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March 17, 2019

Our place in the world


March 17, 2019

Just one day after Prime Minister Imran Khan launched an extensive online visa regime to, in a sense, open our doors to the world, we had a shocking reminder of how the world is becoming a more hazardous place for us, as Muslims, to move freely about without fear.

Friday’s terror attack on two mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand has shaken the world and it is obviously not easy to come to terms with it. With our own history of a long struggle with terrorism, we have a particular need to understand this phenomenon and decode the messages that are planted in the rise of Islamophobia and obsession with white supremacy in Europe and the US.

For the time being, of course, we feel overwhelmed with emotion. This tragedy has become all the more unbearable because of how the gunman, clearly motivated by white extremist hatred, had calculated to make the massacre go viral on internet. He was himself covering it live.

There is ample evidence that right-wing extremism is rising in the West. There is this paranoia about the threat that refugees and Muslims pose to the culture and values of the Western world. These views have gained strength with the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States and there is little surprise in the Christchurch assassin invoking Trump in his manifesto and online posts. In his manifesto, the gunman wrote that he admires Trump because he is “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose”.

That this act of terrorism, with such a large number of fatalities, has happened in New Zealand – though the gunman is an Australian – is particularly heartbreaking. It is one of the most peaceful places in the world, proud of its diversity and pluralism. It has welcomed immigrants who, being in such small numbers, feel an integral part of society.

One felt touched and also inspired by the manner in which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand responded to the tragedy. She pointedly stated that the Muslims who were killed were “us”. At a press conference, she said: “What has happened here is an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence”. We can assume that New Zealand would never be the same again.

On Saturday, Jacinda Ardern – wearing a black scarf on her head – met the Muslim community, mainly the women, to condole the death of the worshippers.

It so happened that the Bangladesh cricket team, during its tour in New Zealand, was in Christchurch and its members were coming to the mosque for Friday prayers when the shooting started; they narrowly escaped.

It is instructive that the gunman wrote his 74-page manifesto, while he meticulously planned the massacre, to explain his reasoning for the attack. This is an important document that bares the mind of a white racist. Some experts who have looked at it have said that it is not very coherent and is a reflection of the hate material that is circulated online.

This, then, is another area of concern. The role that social media as well as material available online has played in promoting hatred and extremism should be carefully analysed. This is also relevant for us in Pakistan since we are in the midst of an operation against banned organisations involved in acts of terror and violence. We should be mindful of the ways in which the youth can be radicalised.

Naturally, the world has unequivocally expressed its outrage and grief over the Christchurch atrocity. There have been prayers for those killed in the attack. At the same time, there are bound to be apologists who point towards the disruptive influence of an increasing number of refugees and Muslims in western societies.

Almost immediately after the terror attack, Australian senator Fraser Anning issued a statement on official stationary and, in addition to expressing sorrow over the incident, blamed “the immigration programme which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place”.

In his opinion piece in ‘The New York Times’, writer Wajahat Ali was quite candid: “Thoughts and prayers are not enough. These attacks are the latest manifestation of a growing and globalised ideology of white nationalism that must be addressed at its source – which includes the mainstream politicians and media personalities who nurture, promote and excuse it”.

He is referring, obviously, to the rising anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric in the US and in Europe. But what should this mean to us in Pakistan? How do we react to this act of terrorism that is bound to stay in global headlines for some time?

“Shocked and strongly condemned the Christchurch terrorist attacks on mosques”, Imran Khan tweeted on Friday. “This reaffirms what we have always maintained that terrorism does not have a religion. Prayers go to the victims and their families”. He said: “I blame these increasing attacks on the Islamophobia post-9/11 where Islam and 1.3 billion Muslims have collectively been blamed for any act of terror by a Muslim. This has been done deliberately to demonise legitimate Muslim political struggles”.

Having said this, however, we have also to demonstrate to the world our resolve to expunge hatred and extremism of whatever kind from our own society. Pakistan has a vital interest in how Muslims are perceived in the world for a number of reasons. When immigrant communities are threatened worldwide and there is discrimination against them, Pakistanis are also affected because we have such a large number of Pakistanis living as immigrants in Western countries, sending us remittances. At least six Pakistanis were among those killed in Christchurch.

We are also the only nuclear-armed Muslim country and the world watches us very carefully. It goes to our credit that we, professedly, are a democracy with such a diverse population. It is necessary that we project the image of a tolerant, peaceful country that is committed to eradicating hatred and extremism within its confines.

Unfortunately, our portrayal as a nation has not always been complimentary and for that we should blame the various shades of extremism that have existed in our society, including of a sectarian kind. Yes, the situation has greatly improved. But a lot still needs to be done.

I mentioned at the outset the ambitious plan that the prime minister unveiled on Thursday to open up Pakistan for tourists. We do have great attractions, bolstered by the innate hospitality of our people. But our interaction with the world would largely depend on the reputation we earn as a country of peace and security and, at least socially and culturally, freedom.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]