First published by the Middle East Monitor on 22/3/2019
I had not heard of New Zealand’s 38-year-old prime minster Jacinda Ardern until the recent mosque massacres in Christchurch in which over 50 Muslims attending Friday prayers were attacked by a far right terrorist. In cold blood he emptied his semi-automatic rifles at one mosque and then calmly drove to another to complete his evil deed. I will not share his name as requested by Ardern whose humble and moral leadership elevated her and the people of New Zealand to the top of the league of humanity.
New Zealand, a small island country with a population of five million reacted to the shocking massacre in a way that showed to be a light onto the world. While Muslims have faced rising Islamophobia in the West, including the United States, here New Zealanders reacted in the same way towards their Muslim minority as one would have expected them to react towards an attack on the majority or other minority communities. The shock was visible and the outpouring of love and solidarity was there for all to see.
Bouquets of flowers were piled high outside the two mosques, within touching distance of the tens of vehicles still in the car parks whose owners had perished. There were hugs to Muslim men and women from fellow citizens, feeling their loss and pain. The traditional Maori dance, which we normally see at Rugby matches in the UK, was performed not to intimidate as it does then but to show sympathy and solidarity.
However, it was the actions of New Zealand’s prime minister, which touched the hearts of not only the victims and their families but I contend they touched the whole world. If there was a manual for dealing humanly but firmly with a tragedy on this scale, then Ardern may well had written it and if there isn’t one, then she should write it. Those of us familiar with training courses on diversity and equality can see Ardern delivering such training to world leaders, many of whom desperately need it.
Her personal shock and sadness was visible. This was not electioneering but acting responsibly, with humanity and humility to ensure the country held together and that the victim’s families felt valued and their pain understood. Her speeches and comments were moving and appropriate.
She chose to cover her head when she visited the area out of respect for the traumatised community. She hugged not only women and children but the image that stuck in my mind was that of her hugging a bearded man. He would normally have not acceded to a hug from a woman from outside his immediate family but tradition went out of the window. He clearly needed the hug from Ardern as it represented a hug by the whole nation.
Ardern committed to helping the families of those who perished. She promised that their funeral costs would be covered by the state.
Her most recent action was to call for a global anti-racism fight. Asked by the BBC about the rise of right-wing nationalism she said: “This was an Australian citizen but that is not to say that we do not have an ideology in New Zealand that would be an affront to the majority of New Zealanders.” She said there was a responsibility “to weed it out where it exists and make sure that we never create an environment where it can flourish.”
“What New Zealand experienced here was violence brought against us by someone who grew up and learned their ideology somewhere else.”
Ardern defended New Zealand’s record on accepting refugees, saying: “We are a welcoming country. I utterly reject the idea that in any way in trying to ensure that we have a system that looks after those who choose to call New Zealand home, that we have perpetuated an environment where this kind of ideology can exist.” This is in sharp contrast to the raising anti-immigrant rhetoric in Europe and America propagated by state leaders and senior politicians. US President Trump is certainly guilty of that. However, here in Britain, Brexit has also brought this to the fore, with politicians using immigration as justification for the UK leaving the EU.
Watching the way Ardern dealt with the Christchurch massacre from a distance brought back memories of how Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May handled one of our own tragedies, the Grenfell Tower fire which erupted in the early hours of 14 June 2017. Fire engulfed a whole 23-storey tower block. The fire left at least 72 people dead, mostly immigrants and many homeless.
Image of the burning Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017 in London, UK [knooorrr/Twitter]
While the whole country was shocked at the tragedy, there were no images of Theresa May rushing to the scene to hug survivors or commit quickly to ensuring they would be looked after while they bury their relatives where possible and begin to rebuild their lives. While the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was almost immediately on the scene showing the kind of humanity the survivors needed, Theresa May refused to meet survivors when she visited the scene. Former Cabinet Minister, Michael Portillo said the prime minister “didn’t use her humanity” when she visited the scene of the blaze.
She chose instead to meet emergency services, who did of course deserve the country’s thanks. However, contrast this with Ardern’s actions. When New Zealand needed leadership Ardern stepped up to the plate and gave a shining example of what it should be like. When Britain did, May shied away from her responsibilities leaving the Grenfell survivors angry and abandoned by their prime minster.
Please Prime Minister Ardern, can you offer arrogant and heartless world leaders training in humanity. I know one or two Western leaders who desperately need it, including the occupier of the White House but sadly also, Theresa May.