Christchurch mosque shooting: A masterclass from New Zealand in responding to terror
Exactly a week after a gunman opened fire in the Al Noor Mosque, the ancient call to Friday prayers echoed out over police tape, and drifts of flowers, and over the thousands of New Zealanders gathered in central Christchurch's Hagley Park to honour the 50 slain.
The haunting strains travelled across the nation, via simultaneous radio and television broadcasts.
"It used to be that you had to go into the mosque to hear the beauty of Islam. Now look at this," said Omar Nabi, gesturing at the sea of people. His father Haji-Daoud Nabi was among the first worshippers killed on Friday, a week ago.
"Today my father is smiling at me, and laughing at him," Omar said of the gunman.
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Imam Gamal Fouda had a powerful message for the crowd: "We are broken-hearted but we are not broken. We are alive. We are together. We are determined to not let anyone divide us."
At the heart of the national response has been the country's young prime minister, 38-year-old Jacinda Ardern, rising day after day to her terrible duty. If there had been quiet criticism in some circles that she was an inexperienced leader with as much stardust as substance, that has now been put to rest.
Ardern has been a commanding figure of poise, compassion and strength, a textbook example to other world leaders about how to respond in the face of mass casualty terrorist attacks.
One of Australia's leading counter-terrorism experts, Jacinta Carroll from the ANU's National Security College, wrote this week that Ardern had provided a "masterclass … from possibly the most unlikely place in the world."
It was, Carroll said, "that rare combination of the right words and the right actions" from the leader of a small country which until now had enjoyed a reputation as a blessedly low-threat environment.
Carroll's sentiments are shared by Dr Bryce Edwards, of the Victoria University of Wellington's Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, who says it's not just Ardern's overwhelming empathy and sympathy towards the Muslim community that has been striking.
It's also how carefully she has chosen language designed to unify her nation rather allow its divisions to grow more bitter.
"You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you," she said of the gunman during her first address to the nation after the attack, determined that that there would be no "othering" (as Carroll puts it) of the victims.
Ardern's repeated "this is not us" is a phrase that has caught on. It appears on the cards which accompany the floral tributes spreading around the city: around the mosques, along a wall outside the botanical gardens by the hospital, and ringing trees in Hagley Park in the city centre.
In her actions and her rhetoric, Ardern has first and foremost emphasised solidarity with the Muslim community.
Within hours she had identified the attack as an act of terrorism and was in Christchurch to meet survivors and the bereaved. Wearing a headscarf, she mourned with them at a refuge centre established at Hagley College, and wept with them. Meanwhile her government fast-tracked visas for families wanting to attend funerals and provided immediate financial assistance for victims and their families.
In another powerful symbol, when Parliament met for the first time after the shooting, leading imam Nizam ul haq Thanvi was invited to open proceedings with a prayer.
From Edwards' point of view, all of this suggests that beyond her genuine compassion Ardern has been acting with strategic pragmatism. Her goals, he believes, are manifold.
Firstly, she seeks to ensure that the division the gunman sought to sow between New Zealand Muslims and the greater community does not take hold.
Secondly, she wants to head off the potential for a culture war inside her country, with elements of the left seeking to identify racism in New Zealand society as the cause of the attack and sections of the right using it to impugn immigration or the Islamic community itself.
Thirdly Ardern - no doubt on the advice of police and intelligence agencies - has security implications in mind.
"Her security staff will be very concerned about the potential for retaliation and blowback," Edwards said. By positioning New Zealand itself as the victim of the attack as well as its Muslim community, and by demonstrating unity with that community, Ardern is intent on reducing the potential for revenge attacks.
MEANWHILE IN AUSTRALIA ...
In Australia, the response to the Christchurch atrocity has, in some quarters at least, been less lofty.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison rightly won praise from experts here for swiftly calling out the gunman's actions as those of an "extremist, right-wing, violent terrorist", thus making it plain the word was not reserved for acts of violence wrought by Islamic extremists.
Morrison, according to Carroll, would have been "keenly aware, in terms of messaging, that the Muslim community here is very sensitive and upset about the way Islam is always linked to terrorism. Talking to my friends in that community, I know they were very happy he said that."
But Morrison got short shrift in other circles as adversaries from right and left - on social media, on Twitter, in newspaper opinion columns and on current affairs panels - took up the cudgels against one other, framing the New Zealand attack as yet another chapter in the long-running culture war over asylum seekers, immigration and Islamophobia - a battle that stretches back nearly 20 years to the Tampa election of 2001.
"Some of the more flamboyant commentary on all sides … has been very damaging from a social cohesion point of view, and also wrong-footed," Carroll argues.
Discovering that an Australian was the alleged perpetrator of the Christchurch atrocity poured fuel on the fire. So too did former One Nation Senator Fraser Anning's indefensible blaming of the attack on Muslim immigration.
Waleed Aly's blistering editorial on Channel Ten's The Project a week ago, delivered direct into several hundred thousand homes and since viewed more than 13 million times online, was shocking for its opening statement that he was not shocked.
"We all knew this has been coming," Aly said, citing other recent attacks on mosques, synagogues and churches around the world.
And Aly's referencing of a shadow cabinet meeting in late 2010, during which Morrison, then shadow minister for immigration, allegedly floated the idea of tapping into anti-Muslim sentiment for political gain left Morrison enraged. At one point the Prime Minister's office appeared on the brink of launching defamation action against Channel 10.
The author of the original report, then national affairs correspondent for the Herald Lenore Taylor, wrote the story in early 2011, citing several unnamed senior sources. Her report detailed Julie Bishop and Philip Ruddock strongly taking issue with Morrison. On Twitter this week Taylor defended the story.
Morrison denies it, and on Thursday night, the Prime Minister appeared on a special edition of The Project, alone with Aly for 30 minutes, trying to drive a stake through it for good. Yes, Morrison conceded, he did raise the subject of anti-Muslim sentiment at that meeting in late 2010. But it was not to "exploit" those fears but to "address" them, he insisted. Nor did he believe the Coalition had an Islamophobia "problem".
THEIR STATEMENTS HAUNT THEM
Yet he and some other senior Coalition figures, notably Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton, have form which will be hard to shake off.
In February 2011 for instance, Morrison made a point of saying that Australian taxpayers should not be funding flights of families of asylum-seekers who drowned off Christmas Island to attend their funerals.
In 2016, Dutton said the Fraser government had made "mistakes" in parts of its immigration program, pointing to the number of people with "second- and third-generation Lebanese Muslim backgrounds" who were facing terrorism charges at the time.
More recently, senior ministers have invoked the spectre of sex offenders and terrorists being among those who might take advantage of new medevac laws to slip into Australia.
And as The Financial Review's Phil Coorey pointed out on Friday, as recently as March 9, Morrison and his Finance Minister Mathias Cormann were linking Labor's franking credits policy to Shorten's pledge to take more refugees.
"Taxing retirees to take more refugees – that's Bill Shorten's policy," Morrison said in Perth.
If there is any lasting re-set of this kind of rhetoric, it will be a welcome development. But many will not let the past rest so easily.
On Thursday, the head of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, Dr Rateb Jneid, thanked "all the wonderful people around the globe and especially from New Zealand and Australia for their support in this time of grief".
But a statement from the Australian National Imams Council was more pointed. Political leaders had to do more to counter Islamophobia, "including in relation to provocative and divisive speech" the council said. "ANIC takes this opportunity to thank the level-minded political leaders, journalists and people among us for their ongoing support in promoting tolerance, cohesion and inclusivity."
WORDS AND ACTIONS
In New Zealand, Ardern has thus far been successful in directing the media narrative. As she wished, the perpetrator's name and preposterous manifesto are barely mentioned. She has moved swiftly to amend the country's too-lax gun laws.
Over a week in Christchurch, we spoke to dozens of people - including survivors and family members of the dead – who were universal in their praise for her efforts.
Speaking through tears, visiting sheik Sayad Pir, who had travelled from Fiji to help with the funerals, said: "I have seen the people cry and I have seen the love come from the bottom of their hearts."
Somali New Zealander Sahra Ahmed said life in New Zealand had not been perfect. She'd suffered some racism there, but she was touched by Ardern's appearance at the community refuge wearing a headscarf. "It means a lot, it shows solidarity" Ahmed said. "It says 'I am with you'."
Yet some fear the culture warfare which Ardern has sought to defuse or delay may re-emerge in New Zealand once this period of public mourning ends.
WHAT A CULTURE WAR LOOKS LIKE
The experience in the United States - admittedly a place with a very different history around race and gun violence – does not augur well.
On December 16, 2012, two days after a gunman mowed down 20 6 and 7-year-old children and six staff at a primary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, America seemed unified in grief as President Barack Obama wept while reading the name of each victim during a local memorial.
Yet within weeks so-called "truthers" were accusing the parents of the dead of being "crisis actors" who had faked their children's murders for political ends. And within months those same parents would weep in the galleries of the Capitol building as meaningful gun law reform was voted down.
Two-and-a-half years later a young white supremacist banged on the door of a prominent black church in Charleston, South Carolina. As in Christchurch, he was welcomed into a house of prayer, then he shot dead nine congregants.
Days later Obama made what was to be one of the pivotal speeches of his presidency. Having long resisted addressing the naked prejudice that his most virulent critics had directed against him, Obama pivoted in Charleston, delivering a searing screed against racism in his eulogy to the dead.
He excoriated the perpetrator as a racist man seeking to "incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion", with "an act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation's original sin".
As a black preacher might, Obama sang Amazing Grace, a hymn of repentance written by a reformed slaver.
Yet by the time he'd left office, America was even more divided. Rather than heed his words about the evils of racism, a swathe of fellow countrymen voted to elect Donald Trump, who'd built his political fortunes by peddling the false racist conspiracy theory that Obama was an illegitimate president by virtue of being born in Africa. (He was born in Hawaii.)
Less than a year later right-wing and white supremacist groups rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, where among other things they chanted the slogans, "You will not replace us" and "Jews will not replace us".
These slogans reflect so-called "replacement theory", which has spread through right-wing online circles and to which the Christchurch killer subscribed. When one racially-motivated sympathiser attacked a counter-rally, killing one and injuring 19, Trump refused to condemn the far-right groups, many of which had voiced their support for his administration. Instead he condemned violence "on both sides" and argued that there were "very fine people on both sides".
In the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre, Trump called Ardern to offer his sympathies but did not heed her request to offer his public "sympathy and love for all Muslim communities".
He grumbled on Twitter that "The Fake News Media is working overtime to blame me for the horrible attack in New Zealand."
Outdoing even Trump's populist impulses were those of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Having dispatched both his vice president and foreign minister to Christchurch and in the midst of campaigning for local elections, Erdogan launched an attack on New Zealanders and Australians.
"Your grandparents came here … and they returned in caskets," he said, referring to the World War I Gallipoli campaign. "Have no doubt we will send you back like your grandfathers."
Facing outrage from Canberra and Washington, a spokesman has since claimed this bombshell was taken out of context, while Erdogan has written an opinion piece for The Washington Post praising Ardern.
But those original words, once uttered, are not so easily snatched back. The so-called Islamic State is now seeking to exploit the Christchurch attack, with its spokesman Abu-Hassan al-Muhajir releasing a recording to The New York Times urging retaliation by "supporters of the caliphate".
THE RIGHT-WING THREAT
While New Zealand's security agencies were apparently woefully under-prepared for the advent of violent right-wing extremism on their shores, Australian agencies say they have had such threats on their radar for some time.
ASIO director general Duncan Lewis told a Senate committee recently that the "right wing extremist threat ... exists. It is coming off a very low base [but] we are very cognisant of this new vector."
Leading Australian social researcher and director of Vox Populi Rebecca Huntley says the darker reaches of the internet feed the kind of toxic resentment that "in its extreme form … leads to violence".
"It isn't necessarily economic inequality that's the main driving force of populism in affluent democracies" she says. "It's reaction to a complete loss of assumed status. If [a place] is supposed to be the working man's paradise, and those expectations are not met, that's where the resentment comes from."
Once, Christchurch was seen as a hot-spot for white supremacist activity. But Dr Jarrod Gilbert, a sociologist and expert in gang violence from Canterbury University in New Zealand, says the Christchurch killer has far more in common with the young men who gathered on the streets of Charlottesville two years ago than with the skinheads who strutted through this city two decades ago. Such men trawl globally for hate-filled philosophy, and are as likely to be radicalised at a computer as by a particular nationalist movement.
Speaking at the prayer service a week after the massacre, mourner Mohamed Ishaq gestured at the thousands of New Zealanders who had gathered at Hagley Park in solidarity with the slain. "We had no idea it would be like this" he said.
And Ardern? "We call her 'Sister' now. She is our sister."
Sydney Morning Herald