ODVV interview: An increase in Islamophobia...
Christchurch, the largest city in the South Island of New Zealand, witnessed a bloody Friday on 15 March 2019 when a 28-year-old Australian gunman attacked two mosques and killed 51 worshippers. The terrorist, inspired by far-right extremism and Islamophobia, live-streamed the first attack at the Al Noor Mosque in the suburb of Riccarton and was arrested before going on with his plan to continue the attacks at a third location. He was charged with murder, attempted murder and terrorism but pleaded not guilty to all charges on June 14 when he appeared, via a video link from a maximum-security prison in Auckland, for a half-hour hearing.
The atrocity is considered to be the deadliest mass shooting in the history of New Zealand. The country’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it was an act of “unprecedented violence” and called the incident “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.” She expressed solidarity with the families of the victims and mourned along with them. She visited members of the Muslim community at the Phillipstown Community Hub one day after the attacks and wore a hijab to pay tribute to those affected. Ardern’s sympathetic and decisive response to the attacks was praised internationally. The Christchurch attacks drew international attentions to the importance of tackling violent extremism and underlined the exigency of challenging religious intolerance, especially Islamophobia at a time anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments are on the rise across the world.
Dr. Hanlie Booysen is a lecturer at the school of social and cultural studies at the Victoria University of Wellington. Her main research interest includes the relationship between Islam and politics. Her writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including The Conversation.
In an interview with Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Dr. Hanlie Booysen shared her views about the Christchurch attacks, the New Zealand government’s response to the attacks and the global rise of Islamophobia. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: Global Peace Index data show New Zealand is the second most peaceful country in the world and incidents of religious, racial and ethnic violence happen in this country rarely. Does the deadly mass shooting in Christchurch in which 51 Muslim worshippers were murdered indicate the growth and penetration of Islamophobia and racial intolerance in New Zealand?
A: Comparatively, New Zealand will remain a very peaceful country, based on societal safety and security, domestic and international conflict, and militarization, the principal indicators of the Global Peace Index (GPI). However, this does not mean that New Zealand is immune from terrorism, as witnessed on 15 March 2019 in Christchurch. Islamophobia, or an anti-Muslim bias that incorrectly presents Muslims as a dangerous monolithic group, is a form of racism, and is not a new occurrence in New Zealand. Islamophobia has increased globally, as witnessed in the profiling of Muslims in the wake of terrorist attacks in the United States in September 2011, and in the United Kingdom in July 2005, the othering of Muslims by major news outlets; and when populist heads of state, such as Donald Trump and Viktor Orban, employed the clash of civilizations notion in their respective election campaigns. An increase in Islamophobia therefore poses a threat to a primarily peaceful New Zealand, because it undermines peace and security globally.
Q: Is it realistic to say that there are areas in New Zealand in which white supremacy and racist sentiments against the Muslims and immigrants are more prominent and noticeable? In a report on the Christchurch attacks, The Guardian noted that the city has an active white-supremacist subculture. What’s your take on that?
A: The Christchurch terrorist is an Australian immigrant, who was living in Dunedin. He is therefore not a resident of Christchurch. It is also alleged that he was in contact with likeminded individuals in Europe. In this case, social media platforms have seemingly played a bigger role than the attacker’s immediate geographic environment. However, this is not to say that New Zealand or Christchurch is devoid of white supremacist and racist sentiments. The Christchurch attacks showed that New Zealand’s geographic isolation is no safeguard against violent extremism. In the wake of Christchurch, I trust New Zealand’s security agencies will afford white supremacist and racist groups and movements the attention they deserve.
Q: What’s your assessment of the response by the New Zealand government to the Christchurch attacks and the support offered by the people to the Muslims in the aftermath of the March 15 tragedy? Do you think the Muslim community received the backing and moral support it needed to move away from the pain of this incident and be re-empowered?
A: The Jacinda Ardern-led government and the Muslim community of New Zealand set an example for countries to follow in responding to terrorist attacks. The general sense is that the majority of New Zealanders are more united, have a stronger sense of belonging, and are more committed to reject all forms of racism than before the Christchurch attack. New Zealand has a proud history of cooperation between government and the Muslim community. For example, effective cooperation between the Helen Clark government and the Muslim community in September 2005 ensured that the Danish cartoon debacle did not cause civil unrest in New Zealand. The horrendous impact of the Christchurch terrorist attack on New Zealand and specifically on New Zealand Muslims will necessitate ongoing moral and other support for the Muslim community. However, non-Muslim New Zealanders from different walks of life have demonstrated their commitment to the physical and mental recovery, safety, and empowerment of the Muslim community in the days and weeks after the attacks. It is the responsibility of government and civil society to ensure that this goodwill and empathy is maintained in a sustainable manner to ensure safety and security for everyone.
Q: On April 10, the parliament of New Zealand voted to ban the use of military-style weapons and semi-automatic rifles. What’s the significance of this vote by the parliament? Do other countries such as the United States in which gun ownership is protected by the law need similar legislature?
A: On 10 April, the New Zealand Parliament voted 119 - 1 to ban military-style semiautomatics (MSSA) and assault rifles. The new law has taken effect and makes provision for the buyback of now illegal weapons. Australia tightened its gun laws in response to a mass shooting in 1992 in which 35 people were killed. Data indicate that the Australian gun law reforms were effective in curtailing further mass shootings. Based on the Australian example, it is obvious that the United States can curb its scourge of mass shootings, if the political will is there to do so.
Q: You may have heard that the administrators of five major New Zealand media outlets agreed to limit the coverage of white supremacy and refrain from publishing images and texts that might proliferate the manifesto and views of the Christchurch attacks gunman, especially in the coverage of his court hearing on June 14. What do you think about this decision? Generally, how do you think the mass media can contribute to the prevention of violence and extremism?
A: The media’s role is to report on news events, and to do so conscientiously. I think the decision of the five media outlets is responsible and will assist in limiting the Christchurch terrorist’s desired impact. The media play an important role in forming and influencing public opinion. If this power is utilized responsibly it can contribute to the prevention of violence and extremism. Moreover, social media platforms must accept responsibility for the manner in which they contribute to terrorism. New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern’s initiative to eliminate violent extremist content online is a step in the right direction.
Q: Looking at the global picture, it’s discernable that a substantial investment is being done on the Islamophobia industry. In a recent report titled “Hijacked by Hate”, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) noted that between 2014 and 2016, one thousand charities in the United States contributed about $125 million to 39 major anti-Muslim groups. How can Muslims counterbalance this huge investment, defend their beliefs and prevent their public image from being tarnished?
A: As mentioned earlier, Islamophobia threatens peace and security internationally, and therefore impacts Muslims and non-Muslims. The international anti-Apartheid movement played a fundamentally important role in countering the policy of racism in South Africa. We should all cooperate to counter Islamophobia, whether it is through education or friendship, activism or policy formulation, financial donations or volunteer work.
By: Kourosh Ziabari