As well accounted in the media, on Friday, March 15th, 2019, in Christchurch, two separate congregations of New Zealand Muslims were gunned down in their places of worship. Fifty of them were killed and a similar number were wounded. This unprecedented mosque shooting has come as a shock to us – the entire country and world. Aotearoa – the Māori name for NZ – has never suffered like this before.
The NZ public’s outcry and the loving support extended to the victims of the attack to the nation’s Muslim community, led most notably by Prime Minister Ardern, have been astounding. It has been a true tribute to the moderation and openness New Zealanders are largely known for. It also demonstrates the abhorrence the citizens feel, shocked that such an event could ever have happened in Aotearoa – “the land of the long white cloud.”
The grief and solidarity extended to the NZ Muslim community since the attack has been absolutely genuine. Most people within this community are grateful for this outreach, but they cannot forget that it was non-existent before tragedy struck. Moreover, the underlying implications of this attack run deeper than the heart-felt reactions the country has displayed and it is vital that we consider them.
The victims of the mass shooting were worshippers of two mosques in Christchurch – the city’s main mosque, Masjid al-Noor that is found opposite Hagley Park, and Linwood Islamic Centre which is located about 5 kilometers east across town. Like in the Middle East and Southwest Asia – from where some of the worshippers had come from as refugees – they were gunned down with automatic weapons on their holy day. The irony of this tragedy is that many of the victims came as political refugees to NZ, looking for a safe haven, in order to escape the violence and horrors that occur in their countries, only to be killed in the place they deemed to be safe to stay – New Zealand.
The 28-year-old Australian white supremacist, who was behind the mass shooting, wanted to get back at Muslims for all the attacks that took place in Europe, thinking it was justified to kill dozens of innocents. With the European ethnic group being the dominant one in both Australia and New Zealand and with people from immigrant ethnic minorities being killed as they practiced a minority religion in NZ, this all set unprecedented security concerns for Aotearoa, highlighting deep strains in the multi-ethnic mesh that bind New Zealand; strains that many, especially people of European descent, would not have liked to admit.
Opportunists of many shades, including extremists, have and will attempt to take advantage of these events. On March 19th, ISIS’ spokesman, in response to the Christchurch attack, called on Muslims to “avenge their religion.”
Too often in New Zealand, Muslims have been blithely associated with, and sometimes treated as, Islamist extremists. Since Muslims became a visible part of NZ communities – notably from the 1980s in the wake of the Soviet Afghan War – they have, with few exceptions, been held at arm’s length, mainly due to public ignorance. In other cases, they have been the targets of discrimination and sometimes of violence and hate.
It has been reported that a small number of Islamist extremists emerged in the nation. In fact, the Linwood Islamic Centre has been the target of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) for years, being a suspected site of Islamist radicalization. Unfortunately for us, that attention has dominated NZSIS resources despite the now emergent white supremacist threat that turned up at the very same locale.
It is vital that we redouble our efforts to address the social challenges that this issue throws up with all heart and mind. Not just because it may preserve more lives in the future, but because we must try to understand others. We must also refuse violence, including all its institutional forms, and open up all channels of communication. This includes all minorities, such as Aotearoa’s “people of the land” – tangata whenua.
Additionally, we must speak and act with absolute consistency, unequivocally condemning such horrific acts of violence wherever they occur, including in all places of the world where other extremists (non-Muslim and Muslim) kill moderates and innocents of any religion.
As New Zealanders grapple with what the March 15th mosque shootings meant for the country, NZ’s non-Muslim community needs to acknowledge and apologize to the Muslim members of the nation for past neglect and misunderstanding. We should work to address these issues as well as better understand the Western governments’ involvement in the tumultuous areas of the world that now appear to have impacted our shores directly with such violence. This includes New Zealand’s involvement, however small, in the wars of the Middle East.
Only if we can do all these things, might we then get the chance to see the bright sun (the public’s outreach) outshine Aotearoa’s dark cloud that loomed over Christchurch in March.
Insha’Allah, let us all hope that we are already on this path.