Above all, the people we should listen to after a terrorist attack are the victims. So, before I get into my mediocre white man reckons relating to the March 15 mosque shootings in Christchurch, here are a few examples of Muslims having their voices aired in NZ’s media:
One Family’s Story of Survival and Loss in New Zealand (The Daily podcast, The New York Times)
We warned you. We begged. We pleaded. And now we demand accountability (The Spinoff)
The people we lost (Stuff.co.nz)
Hear their words: Muslim voices on the Christchurch attacks (The Spinoff)
Our media have done very well to boost these voices. It’s been exciting, and a little sobering in retrospect (why is this not normal), to suddenly have so much easily available to read and listen to from groups of people who lack power in our society. For me, it’s prompted a lot of thinking about the intersection of power and speech: who has power, and how do they wield it in their words and actions? Who should have our attention right now, and what are those that do have our attention using it to say?
The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has gained an enormous amount of national and international attention for her response to the shootings: not just the quick mobilisation of her government to outlaw the kinds of weapons used in the attack, but the uncommon sensitivity and caring she has shown to the victims. This constant examining of her actions has led to plenty of debate. For example, her wearing of a headscarf, which some insist is a symbol of oppression, has been a hot topic for both the white New Zealanders and the Hindu Indians on my Twitter timeline.
Whether or not you agree with how the Prime Minister has conducted herself, she is the most powerful person in the country and the figurehead of our grief. It’s therefore right that her response has been subjected to such scrutiny. I was uneasy about how she was centered in the days after the attacks, particularly in the mass sharing and printing of photos in which she hugged strangers and displayed emotion. It seemed to me that those images should be of victims’ families, or of Muslim adherents left shattered by the targeting of their community. But it’s complex: they didn’t sign up to be part of anything like this, or to be relentlessly photographed, or to play a central role in a crisis. The Prime Minister did, opting into the front pages in the best and worst of times. It’d be strange if she wasn’t there now.
And I got another perspective a few days after the attacks. A Muslim friend in India sent me a one-line email expressing sympathy, and attached four of the more widely shared images of the Prime Minister with her headscarf proudly in place. If her symbolic representation of everyone else’s love and support meant something to a Muslim on the other side of the world, that’s good enough for me.
At the very least, the Prime Minister seems to be aware of her effect on the social landscape. She has led with a view to consciously establishing new norms that are inclusive and hopeful. Get behind me, she seems to say, and we’ll make things better together. That’s more than can be said for various commentators in the American political media, who of course have had plenty to say about Christchurch. Ben Shapiro, who hosts a very popular conservative news podcast, uses up a fair amount of oxygen sharing his views on everything from universities as liberal indoctrination centres, climate change belief as religion, and the anti-Semitism of anyone who supports the idea of Palestininan statehood. Naturally, he was quick to comment on Christchurch, particularly to rebut the idea that white supremacist violence has anything to do with prominent critics of Islam such as himself, Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and indeed President Donald Trump.
Okay, but no. A cursory look at the repeated phrases used in comment threads and social media profiles – #MAGA and its derivatives, Trump Supporter, Not Politically Correct – reveal a collective that is very openly a collective. They just happen to speak the language of individualism. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It’s freedom of speech. Not my choice to get offended, buddy. Broader civic discourse has extended the reach of this type of language with phrases like ‘lone wolf’ – a phrase used often to describe the Christchurch attacker, who professed an admiration for Trump and Norwegian terrorist Anders Bering Breivik in his manifesto. The ideologues set the tone and establish communities, and every individual is then empowered to act alone against the Other. (You could say the exact same thing against fundamentalist Islam, which is to say that neither extremity lacks a coherent movement to back them up.)
But to Shapiro and his ilk, it is insane to suggest Trump’s forceful anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim views have anything to do with the Christchurch shooter, let alone any of Shapiro’s own diatribes about Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar or Bill Maher’s panel discussions about the dangers of moderate Islam. Every event happens in isolation, in a Randian vacuum, caused only by the free will of the actors involved. It works the other way, too: if you want to stop climate change, give up meat and take the bus, never mind the staggering emissions from multinational corporates and the lack of political will to actually use power for change.
This is the thinking that dominates our society nowadays. The Christchurch massacre seems to have prompted a closer look at what we as individuals say and do, and how we can collectively mitigate the threat of extremism. If only the likes of Shapiro – and hey, Trump, as if that would ever happen – were able to reflect on the communities they have created; how their words are transformed from mere opinions into calls to action when expressed from a megaphone. That’s the kind of individual responsibility we need right now. And there’s a model for it in Jacinda Ardern.
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