Al Noor mosque following the mass shooting in Christchurch, New ZealandMark Baker / AP

After Christchurch, Commentators Are Imitating Sebastian Gorka

After the tragedy at Christchurch, New Zealand, Graeme Wood wrote recently, a funny thing happened: “Everyone discovered, all at once, that ideology matters.” But just as important as this recognition, Wood argued, is the ability to differentiate on an ideological spectrum. To fail to do so “leads to catastrophic blunders”: In The New York Times, for instance, “Omer Aziz accused the neuroscientist and atheist Sam Harris, as well as the Canadian psychologist and lobster enthusiast Jordan Peterson, of complicity in mass murder for objecting to what they argued are overbroad applications of the word Islamophobia.”

“If we cannot distinguish Harris and Peterson from Richard Spencer, let alone Brenton Tarrant,” Wood wrote, “then our problems are bad indeed.”


There are several points I take contention with in Graeme Wood’s essay on the Christchurch massacre, which names me and two other writers for failing to make important ideological distinctions between the New Zealand killer and others who, strictly speaking, have nothing to do with him. Set aside the irony of taking writers to task for not making important ideological distinctions and then lumping in three diverse writers together, thereby failing to make those distinctions yourself. Wood’s major claim in the piece is that after Christchurch, “everyone discovered that ideology mattered”—white-nationalist and fascist ideology—and this was in contrast to the politically correct liberal response to jihadist violence, in which presumably these very same writers adequately distinguish Islamist terrorism from Muslims tout court.

Other writers can speak for themselves. In my case, I have written about the role that ideology and religion play in jihadist violence. Indeed, I have been influenced by Wood’s own work on this, and have discussed it with him, multiple times, in private and in public. I believe that there is always an ideological spectrum with respect to extremist violence, and the various shades of that spectrum ought to be interrogated, even if it makes people feel uncomfortable. That goes for Islamist violence, as it does for white-nationalist terror.

Wood takes especial issue with my mentioning of the neuroscientist Sam Harris in my piece for The New York Times. The exact words from that piece were:

People with millions of online followers have been incessantly preaching that Islamophobia is not the problem; Islam is. The Canadian intellectual Jordan Peterson has said that Islamophobia is a “word created by fascists.” The neuroscientist Sam Harris has called it an “intellectual blood libel” that serves only to shield Islam from criticism.

Note that there is not the slightest intimation here that Peterson or Harris shares liability, responsibility, or guilt for the New Zealand massacre. It simply acknowledges the salient fact that prominent thinkers have been in Islamophobia-denial for a long time, even after Muslims were specifically targeted because of who they were and for no other reason.

Jordan Peterson is more complex, and his thinking about Islam and Muslims requires its own separate treatment. But Harris has been propounding vicious misinformation about Muslims for a decade. Does Wood not have an opinion on someone who warned about the “ominous” Muslim birth rates in Europe and published misleading statistics about them, the very same birth rates that the New Zealand killer was so tormented by in his manifesto? (And why would it be “ominous” if there are more brown people in Europe? For what it’s worth, at maximal levels of immigration, Muslims would account for 14 percent of Europe’s population in 2050, according to Pew. Those worried about the coming hordes of brown bodies can relax somewhat.)

It is not wrong to call out people who have been denying that a particular form of racism exists when this very racism becomes the central motivation of a live-streamed lynching of vulnerable people. By the logic of Graeme Wood’s own piece (that ideology matters) and by the logic of Sam Harris’s own ontology of Islam (that there are concentric circles of extremism, with jihadists in the middle and their enablers on the outer rings), the ideological spectrum of Islamophobia ought to have been probed more thoroughly. Instead, Wood is silent, dismissing all this as self-evidently not worth mentioning. A spectrum of ideology for thee, but not for me.

If casual Islamophobia is not on the same ideological spectrum as violent Islamophobia, why not? Are overt warnings about Muslim birth rates and “deranged” Muslims so acceptable now that they fail to register as extreme? Yes, Islamophobia is an imperfect term; that does not alter the reality the term describes, which, like anti-Semitism, is a particular form of racism. The methodology of Wood’s piece—of transposing words to highlight hypocrisies—might help here. Swap Muslim with Jewish, and you get Harris warning about Jewish birth rates in Europe, calling the Jewish world “deranged,” and claiming that anti-Semitism is a made-up word. Anyone using such language would be rightly condemned as anti-Semitic. I wonder whether Wood would still be silent then.

There are many enablers of Islamophobia today, Harris among them, and their consistent propounding of anti-Muslim myths has put Muslim lives at risk. Of course, there is no causal link between the intellectual enablers of Islamophobia and the New Zealand killer. To my knowledge, no serious writer has sought to draw such a link. Again: We are not discussing culpability; we are discussing an ideological spectrum in which subtle bigotry toward Muslims has become mainstream. These ideological enablers create a permissive environment for more dangerous ideas to fester. Calling them out is not a controversial idea. It’s applied to Muslims all the time.

“To fail to differentiate leads to catastrophic blunders,” Wood writes. I heartily agree. And an even greater moral disaster is the willful blindness toward an ideological spectrum when a white man is the one pulling the trigger. When you are silent on the ideological extremism of your friends, you inevitably aid the violent extremism of your enemies. In this case, it is not your voice that gives them license, but your silence on matters that you have deliberately overlooked.

Omer Aziz
New York, N.Y.

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