By Khaled A Beydoun
23 Mar 2019
As Jacinda Ardern walked up to the
microphone, the weight of the world seemed to fall squarely on her shoulders.
"Asalamu Alaikum!" New Zealand's prime minister uttered the universal Islamic
greeting with grace and familiarity in front of thousands of mourners in
attendance and millions more glued to TV screens. At this very moment, exactly
one week after 50 of her countrymen and women were massacred, she didn't push
Islam to the margins and away from the cameras, but deliberately chose to bring
it alongside her for the whole world to see.
She collected her breath, paused while
everybody waited for her subsequent words and then read a saying of Prophet
"According to Prophet Muhammad - Sallal
Allahu Alayhi wa Salaam (peace be upon him) - the believers in their mutual
kindness, compassion and sympathy are just like one body. When any part of the
body suffers, the whole body feels pain," she said. "New Zealand
mourns with you, we are one."
Her message was clear. Islam is neither the
"other" nor the "invader". Islam is New Zealand and those
adhering to it, departed or alive, are at home in this country.
Over the previous week, Ardern had donned a
hijab while grieving alongside mourning families, listened attentively while
attending recovering mosques, and most potently, repeated and repeated the
names of the 50 Muslim victims.
She had refused to utter the terrorist's
name, stating: "He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist.
But he will, when I speak, be nameless."
Clad in a hijab, a headscarf worn by many
Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion, and a traditional black
gown, Prime Minister Ardern chose to shine a light on Islam - for the entire
world to see - precisely 168 hours after a "white supremacist" shot
worshippers in two mosques.
"We are one," she closed, echoing
the message of the prophet, and then walked to join the rest of the gathering
in Christchurch to listen to the Adhan - the Islamic call to prayer -
broadcast live throughout the entire country.
It was powerful, sublime, muscular and
unapologetic. It was an unprecedented gesture on a stage of such magnitude and
more importantly, it was far more than mere symbolism or political bluster.
The sincerity streamed from a place of
empathy - empathy that absorbed the full violence of Islamophobia - which for
her and the whole country, unfolded in real time and right before their eyes.
The massacres at Al Noor and Linwood
mosques highlighted the reach and realness of that evil. It also revealed its
relationship to the loaded rhetoric unleashed by political populists, most
notably America's Donald Trump and France's Marine Le Pen, whose brazen
demonisation of Islam and its adherents, have been arming white supremacist
ideologies and equipping them with ammunition. After the Christchurch attack,
it became crystal clear that xenophobic populism, and the Islamophobia it
wields, is not empty rhetoric or a distant phenomenon. It is an enemy within.
The shock of the massacre comes at a time
when western democracies are being reshaped in line with the image of
xenophobic and white supremacist populism. This process has pushed for the
imposition of veil and Muslim travel bans, mounting surveillance, and
restrictions on public calls to prayer - all policies, which the Christchurch
terrorist claimed as inspirations.
On March 15, New Zealand and its prime
minister came to understand how these policies radicalise terrorists like him
and what the risks are of following in Europe and the United States's
In the aftermath of New Zealand's deadliest
attack, Ardern turned away from this global Islamophobic tide. Instead, she
embraced everything that the West has come to hate: the headscarf, the religion
which it symbolises and its final messenger and prophet. As her country stood
silent and the whole world was watching, the call to prayer rang and
reverberated as a decisive blow to the politics of Islamophobia gripping
governments across the globe.
This wasn't political posturing. It was
personal. Fifty New Zealanders, 50 of Ardern's people, were murdered only miles
away from where she donned the hijab so gracefully, quoted the prophet so
eloquently and listened to the Islamic prayer so honourably.
In the turbulence of the attack aftermath,
Ardern was shaping a new model of engagement with Islam for her people to
follow, and with the attention of the world locked in on New Zealand,
challenged the reign of global Islamophobia. This new model does not espouse
religion as a marker of difference, but rather - in the words of black feminist
Audre Lorde - as an item to be recognised and celebrated.
This was more than just a tribute. It was a
transformative precedent for the world to see and learn from. As the Adhan
rang through the streets of Christchurch, it was clear for the whole world, for
Muslims and non-Muslims alike, that Ardern had answered the call to confront -
both in walk and word - the Islamophobia that had ravaged her country and
claimed the lives of 50 of her people.
Today, I am a New Zealander.
Khaled A Beydoun is a law professor, and author of American Islamophobia:
Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.