There were many things that gave me some sense of solace after hearing about the horrific terrorist attack in Christchurch earlier this month.
One was the immediate messages sent from friends and colleagues, from all faiths and none, who expressed their shared shock and grief over the loss of the 50 Muslims — aged 3 to 77 — who were shot dead at two mosques in the midst of Juma, a weekly communal prayer service.
Another was watching New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern respond to the crisis with a sincerity and strength that simply is not seen in other political leaders today.
“They are New Zealand. They are us,” she declared of the Muslims who died in her country.
And their killer should be denied the publicity he was seeking, she added. “That's why you will never hear me mention his name. He is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless. He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.”
Compare this response to that of the U.S. president — who, when asked if white supremacist ideology was a growing threat, responded, “Not really” — and of our own Conservative Party leader, who couldn’t muster up the words “Muslim” or “mosque” as a form of acknowledgement that the attack was religiously motivated (until a barrage of criticism prompted him to issue another statement).
Ardern’s compassion, swift policy action and astute choice of words have been praised by religious leaders in the Muslim community.
Imam Yasin Dwyer, Muslim chaplain at Ryerson University in Toronto, put it best at a campus memorial tribute on Wednesday.
Ardern “has put Islamophobes to shame,” he told faculty and students. “Not only that but she has put our Muslim leaders in Muslim-majority countries to shame, not just by what she said but what she’s done.”
“We have to make sure our political leaders follow in her footsteps,” he added. “We have to hold them accountable and know that this is the standard that we expect from all of them.”
The recent decision to block “praise, support and representation of white nationalism and separatism” on Facebook and Instagram also felt encouraging. Facebook has acknowledged that the live-streamed video of the shooting, posted by the killer, was viewed more than 4,000 times before being taken down.
But then came the slew of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the aftermath of the Christchurch attack: a mosque in California with graffiti on its driveway that mentioned the mass shootings at the two mosques in New Zealand, for instance, or the Islamic school in the U.K. that had its windows smashed and copies of the Koran torn and thrown on the floor for the second time in two months. The suspects are six teenagers, ages 14 to 18.
At least five mosques in Birmingham were also attacked in the days after the terror attacks in New Zealand. And while police said the incidents, upon investigation, were not acts of far-right extremism or terrorism, you can just imagine the unease that local Muslims are living with.
Sadly, Islamophobia — and tacit acceptance of it — has become a daily reality for British Muslims. In a column for The Guardian, journalist Nesrine Malik writes, “Even in the week since the Christchurch attacks, hate crimes against Muslims have increased by almost 600% in the UK. They included attacks on mosques and one alleged stabbing, and yet there has been no comforting address from the Home Office or No 10.”
It’s not just hate crimes, however, that signal rising anti-Muslim sentiment in a country. Events like Brexit have been predicated largely on fear of Muslim immigration.
Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui, a doctoral researcher at McMaster University who specializes in racism and social inequality, tells me that an extensive Cambridge University study last year found that one-third of people in countries such as the U.K. and France think their governments are “hiding the truth” about immigration. Further, there’s an association between voting in favour of Brexit and subscribing to conspiracy theories — from denial of science to the idea that Muslim migrants are scheming to take over.
“The Leavers campaign in 2016 was fuelled by a kind of narrative that was not just about an immigrant’s burden on the system. It was also about lack of jobs and inequality,” says Ghaffar-Siddiqui.
“It was very specifically targeting and using this wider narrative … [of] problematization of Muslims, which has happened since 9/11, where we are being told that Muslims are basically a problem — that they don’t mix with good Canadian, American or British values. Their values are different from ours.”
Jewish Canadians may be able to relate. Imam Dwyer noted that Jews have always historically been questioned about their loyalty and made to feel like foreigners in their own lands. “The phenomenon of Islamophobia is following that same trajectory,” he said.
Amaan Khandhia, a 12-year-old Muslim student who penned an astute op-ed in The Toronto Star Thursday, offers these words for Canadians to reflect on in the aftermath of the Christchurch terror.
“We, as a community, as Canadians, as humans, can tackle this hostility together…. We need to change more than anything. Change starts with you, every one of you reading this right now. Change starts when you stop judging people by who you THINK they are.”