March 15 was a turning point in the history of the ancient Roman Empire and also of the modern nation of New Zealand. On that day in 44 B.C., known to ancient Romans as the Ides of March, Julius Caesar was assassinated on the steps of the Senate in Rome.
Two millennia later, on March 15, 2019, New Zealand— the serenely peaceful “land of the long white cloud” as its indigenous Maori people call it—exploded onto the world’s consciousness as the scene of blood-chilling violence.
In a rampage targeting Muslims, a gunman opened fire on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand’s largest city, killing 50 people and wounding another 49 who were at prayer. It was the worst mass shooting in the country’s history.
The two mosques— sacred spaces to the worshippers there— were desecrated by a heinous act of irrational hatred. Like the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York on the fateful day of September 11, 2001, they became the world’s focal point in the weeks that followed.
Journalists from the world’s most powerful media organizations rushed to Christchurch, New Zealand to cover the world’s newest ground zero.
Jacinda Ardern, the country’s Prime Minister, rose to the occasion with courage, compassion, and remarkable empathy for the victims and those bereaved by the grotesque act.
Her words and actions in the wake of this tragedy were the perfect combination of symbolism and swift, decisive action to prevent future occurrences of this nature.
From her strong, unambiguous messages condemning the act, to gestures of solidarity such as donning a hijab (controversial according to some perceptions) and praying with a mourning nation, to enacting gun control legislation, she was every inch the exemplary leader, shepherding her people through their numbing grief and pain.
“It is clear that this is one of New Zealand’s darkest days” she said as soon as the news reached her.
It was also— to use Winston Churchill’s famous phrase —the finest hour for New Zealand, ironic as that might seem.
The people of New Zealand mirrored their leader’s remarkably empathetic response, and spontaneously followed with an outpouring of love and support for the victims. Words and images of their acts of kindness reached the far corners of the earth through the magnifying power of the media.
Christchurch police arrested the gunman within 21 minutes of receiving an emergency call. Charged with murder, he will make another appearance in court on June 14.
Prime Minister Ardern’s stature as the moral leader of the world became as towering as Mount Aoraki, the highest mountain in the Southern Alps of New Zealand.
Drawing praise from people as diverse as Sadiq Khan, the Muslim Mayor of London, and Cihangir Islam, a Turkish lawmaker from Saadet, his country’s opposition Islamist party, Ardern set the bar higher than ever for all the world’s leaders.
According to The Washington Post, the Turkish lawmaker tweeted: “She (Ardern) says to Muslims in pain, ‘You, you’re us!’ She symbolically covers her head when she goes to a home for condolences; she boldly underlines her respect and solidarity. How thirsty we have become for justice and mercy in state administration.”
Indeed, Cihangir Islam, how thirsty we have become for justice and mercy. Not only when Muslims are in pain, however, but also:
- when Coptic Christians, Assyrians/Syriacs/ Chaldeans, Yazidis, Jews, Ahmadiyyas, Bahais and Zoroastrians are in pain
- When Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh are massacred in their synagogue
- when Christians are persecuted and incarcerated in North Korea
- when Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman is jailed for 10 years after being charged under the country’s notorious blasphemy laws and then hunted by bloodthirsty mobs when she is released
- when ISIS runs a genocidal campaign to eliminate Christians, and stamp out all traces of Christianity from the Middle East, the cradle and heartland of the religion.
The world would become a Utopia, and people of diverse faiths, or no faith at all, would live in peace, if all political and faith leaders, media organizations and ordinary citizens followed the example of Prime Minister Ardern and the people of New Zealand; if they would all say “You, you’re us,” and lovingly nurture the right of people of all faiths, to live and practise their religion in peace and freedom.
Sadly, this is not the case.
The world is an uneven playing field for some faith groups that are targeted, not only by hate-crazed individuals, but by some States themselves and their openly discriminatory laws that make persecution and oppression the day-to-day reality of minority groups.
Western democracies such as Canada and New Zealand, with large immigrant populations, have at least legal structures that empower Muslims and other minorities. Their human rights—as well as those of the majority population—are guaranteed and respected by the laws of the land.
In Canada, we have respected public intellectuals such as Charles Taylor to criticize laws such as Quebec’s new secularism bill that are deemed to be discriminatory towards Muslims.
When incidents such as the mosque attack in New Zealand occur, Western leaders are quick to denounce these acts of violence— as indeed they should be.
“Canada condemns this attack, and will continue to work closely with New Zealand, our close partner and friend, and others to take action against violent extremism,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said. “Hate has no place anywhere. We must all confront Islamophobia and work to create a world in which all people…can feel safe and secure.”
Opposition leader Andrew Scheer was taken to task for failing to mention Muslims and “Islamophobia” in his first statement on the same attack. He later amended it to read that the Conservative Party was “grieving with the Muslim community.” A Canadian newspaper then applauded him for offering an “olive branch” to the Muslim community.
It is indeed right and fair when our leaders condemn acts of violence and offer support and help to all victims regardless of their religion or cultural background. It is also right and fair for all of us to embrace our fellow human beings— whether they share our religion or not—with love, compassion and generosity of spirit.
But where is the blizzard of tweets from leaders, and where is the avalanche of secular media coverage, when Christians and other minorities are attacked in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries where they are less than second-class citizens? Who speaks up for justice when discrimination is sanctioned by the laws of these countries?
Who is the voice of justice and mercy when merciless bullying of minorities is carried out with impunity?
Susan Korah is an Ottawa-based journalist with a special interest in freedom of religion and expression, and Middle Eastern minority issues.
Convivium means living together. We welcome your voice to the conversation. Do you know someone who would enjoy this article? Send it to them now. Do you have a response to something we've published? Let us know!