by Sahar Ghumkhor
In response to what has been described as New Zealand’s biggest “terrorist” attack, in which 50 people were shot and killed in two mosques in the city of Christchurch, Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern declared:
“We were not a target because we are a safe harbour for those who hate. We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we are an enclave for extremism. We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of these things.”
As a Muslim who grew up in New Zealand, this statement didn’t sit well with me. Over the years, I’ve heard it repeated by Kiwis in a ritualistic fashion, always praising the values of multicultural society. I also hear similar self-congratulatory statements in Australia, where I’m now based.
This same narcissistic self-view has often prompted New Zealanders and Australians to declare that I must be “glad” to be in their respective countries. After all, they see Afghanistan, where I come from, as the land of “burqas”, intolerance and fundamentalist violence.
In our “post”-colonial reality, racism still determines who “we” are and who “they” must be. It is what produces statements like “this is not us” that seek to absolve and reject responsibility and shame, and replace them with fragile innocence and even pride.
It is what preserves the comforting conviction that “extremism” and violence are only features of “backward” societies; “our” civilised societies in New Zealand, Australia and the West do not espouse such barbarism and the few of “us” who do, do not represent “us” and are not a product of “our” cultures.
What struck me about Ardern’s statement – and the many others like it praising diversity, the welcoming nature of Kiwis, and the provincial shire with a small tight-knit community – is how dishonest it is.
While Muslims were made part of her collective “we”, this recent inclusion only emphasised their status as the “other”.
Although Islam has a century-long presence in the country, Muslims continue to be portrayed and treated as immigrant and refugees – ie inherently “foreign”. They are either “welcomed” or told to “go back” to where they came from – with both sentiments demonstrating that they are not really seen by the majority as an integral part of New Zealand’s society.
The hashtag #theyareus, which was started to show solidarity with the victims of the Christchurch attack, is an ironic admission of this pervasive perception that Muslims are permanent outsiders. This oscillation of “they” (the barbarian) and “us” (the fully civilised human) reveals the precarious nature of a Muslim’s life and its place in the nation. Colonial governance has historically relied on exactly the same distinction of human/non-human, us/them in order to legitimise its mission to “civilise” and provide a rationale for the violent strategies it uses to manage native populations .
New Zealand has a relatively low profile regarding terrorism and Islamophobia, which allows politicians like Prime Minister Ardern to present the country to the world as a peaceful one that values diversity. Yet, the reality on the ground shows this is not always the case.
The Muslim community has been the main target of intensified mass surveillance and security measures undertaken by the state. Islamophobia within the society has also been on the rise, with Muslims facing attacks and countless public microaggressions on a daily basis.
A 2017 study of 16,000 people showed a strong correlation between high media consumption and having hostile and prejudiced views of Muslims. Members of my family who are visibly Muslim have experienced the real-life consequences of these Islamophobic attitudes. Cars have sped up towards them as they have tried to cross the street; in public spaces, they have been called terrorists or have been asked to take off the veil.
Then every time something involving a Muslim has occurred somewhere in the West, the collective “we” has always felt the need to test the loyalties of the “suspect” Muslim community. Back in 2017, then MP and now current Foreign Minister Winston Peters commented on the London Bridge attack, saying:
“What is happening is that families, friends, and confidants are choosing to turn the other cheek, choosing silence, rather than turn these monsters in. That may be the culture of Damascus, but it is not ours. It may be acceptable in Tripoli, but it most certainly is not acceptable in New Zealand. While the Islamic community must clean house by turning these monsters in, it starts with their own families.”
In neighbouring Australia, the situation is no better. In 2015, then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott demanded that Muslim leaders declare Islam a religion of peace more often and really “mean it”. His successor, Scott Morrison, expressed concerns about Muslim immigrants and their “inability” to integrate.
Right-wing politicians like Pauline Hanson, Fraser Anning, Cory Bernardi and Jacqui Lambie, have repeatedly attacked the Muslim community and incessantly talked about the threatening “spread” of Islam. The “left” has been equally preoccupied with imagined Muslim “threats”. In 2017, when Muslim leaders suggested that “safe spaces” should be set up for young Muslims in Victoria to discuss freely their grievances, Labor Premier Daniel Andrews objected to the project, saying he was “very troubled” about the prospect of Muslim youth “railing against the values we hold dear”.
In both Australia and New Zealand, rampant Islamophobia in the political scene has been amplified by equally racist media which have systematically portrayed Muslims as inherently violent and “backward” and Islam as an ideology justifying violence and the subjugation of women.
In both countries, the political discourse has been strangled by the banality of centrism, its depoliticising pull reducing urgent issues to hollow statements of interfaith dialogue, social cohesion, multiculturalism, and community resilience. This has resulted in a dishonest conversation and a public who now see political emotions as truth.
Meanwhile, Muslims and other minorities bearing the brunt of public racism have been systematically silenced, forced into a non-conversation. This has had devastating effects on the Muslim discourse which has been stripped of any political power, reduced to respectability politics and a crisis of leadership. The depoliticisation of the Muslim community has alienated the younger generations and has led to many of its members internalising Islamophobic stereotypes and engaging in self-surveillance.
That this environment of hate and othering spawned someone like Brenton Tarrant, nurturing his Islamophobia and aggression to the point that he deemed it his “duty” to raid two mosques and kill 50 innocent worshippers is by no means surprising. Tarrant is not an aberration, he’s not an exception; he is an integral part of the collective “we” in New Zealand, Australia, and the “West” – just like the followers of Trumpism are part and parcel of modern-day America.
To argue the opposite is plain denialism and a cowardly flight into the white liberal sanctuary of the “third way” from the discomfort of reality.
Ardern’s words were uttered at a moment of vulnerability as an exaltation of what New Zealand is not and will never be. They signal that the majority is refusing and rejecting shame, the experience of which is key in the pursuit of restorative justice. Unlike pride and hate, the feeling of shame involves self-judgement; embracing it shows a willingness to be transformed by it.
In the wake of the Christchurch attack, however, we have not seen the willingness or courage required to confront Islamophobia as an everyday practice and political policy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.