Islamophobia’s Key Role in White Christian Nationalism

Dr. Henry Millstein, Content Manager and Program Analyst (Bio) and Dr. Zachary Markwith, Education Director (Bio)

May 18, 2022

As we grieve over the victims of the Buffalo massacre, the latest in a long series of terrorist attacks on various minority communities perpetrated by White Christian nationalists, it behooves us to take a closer look at the ideology that motivated Payton Gendron, the Buffalo shooter. His immediate target was, of course, the African American community, but the manifesto he left behind shows that the ideas he espoused threaten not only African Americans but other groups as well—in particular, Jews and Muslims. Indeed, the ideology that drove the Buffalo shooter to slaughter ten people in a grocery store is founded on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Here we want to focus on the key role of Islamophobia in White Christian nationalist extremism; the centrality of anti-Semitism to such extremism has been ably presented by the Anti-Defamation League and by scholar and activist Eric K. Ward.

Islamophobia and the Great Replacement Theory

The Buffalo shooter’s manifesto drew heavily on a similar screed published by Brenton Tarrant, who in 2019 murdered 51 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.[1] Both men’s manifestos articulated what has been called “the Great Replacement” theory: the idea that “Jewish elites” are encouraging and facilitating the migration of non-Whites and non-Christians, generally Muslims, into Europe and North America with the aim of “replacing” the native (White Christian) populations of those regions with people of inferior and subservient cultures and religions.

Though the roots of this idea go back at least to the early 20th century, its chief contemporary proponent is French writer Renaud Camus, originally a gay author with leftist leanings who experienced a “conversion” to right-wing extremism, supposedly after seeing veiled women in France, and who announced his conversion by publishing a piece in 2000 claiming that there were too many Jews in French radio.[2] In 2014—the same year that Camus was fined 4,000 francs for inciting racial hatred against Muslims and North Africans—he published a book entitled The Great Replacement, arguing that leftist “elites” were conspiring to flood Europe with immigrants, whom he labelled “thugs” and “colonizers,” to replace the native inhabitants.

Though Camus’ book has never been translated into English, its ideas have become part and parcel of the far-right’s ideological arsenal in both Europe and the US. In particular, Stephen Miller, a Trump administration advisor who helped shape US immigration policy, promoted a book that inspired Camus’ The Great Replacement to the far-right media outlet Breitbart. At least two US Congressmen, Steve King and Matt Gaetz, have openly espoused the “theory,” and a version of it, only slightly sanitized, can be heard almost daily from Fox talk show host Tucker Carlson. A number of White nationalist extremists, including not only Gendron and Tarrant but also the assailants at synagogues in Pittsburgh, PA, and Poway, CA, killing 12 Jews, and at a Walmart in El Paso, TX, targeting Latinx and killing 23, have cited “the Great Replacement” as justification for their actions.

Perhaps most ominous of all is the fact that a recent survey shows that nearly one-third of Americans believe a version of the “Replacement” theory, saying that they are extremely or very concerned that “native-born Americans are losing economic, political, and cultural influence in this country because of the growing population of immigrants.”

All these facts converge to show that Islamophobia, together with anti-Semitism, lies at the roots of an extremist racist ideology that has already cost hundreds of lives.

As it travelled from Europe, where it clearly targeted Muslims, to the US, it expanded to threaten other groups but continued to see Muslims as a prime target. Research by sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry in their book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States shows the close link between Islamophobia and adherence to an ideology that Whitehead and Perry call “Christian nationalism,” the idea that the United States is a Christian country with a special mission from God and that Christianity should therefore be privileged over other religions. They demonstrate from a series of surveys and interviews that acceptance of Islamophobic stereotypes about Muslims and their religion is among the strongest predictors of adherence to Christian nationalist ideology.3 In a more recent book, The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy, Perry and fellow scholar Philip Gorski expose the racism inherent in Christian nationalism, showing that adherence to Christian nationalism (including its implicit or overt Islamophobia) is closely associated with a variety of racist ideas, including the rejection of the idea that the Civil War was primarily about slavery and opposition to removing Confederate monuments; it is on this basis that they can cast Christian nationalism as inherently racist, justifying the use of the term “White Christian nationalism.”[4]

It is apparent from all this that the White Christian nationalism that so clearly threatens our democracy and even our physical safety is intimately tied in both its origins and its present reality to Islamophobia and to Islamophobia’s close cousin, anti-Semitism. The threat of White Christian nationalist terrorism, therefore, cannot be effectively countered without confronting these two ideologies. The ideology underlying the greatest domestic terrorist threat has multiple targets; only by coordinated efforts by all groups targeted by it, together with their White allies, can this hydra-headed monster be decisively defeated.

Coming Together in Solidarity to Combat Racism

Islamic Networks Group (ING) joins with the Anti-Defamation League, the National Urban League, and other organizations in calling for President Biden to convene a summit on the racism and violent extremism that target our communities, including African Americans, Indigenous Peoples, and Latinx, Asian, Jewish, and Muslim Americans. ING also offers panels from our Intercultural Speakers Bureau (ICSB) with representatives from marginalized groups who explore the roots, history, and current manifestations of racism and invite audiences to take specific, concrete action against racism personally and in their communities. We invite people of conscience of all religions, races, and ethnicities to join us in these efforts.

[1] Tarrant was inspired by Serbian Christian nationalists who committed genocide against Bosnian Muslims, and the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik who targeted leftist youth and government facilities because he believed they were supporting the Islamization of Norway. Breivik’s manifesto also cites “the Great Replacement” theory. Milan Obaidi, Jonas Kunst, Simon Ozer, and Sasha Y. Kimel, “The ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy: How the perceived ousting of Whites can evoke violent extremism and Islamophobia,” Group Processes & Intergroup Relations (2021):
(registration required).

[2] It is interesting, and disquieting, to note that Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf reported that he was “converted” to anti-Semitism by the sight of a Jew dressed in traditional Jewish attire.

[3] Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[4] Philip S. Gorski and Samuel L. Perry, The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022).