state violence.

When we think about acts like the New Zealand shooting, the Oklahoma City, the massacre

in Charleston, the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue, these actions are not meant to

be end, in and of themselves.

The violent action, the mass attack, that's not the end point of this ideology.

These actors envision these acts as purposeful political statements meant to awaken a broader

white public to the urgency of their ideology and to race war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And race war, literally?


That's why I think it's important to call this what it is, which is the white power


I think, when people say white nationalist or white supremacist, it serves to sort of

soften the very radical and revolutionary nature of this activism.

White nationalist makes people sort of think that the nation implied is going to be the

nation of the United States or the nation of New Zealand, when, in fact, these activists

think about a white nation that transcends national boundaries.

They're pursuing an Aryan nation.

And they're often doing this violently, with the end goal of ethnic cleansing and race


JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Matthew Knott, know that this is that serious, that this -- that what

they really want is elimination of people who are not white, is that recognized in Australia?

MATTHEW KNOTT: I think it is going to be now.

I think this is a big wakeup call for everyone in Australian politics and in Australian media

that the rhetoric and our discourse matters, and you have to be careful about where it

goes and what you tolerate.

And the things that our security agents say again and again is that, to work with Muslim

communities, you need to not put them offside.

And to have the type of rhetoric we have had by mainstream politicians is not helpful in


So, this is already prompting a lot of soul-searching in Australia about what has become normalized

in our discourse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Humera Khan, what about the response here in the United States?

President Trump was asked about this today.

He said he doesn't think that white nationalism is a problem in this country.

He says it's just a small group of people.

What sort of response are you seeing today from our leaders to this?

HUMERA KHAN: There's an inadequate one, perhaps, is perhaps the best way of saying it.

Look, we need to acknowledge that this is domestic terrorism, right, that this is terrorism,

and it has to be dealt with from that perspective.

I know this is the -- today, the House Homeland Security Committee actually -- actually asked

the FBI for information on domestic terrorism.

So I think that's a start.

But it can't end there, because what we have had is, for years, this issue has not been

pursued enough, right?

One question I keep asking is, where are the prevention programs, right?

Where is actually the strategic plan, the leadership and the funding which is going

to be needed to actually counter -- not just counter, but also prevent this issue?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see any movement on the part of the U.S. government to do that?

HUMERA KHAN: At this moment, no.

Hopefully, that will change.

But I think there has -- there needs to be.

But it's also not just the government.

This is a place where -- because, as the professor described it, right, this is a movement.

This is a social movement.

It's not just up to the government or the government's responsibility to deal with it.

Everyone has a responsibility, which means every sector of society.

It means religious, the clergy, society itself, the education system.

Everyone actually has to mobilize, recognize that this is an issue and deal with it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kathleen Belew, back to you.

I mean, how do you see, whether it's the United States or Australia or other countries -- but,

clearly, we're a program in the United States - - what should, what can this country be doing

about this now?

KATHLEEN BELEW: So, when we think about this kind of a movement, it is a fringe movement.

It is a comparatively small group of people.

But the thing is that people in fringe movements have outsized capacity for violence and outsized

capacity for spreading ideas into other circles.

I think that this is a movement -- and the history shows this -- that has really done

a lot of work to disguise itself and to appear as sort of scattered, lone acts of violence.

And we see over and over again the idea of the lone wolf attacker, the madman, a few

bad apples, when, in fact, these are coherent and connected actions.

So, the work of contextualizing them, putting them in conversation with one another, and

understanding these events as connected is absolutely crucial, if we want to mount any

kind of public response.

This movement uses a strategy called leaderless resistance, which is effectively very much

like self-styled terror.

The idea is that a cell or one man can work to foment violence without direct communication

with leadership.

And this was implemented, of course, to stymie prosecution in court.

And that's one level of response.

The larger consequence of leaderless resistance has been that our society as a whole has not

been able to understand this violence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it's clear we have heard so much about Islamic terrorism.

It is very clear now that we need to look at white supremacy as another form of terrorism.

Kathleen Belew, Matthew Knott, Humera Khan, thank you very much.


HUMERA KHAN: Thank you.