The writer is an independent writer and former editor
It had been, as she put it, New Zealand’s darkest day and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shined bright like the ray of hope and sanity that she truly is in a world gone blind with hate and bigotry.
The world’s youngest prime minister was the very picture of love, reason and immense courage as she firmly rejected the dark, apocalyptic worldview of the white supremacist terrorist, who calmly gunned down 50 Muslim worshippers last Friday, to embrace his victims.
Referring to the Friday massacre victims, Ardern declared, “They are us!”
In one single, three-word sentence, she redefined the whole narrative of ‘Us versus Them’ and turned the terrorism debate on its head.
Reaching out to all those affected by the tragedy, she asserted: “Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand; they may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home and it is their home. They are us.” Rejecting the killer’s claim to speak on behalf of New Zealand and the West, she stressed: “The person who perpetuated this violence is not (us)!” Timeless words of wisdom and immense courage under fire.
She did not mince her words. Nor did she fib or fudge, as has been the tradition of so many clever politicians, including our own, in her unqualified rejection of evil. Not for her the clever spin of speechwriters and ingenious prevarication of dual-faced politicians, protecting one’s own and defending the indefensible.
She spoke straight from her heart and touched a billion hearts and more around the world. And those were not mere meaningless platitudes meant for occasions tailored for cameras. She walked the talk as she warmly hugged the families of victims and other Muslims during her visits to mosques in Christchurch and Wellington wearing a hijab and looking solemn and grief-stricken.
In the words of Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Mahatma’s grandson, “Ardern spoke from a thinking heart and feeling mind to say something that was totally different, totally timely and timeless.”
When US President Trump called her and asked what the US could do to help, she advised: “Send out sympathy and love for all Muslim communities”.
Speaking later in parliament, she began her speech with ‘Assalamualaikum’ and refused to name the killer: “He sought many things from his act of terror, but one was notoriety. And that is 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.”
Instead she chose to stand with his victims, embracing them as her own and repeatedly assuring them of the support and solidarity of the people of New Zealand. She again demonstrated it during the solemn funeral of victims held with the state support.
This is what leadership is all about, rising to the occasion and leading with example. Ardern has set a shining example for all world leaders and the rest of humanity. By demonstrating empathy, compassion and solidarity with the victims and embracing the Other, she has shown the face of true humanity. This is leadership at its best. This is how it should be. Embracing the Other and standing up for the vulnerable and the oppressed, that is the real sign of humanity. Especially at a time when doors are shutting in the face of refugees and persecuted minorities around the world and the leader of the world’s richest nation spends all his time and energy obsessing over building a wall to keep them out.
As my friend Sabrina Lei, an Italian scholar of the Quran and Iqbal, put it: “A true leader is someone who loves the people, and is in turn loved by the people. Ardern epitomises such leadership rooted in love, compassion, wisdom and trust. Unlike some of her male counterparts in certain Western countries, she
comes across as truly wise, genuine and compassionate.”
And it takes real courage and audacity to do so when it is easy for politicians to do otherwise. Especially today when the politics of expediency is the order of the day and hate and bigotry have come to be normalised and even encouraged by the powerful. It is their dog-whistle politics and hate-laced propaganda against minorities that has been creating monsters like the one who went on a rampage at the Christchurch mosques.
While Islamophobia and racism have always been an integral part of Western societies – sometimes visible and sometimes latent and nuanced – there has been an explosion of sorts in anti-Muslim sentiments in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
As Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, one of the first leaders to respond to the New Zealand attacks, put it, post 9/11 Islam and 1.3 billion Muslims have collectively been blamed for every act of terror and violence around the world, creating a climate of hate and intolerance for Muslims. Indeed, the global war on terror led by the US has spawned and normalised an unprecedented climate of hate against Arabs and Muslims and everyone who looks like them. Over the years, this hostile environment at home alienated many young and impressionable Muslims, born and brought up in the West, forcing some of them to flirt with extremists like Al-Qaida and Isis. On the other hand, this has emboldened all those whose hearts have forever been consumed by the mindless hatred of vulnerable minorities such as Muslims of India, Burma and Sri Lanka.
The ascent of Trump and his unbelievable election to the world’s most powerful office coupled with his brazen anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions like the Muslim ban have taken Islamophobia to a whole new level. More important, as the Christchurch terrorist acknowledged, it’s apparently inspiring dangerously unhinged sickos everywhere, especially in the West. The rise of the fascist Right across Europe is part of this alarming shift. The leader of the free world is the poster boy for many of them.
In India, it is the same cult of a masculine leader who is out to ‘deal’ with Muslims that is driving the anti-Muslim hatred. As a result, Islamophobia has emerged as a clear and present danger to the peace and stability of our world. Over the past few years, Muslim countries have repeatedly raised the issue at the United Nations and other global forums. However, given their limited influence and the random nature of their efforts, they have mostly been like voices in the wilderness and are yet to bear fruits.
Apparently, the Christchurch killer had been radicalised over the years – growing on the kind of incendiary nonsense and conspiracy theories that politicians like Trump and Fox News routinely peddle. He obsessed over the centuries-old encounters between Islam and the West, especially the fall of Constantinople or Istanbul, once the seat of a great Christian empire, to Muslims and the subsequent Ottoman assaults on Vienna. He even visited Turkey twice and had identified its leaders as his targets. All this clearly had been the result of perpetual brainwashing and indoctrination at the hands of white supremacists and Christian-Zionist bigots.
The Christchurch attacks should come as a wake-up call to the world community. It can no longer be business as usual. Politicians routinely spewing hate and intolerance and sowing strife between communities must be held to account. If you sow hatred against enemies imagined and invented, it is bound to produce a backlash. You shall reap as you sow. World leaders, including those in the West and South Asia need to learn from New Zealand’s leadership. You must confront evil head-on to nip it in the bud, while lending a helping hand to those who need it the most.