24 March 2019
A week after the terrorist attack in Christchurch and the murders of 50 people, we’re still trying to make sense of the hatred that could inspire someone to do this. Overwhelmingly, New Zealanders have reacted with horror at the killings and with compassion for the victims and their families. And there’s been a massive show of aroha and manaakitanga for the Muslim community here.
We will all have a story of where we were when we heard the news of the attacks. I was driving with my wife, Kate, to the WOMAD festival in New Plymouth. An alert popped up on my phone about an attack at a mosque in Christchurch. A few minutes later, the news came on the car radio with eye-witness accounts of shootings, and that the Police had caught the terrorist. As we crawled through Rangitikei on the seemingly never-ending roadworks we listened in horror to the news coming through on National Radio. Host Jesse Mulligan talked to reporters on the scene, people nearby and eye witnesses on the phone. Amongst the bedlam, we heard stories of heroism, confusion, fear and shock. By the time we got to WOMAD, we knew there were ‘substantial’ casualties, which soon became 40.
It was subdued at the festival. I’m sure we weren’t the only people wondering whether we should be there. Was it right to be listening to music and dancing just hours after so many people had been murdered in a racist, terrorist attack? Congolese singer Baloji said he had been told there were two things he couldn’t do — jump in the lake or talk about white supremacists. The English group, The Correspondents, acknowledged the attack. It seemed inadequate, but what would you say if you were on stage after something like this? What ever you said, you would feel that it wasn’t enough.
We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.
Leonard Bernstein, after the assassination of US President John Kennedy in 1963
By the next day we knew there were 50 people dead, and almost as many people in hospital. The stories of the dead and wounded people were coming through. Mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. Little children. People who had lived here all their lives and others who had arrived only last year. People from many different countries. The one thing they had in common was their religion.
On Sunday we went to the mosque in New Plymouth. It was easy to find on Google Maps. I thought its location might have been hidden, but before Friday, why would anyone have thought that was necessary? We left flowers and a note of love and support written in chalk on the drive. Gill sang a waiata. Some of us cried. It was very sad and moving.
Each of us knew how we were reacting, but how would the country react? We looked to our leaders to help make sense of it. Our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, took the path of empathy, compassion, and firm action. She and the government avoided the sort of macho revenge talk you can hear after these events. Our politicians, of all parties, were as one in their response and stood together, even when it came to changes in the gun laws, which they had not been able to agree on before.
The next Friday, the country stood still, with many thousands at Hagley Park In Christchurch over the road from the Al Noor Mosque. But, there were many others in cities, towns and villages around the country doing the same. We went to our local Islamic Centre in Waitangirua, where about 60 people had gathered for a vigil. Before the prayers started, the Imam came out and thanked us, and lead us in the two-minutes silence. Then, we waited outside during the prayers. Young men from the mosque brought out chairs for the old people to sit on, and passed around bottles of water and home baking. It was hot and we found what shade we could, in our case, sitting on the tar seal next to a car.
After the prayers were over, and everyone came out of the centre, we all gathered in the carpark and people spoke and sang. It would have been the most extraordinary thing, except this is Porirua, a city with many Māori and Pasifika people, where speeches and oratory are part of the culture. So, it’s just how we do things in our town, and I wouldn’t have expected anything different.
The deputy mayor, Izzie Ford, spoke, as did the local MP, Kris Faafoi. People from the centre spoke. The old man who lives next door spoke. An elderly Pākehā man spoke emotionally about his wife coming to New Zealand as one of the Polish child refugees after the war and how we should always remain a country that welcomes people, whoever they are and wherever they come from. One of the Muslim men talked about whanaungatanga, which is what we had seen in our communities all week. There were waiata after speeches, one of the speeches was almost entirely in te reo Māori and some Ngati Toa members finished with a haka. It was beautiful, loving, respectful and about as Kiwi as you could get. It made me proud of our people.
So, now what now? Jacinda Ardern told us and the world, “This is not us.” And for many of us that’s true. It’s certainly not how we want to be. We aspire to being a peaceful, welcoming, inclusive, multi-cultural society. Our little vigil in Waitangirua was a small slice of that society. Jacinda has been criticised by people who think she’s being naiive about New Zealanders not being racist and Islamophobic. That there isn’t racism directed at all people of colour here — at anyone who isn’t white.
It’s true that we are a racist society, and there is a lot of prejudice here. Often, it’s small things. A mildly racist joke or crack. Or something more blatant. Muslim women verbally abused for wearing a head scarf. People with non-European names not getting jobs or rental accomodation. Pākehā refusing to sing the national anthem in Māori. Snide comments about dairies being owned by Indians, the fish shops by Greeks, and greengrocers by Chinese. The language isn’t as pervasively racist as it was when I was a child, in the 1960s and 70s. Back then, Asians were routinely called ‘chows’ or ‘Japs’, Indians were always ‘curry munchers’, Arabs were ‘wogs’, Polynesians were ‘coconuts’ and Māori were generally ‘bloody horis’. But, you don’t have to scratch very deeply today to still find the prejudices that sit behind those names.
The nice, liberal, middle class urbanites who dominate the media and the public service (like me and my family) like to think it’s not still as strongly like that — or at least, not the people we know well. But a society built on European colonialism is going to have at least traces of that European or British racial superiority — in some cases, it’s a lot more than traces. A few minutes spent in the comments on social media shows there is a lot of fear and hatred for Muslims amongst New Zealanders. The people who feel like this haven’t miraculously gone away in the past week — in fact, they have been busy online — but many of them would have been keeping their heads down until it’s safe to show their true colours again.
We like to reassure ourselves that it’s a generational thing; that the young won’t be like that. Young people are less likely to pick up the casual racism that I inherited from my family when I was a child. I didn’t start to challenge my beliefs until I was almost an adult. My kids left primary school knowing racism was wrong, and being prepared to speak up about it. However, the terrorist who murdered the people in Christchurch was only 28, the same age as my daughter. We can’t use the excuse that he came from overseas – Australia and New Zealand aren’t that different in many ways. OK, they may have more blatant racism there amongst public figures, but we can’t get off the hook that easily, or be too smugly superior. The extreme racism and paranoid, violent xenophobia exists here — some is imported, but much of it is home grown. And their fear and hate makes them dangerous.
The martyrdom of 50 people and the injury of 42 did not come overnight, it was the result of the anti-Muslim rhetoric of some political leaders, media agencies and others. Last week’s events are proof and evidence to the entire world that terrorism has no colour, has no race and has no religion. The rise of white supremacy and right wing extremism is a great global threat to mankind and this must end now.
Imam Gamal Fouda, speaking at Friday prayers a week after the terrorist attack
The killings were political and our response must also be political, as well as social and cultural. I was brought up by a father who had spent three-and-a-half years in prisoner of war camps in World War Two. He hated fascism. I remember the day he came home upset from work after delivering groceries to a house that had a swastika flag on display in the lounge. He told the supermarket he would never go there again. I have wished several times in the past that I had had the courage to take a simple stand like that.
Fascism takes many forms. In this modern world, two of the most extreme and obvious ones are white supremacists and Islamist extremists. Both are inspired by hate and feed off the fear people have of groups that aren’t like them, which they feel threatened by and want to destroy. The problem many of us have when looking at extremist groups is to view them from our social, cultural or historical perspective. Although we don’t want to do it, in the battle between these two groups we are standing closer to one than the other, and that’s where we tend to view the battle from. However, they both hate the same things – societies where people of all races, cultures and beliefs choose to live in peace and make room for each other to be themselves. The sort of liberal, multicultural society many of us like to think New Zealand is (or should be). White supremacists hate liberal, socially progressive Pākehā as much as Islamist extremists hate liberal, socially progressive Muslims. We are all traitors to their beliefs (racial or religious) and need to be defeated and brought into line.
One of the things Buddhist dharma teaches us is that nothing is fixed and change is always possible. Every moment is new and fresh and an opportunity to be different. We are different in every new moment, and we have the choice of what that will be. New Zealand has a moment to be fresh and new and to accept that we have changed and are changing as a society — whether we like it or not. Some people are saying that this won’t change us. But, it has to, or all the fine words and sympathy of the past week will have meant nothing. We can’t go back to how we were. It would be easy to backslide. A few days of mutual grieving, some good intentions and then back to not noticing other people in our community. We must not shy away from it, or look away and stop listening when someone talks about racism and prejudice and how it is there in our society.
Our future is bright and I am filled with hope for it. The day of the murders in Christchurch, thousands of children had marched to protect the whole world and every living creature in it from the harmful effects of climate change. So, I have confidence. We have a lot of work to do to make a world filled with love, peace and acceptance. That work will never end. But, we all have a simple choice — if people of peace don’t make the world we want, someone else will create the world they want and we might not like it.