This was submitted to an American publication but not published.)
On 15 March, 2019, a gunman entered Masjid Al Noor, a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, during prayer time, and fired a semiautomatic rifle adapted to shoot continuously. He then went to a second mosque a few miles away, shooting people there too. Altogether 50 people died and 42 were seriously injured.
On a per capita basis – New Zealand is similar in size and population to the state of Colorado – the number who died was comparable to the 2996 who died in the terrorism of September 11, 2001.There have been massacres in churches, mosques and synagogues elsewhere in the world but this occasion will be recalled by New Zealanders with the same emotional intensity as 9/11 is remembered in the United States.
There are differences. The 9/11 attack was directed at buildings central to the image of American influence – the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the White House. From this perspective the deaths were collateral damage. The white-supremacist gunman’s purpose was to kill people who were of neither the race nor the religion of the majority of New Zealanders. All the casualties were Muslims; unlike 9/11 no one in emergency services suffered.
Yet if Muslims were a minority in New Zealand – 1 percent of the population, a similar proportion to that in America – they were, from the first shot, treated as an integral part of New Zealand society. One did not appreciate how embedded they are until the descriptions of the 50 were published. They included a New Zealand representative indoor football player and a diversity of occupations.
That became more evident after the event. One surgeon described weeping after having operated on a four-year old girl who took three bullets, concluding ‘I am an Arab’. New Zealanders casually observing the interview would not have thought of his race until he mentioned it; previously they would hardly have noticed the numbers of Muslims in the health service.
The linkages are deep and complex. One of New Zealand’s most popular classical vocal trio, Sol3 Mio – a Christian Samoan group based in Auckland – broke down while singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ in a concert because he had a relative-by-marriage in the Christchurch massacre.
Diversity is central to New Zealand life. More than one in seven New Zealanders has some Maori heritage (tangata whenua – the people of the land), one in fourteen has Pasifika (Pacific Island) ancestry, another one in eight is Asian (mainly Chinese and Indian). Around one out of four New Zealanders is overseas born; the figure for the largest city, Auckland, is more than two in five. Fewer than half the population now identify as Christian; almost as many say they are of no religion although most of their forebears were Christian. The remainder belong to a plethora of religions which pervade New Zealand: the local mosque, temple or synagogue just around the corner, national days widely celebrated by everyone, the Sikh taxidriver with (or without) a turban.
There has been a national commitment to develop an acceptance of diversity. For half a century the education system has tackled racism – not always successfully. Even more pertinent to recent events, following the 9/11 catastrophe, the then New Zealand prime minister, Helen Clark, established an interfaith commission, a purpose of which was to link Muslims with other religious communities. The success was evident during the recent crisis as imams worked easily with other religions leaders. Students in a vigil outside an Auckland mosque were invited inside when it began raining; they sang a hymn in te reo (the Maori language).
The response to the mosque massacres became an appreciation and sharing of this diversity, well illustrated by the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern wearing an elegant black chador. She showed a little of her hair under her hijab – the modern rather than traditional practice.
Just 38 years old, Jacinda showed a dignity, compassion, judgement and leadership comparable to what one would have expected from Barack Obama, the ‘president [who] sang “Amazing Grace”’. Asked by Donald Trump how he could help, this slip of a girl told the most powerful man in the world – almost twice her age – to offer ‘sympathy and love for all Muslim communities’.
That is certainly the way that most New Zealanders reacted. A wall of flowers lay outside mosques throughout the country, linked human chains formed outside them too. Schoolchildren joined in with haka – the Maori posture dance for welcoming distinguished guests and acknowledging great achievements, occasions or funerals. (Indicative of the nation’s integration, one was performed by Muslim boys.)
Practices were adapted for the occasion. Within days my local Anglican cathedral brought together city choirs to perform Karl Jenkins’ ‘The Armed Man; A Mass for Peace’, which is dedicated to victims of the Kosovo genocide. Instead of the Last Post there was a karakia (a Maori prayer), which resonated beautifully with the earlier adhaan (Muslim call to prayer), followed by the cathedral bells tolling fifty times – one for each of the dead.
The national ceremony to commemorate the massacre, broadcast throughout the land, illustrated unity in the diversity. Thousands of New Zealanders stood or sat through a ceremony which included a two-minute nationwide silence in the course of the Friday Muslim prayer meeting which had been interrupted a week earlier. Much was in Arabic – the message in English was ‘we are broken hearted but not broken’ – and involved unfamiliar religious forms. Not a few would have compared it to being on a marae (Maori meeting ground) and listening to a conversation they barely understood (few speak Maori) with its different kawa (protocol) and yet, in both cases, deeply and respectfully moved by the occasion.
This is not to imply there has been no grumbling or even antagonism from parts of the population, nor that there is no alt-right in New Zealand. But unquestionably the dominant spirit has been of sympathy and love. The message – from Muslim and non-Muslim alike – was that this was not a time for hate, even of the gunman. The emphasis was on the common humanity: in vernacular and in graffiti ‘They are Us’.
It is perhaps too early to settle on how far the future will treat the massacre as ‘our fault’. The lone gunman was not a New Zealander. He seems to have come here from Australia for the sole purpose of the shooting. Following the Port Arthur massacre of April 1996, Australia introduced tighter gun laws, especially against assault weapons. New Zealand had never got around to similar regulation. Australia has 14 guns per hundred people while New Zealand has 26 – the United States has 121 per hundred.
It is for a future discussion to assess the degree to which the neglect of gun reform reflected pressure from the gun lobby or a certain New Zealand slackness: ‘we are isolated from the world, so it can’t happen here’. The fact is that New Zealand left its backdoor open and a gunman walked in.
Whatever, the government announced within a week that it would be implementing new legislation which would ban assault weapons. No one doubts that Parliament will pass it unanimously and soon, despite the gun lobbies. When the American NRA intervened, Judith Collins, a senior member of the Opposition, told them to ‘bugger off’; the NRA retreated with the sentiment that there was no provision in the New Zealand constitution about the right to bear arms. In fact such gun laws would be one of the last things New Zealanders would contemplate were they to formalise their unwritten constitution (similar to the British arrangement).
The freedom of speech conventions are also different. There has been a conscious policy not to give the gunman’s not-very-coherent ideas a public platform. The Chief Censor has made it illegal to possess or distribute the gunman’s online ‘manifesto’, even though the bar for censoring speech is very high. The decision could be reviewed by the courts, but few think they would reverse it.
There will be an investigation as to whether the security and intelligence services paid sufficient attention to local white supremacists; they appear to have been primarily concerned with threats of external terrorism.
The delay between the announcement and passing of the legislation has been covered by a change in regulations which required gun owners purchasing an assault weapon to go through a more complex police registration process. Except, the Prime Minister explained, the police would be too busy for a while to be able to register anyone.
(Humour surrounding the tragedy was rare. Announcing their daughter’s nine-month birthday on the same day as the change in gun laws was announced, Jacinda’s partner, Clark Gayford, tweeted ‘today we received the gift of crawling. While her mum got her the gift of having a safer country to grow up in’.)
There have been those who have used the event to pursue a barely connected agenda. It will hardly influence New Zealand’s foreign relations agenda. There is no proposal to invade the Maldive Islands, New Zealand’s equivalent to the US invading Iraq and about as relevant.
Even so, there has been a conscious addressing of the nation’s racism. Interpreted widely, it is unquestionably true that racism exists in New Zealand and, like every other country, there are some uncomfortable incidents in its history. Most of the dead were not from the dominant ethnicity – one woman was Pakeha (New Zealander of European descent); she had worked with refugees and converted to Islam. But to argue that a massacre by a foreigner was about national racism is itself racist.
Nevertheless, the incident is being used as an opportunity to explore and reduce such racism (including Islamophobia) as there is in New Zealand. Hearteningly, school children have taken a leading role – notably the head boy of a state (public) school which lost three students in the massacre; he is Samoan. The most commonly used term has been ‘aroha’, the Maori term for affection, sympathy, charity, compassion, love, empathy.
Another issue which has to be addressed is the role of social media. The gunman live-streamed his shooting through Facebook in order to magnify the publicity of his deed. There is a demand for automatic censoring by the social media of live-streaming from unapproved sources – something that the traditional media does routinely. New Zealand journalist Toby Manhire powerfully challenged ‘Mark Zuckerberg, four days on, your silence on Christchurch is deafening.’ It remains deafening. To be realistic, New Zealand cannot force the change on such global giants by itself, but it will punch above its weight in the international moral demand for change.
Perhaps the great irony is that the outcome will be the reverse of what was intended by the gunman (the practice is not to name him), now in custody. He wanted to divide the country. No man has contributed more to uniting it in its diversity. The woman is Jacinda. Her image, with one of the many Muslim women she embraced, was projected on the single tower of the world’s tallest building in Dubia.