Brenton Tarrant’s self-declared title of “kebab remover” is embedded in a greater pattern of racism.

Exactly a week ago this Friday, Brenton Harrison Tarrant attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing at least 51 people. The weapons he used in the massacre were inscribed with various names, particularly European warriors who fought against the Ottoman Empire.

However, amongst those historical figures and battle was a racial slur emblazoned on his gun, “kebab remover” and in his online manifesto, he referred to himself as “kebab removalist,” a trope that emerged from the Bosnian civil war. 

Tarrant sought legitimacy for his attacks by anointing himself with this position. These words are not just the delusions of a disturbed mind. The equation of immigrants bringing foreign foods that threatened local culture has had a long pedigree, what can be called “gastronomic racism.”

The Bosnian Civil War

Tarrant’s self-declared title of kebab remover comes from a sinister euphemism for “ethnic cleansing” that emerged during the Bosnian civil war in the early nineties.

The 17-minute headcam video of Tarrant’s attack begins in his car, with a song playing in the background, known as “Remove Kebab,” an homage to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, known as the “Butcher of Bosnia,” who was sentenced at the international tribunal in the Hague last week to life in prison for his crimes against humanity.

The song's video was apparently recorded in 1995 by Serbian paramilitaries, colloquially known as Chetniks. The song conflates “kebabs” with the Bosniak Muslims, a way of accusing them of being more Turkish than Slavic, painting this community in the same broad brush stroke with the Ottoman army which defeated the Serbian prince Lazar in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. In this case, kebab remover was a song designed to justify the mass murder of Bosniaks during the civil war. 

The song was resurrected on the Internet in 2006, and since then had become popular among radical white nationalists. From the war zone in Bosnia, the song travelled to New Zealand.

The animus towards the kebab, a pernicious euphemism for Islamophobia, is not just a fixation in the minds of Serbian paramilitaries or Tarrant, but rather is embedded in a sentiment expressed by the European far-right, where all foods coming from the Middle East are equated with Muslim immigration.

Kebabs and Europe’s far-right

A relatively benign political cartoon depicts what is assumed to be Ottoman-era janissaries overrunning eastern and central Europe. Below that image is Europe being overrun by the modern-day janissary. Instead of wielding a scimitar he holds a knife to cut the iconic vertical doner kebab spit.

This political cartoon expresses a motif that has been politicised by the Freedom Party of Austria. In 2010 it issued its own comic book, which like Tarrant, fixates on the second Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683. 

The Party campaigned on the claim that the rising number of kebab shops threatened traditional Austrian sausage snack stands. The party used the graphic novel to link the past to the present. The Ottoman janissaries standing outside the walls of Vienna in the late seventeenth century are conflated with the kebab stands in the present.  

Like the Freedom Party of Austria, Italy’s right-wing Lega Nord used the same fear of Middle Eastern food in its electoral campaign. One of its most famous campaign posters reads “Sì alla polenta, no al couscous,” or “Yes for polenta, no to Couscous,” arguing in favour of the northern Italian staple made from boiled cornmeal versus the North African staple of small steamed balls of crushed durum wheat semolina. This slogan even has its own Facebook page, with violently racist comments underneath.

The Lega Nord party has endorsed bans on foreign food in the name of protecting Italian culture, but critics argue that this ostensibly is a measure targeting immigrant businesses. The tensions have led to a kebab war in Italy. 

Kebab vendors in Italy have had their stores attacked and vandalised, while Italians have joined either pro-kebab and anti-kebab Facebook groups, and formed a Couscous Clan, calling for “gastronomic trans-contamination.”

Eddie Huang, the American culinary icon visited Sicily for his Viceland series and went on a culinary tour of North African influences on Sicilian cuisine. Couscous there too evoked nativist passions.

When Huang met with two members of the Italian far-right group Forza Nuova in Sicily and highlighted this North African influence, one of them responded that Sicilian food is influenced more by the “Greek, Roman and Spanish” opposed to “Arabian pirates.” Tempers flared eventually between both sides landing Eddie Huang in an overnight stint in an Italian jail.

The Hypocrisy of gastro-nationalism

The inherent problem with discourses of gastro-racism is that it is futile to talk about local, national foods, given that global history demonstrates foodstuffs have been circulating since time immemorial.

Culinary journalist Vittorio Castellani asks, “Where would Italy be today if the Northern League had been around to block the first imports into this country of tomatoes and potatoes?”

Indeed, while we associate Italian food with tomato-based sauces used in pasta and pizza, the Italian peninsula would not have had access to this fruit until after 1500, when it was brought to Europe during the Colombian exchange. 

We associate Ireland with potatoes, the Swiss with their chocolate, yet these two are also “New World” imports. The tomato, originating from Peru, is technically an immigrant to Italian cuisine. 

Pasta most likely arrived at the Italian peninsula from China.

Finally, there is the Greek version of the kebab, the gyro. While Serbian chetniks decry the kebab as a foreign Muslim invader, it is a national symbol of their fellow Orthodox coreligionists in Greece. 

While Tarrant justified his violence in the name of protecting “White civilization,” the Greeks, in this case, would also be “whites” in the killer’s worldview.

Gastronomic racism constitutes a narrative employed during the Bosnian civil war and kept alive today by far-right European political parties. Tarrant took this sentiment to an absurd and deadly conclusion.

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