Ishaan Tharoor: The history that fuels right-wing terrorism

Video: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on March 21 announced plans to ban military-style semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles following the Christchurch attacks. (Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist suspected of killing at least 50 people last week in two New Zealand mosques, saw his murderous rampage as part of a morbid historical fantasy.

On his drive into the city of Christchurch, he listened to a nationalist Serb song that glorified Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb political leader jailed on genocide charges and war crimes for his role in atrocities against Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s. Images of Tarrant's weaponry showed that he had scrawled the names of a number of European Christian commanders - spanning many centuries - who warred against predominantly Muslim armies. He had apparently named one of his guns "Turkofagos," or "Turk-eater" in Greek.

There's nothing particularly original about Tarrant's obsession with a long history of Europeans killing Muslims. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people in a shocking string of attacks in 2011, styled himself as a crusading Templar knight and issued a manifesto that contained hundreds of references to conflicts in the Balkans - a region he and Tarrant both clearly viewed as a fault line between Islam and the West.

Investigators in a number of countries, including Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, and Greece, are now tracking the path of trips to the Balkans that Tarrant made between 2016 and 2018. According to the Wall Street Journal, his stops included an 11th-century monastery where a Romanian prince once prayed for victory against Ottoman troops and a mountain pass where a band of Russian and Bulgarian soldiers repelled a much larger Turkish army in 1877. These pilgrimages, combined with his horror at the sight of numerous ordinary Muslims living their lives in France, seemed to underpin his extremist worldview.

"It's in Europe where we currently believe his radicalization path lies," a senior counterterrorism officer in Tarrant's native Australia told the Journal.

For Tarrant, as well as Breivik, the past was an endless battlefield. Their self-published manifestos made clear their commitment to participating in a "clash of civilizations," one that connected their existential terrors over immigration to visions of heroic last stands against the swarming infidels. Tarrant believed he was on a campaign of vengeance for earlier "invasions" and wanted his murderous acts to dissuade future immigrants from coming to Australia and New Zealand.

Of course, no particular brand of extremism has a monopoly on crude, vainglorious readings of history. The Islamist militants of the Islamic State also ostensibly believed they were fighting an epochal holy war, embracing an apocalyptic prophecy that the armies of Islam would vanquish the forces of "Rome" in a decisive battle that would prefigure the greater glory of the caliphate. (None of this, of course, has come to pass. The last pocket of Islamic State fighters in Syria is now hobbling its way into Kurdish-administered prison camps.)

But Tarrant and his ilk aren't just a fringe minority. They tap into a much larger world of white-nationalist ferment in the West, one that takes as its starting premise a belief in a mythic history of inviolable, homogeneous nations. It is political rhetoric that is in vogue among the European far right and pushed, to a certain degree, by illiberal leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and President Trump, who both cast themselves as nationalist heroes keeping out the invading hordes.

"Since the 1930s, nationalist, fascist and far-right politicians from Eastern Europe to Latin America have been learning from one another and dreaming of a new world composed of similarly 'pure' nations," wrote Edin Hajdarpasic, an expert on Balkan history. He pointed to how Karadzic, who similarly fulminated against the demographic threat posed by Muslims, was an idol for Breivik and Tarrant.

And while these white supremacists cling to their idea of the past, medievalists and historians are at pains to stress that no such past ever existed. "The idea that [medieval societies] are this paragon of unblemished whiteness is just ridiculous," Paul Sturtevant, author of "The Middle Ages in the Popular Imagination," told The Washington Post. "It would be hilarious if it weren't so awful."

Take for example the famous Battle of Vienna in 1683, references to which were apparently written on Tarrant's weaponry . While the clash is commonly remembered for how the advances of the Ottomans into Christendom were decisively turned back, the real history of the campaign is far more complicated than that.

The Ottoman Empire - itself a vast, multiethnic political entity - was in league with the Catholic French king, and its troops' advance on the Austrian city was sped by the legendary Hungarian Protestant noble Imre Thokoly, who marched under the Ottoman banner with an ax to grind against the Catholic Hapsburgs in Vienna. (A century earlier, an Ottoman sultan had sent letters to Protestants in the Netherlands and Spain insisting that they had more in common with Sunni Muslims than with Catholics.) The Ottomans were also boosted by Cossacks from what is now central Ukraine, who at the time saw them as useful allies against rival Poles and Russians.

On the opposing side, the Polish armies that came to Vienna's rescue included a vital faction of Tatar horsemen that helped turn the tide of battle against the Ottomans. They happened to be Sunni Muslim. "The Battle of Vienna was a multicultural drama; an example of the complex and paradoxical twists of European history," wrote historian Dag Herbjornsrud. "There never has been such a thing as the united Christian armies of Europe."

In his 2009 book "Two Faiths, One Banner: When Muslims Marched With Christians Across Europe's Battlegrounds," British academic Ian Almond argued how ahistoric it is to reduce such older conflicts to the binary prism constructed by today's Western nationalists. The scheme of a clash of civilizations, he argued, does little to describe the "almost hopelessly complex web of shifting power-relations, feudal alliances, ethnic sympathies and historical grudges" that shaped much of European history.

"Today, words such as 'Islam' and 'Europe' appear to have all the consistency of oil and water," Almond wrote. But, he added, "the fact remains that in the history of Europe, for hundreds of years, Muslims and Christians shared common cultures, spoke common languages, and did not necessarily see one another as 'strange' or 'other.'"

Ishaan Tharoor |The Washington Post

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.