(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., March 21.)
You may have thought, as I did, that the Christchurch shootings were the act of a lone-wolf fanatic.You may have thought, as I did, that no one saw it coming,
You may have thought, as I did, that New Zealand reacted with a genuine and overwhelming outpouring of shock, grief and anguish.You may have thought that thousands showed their solidarity with Christchurch Muslims by attending public vigils, spontaneously setting up tribute sites and donating millions to a Givealittle appeal.
You may have thought that the Christchurch Muslim community, which could have been forgiven for withdrawing into itself, responded to the calamity with a remarkable spirit of openness, inclusivity and forgiveness.You may have thought that our own shock was mirrored by that of the outside world, which was aghast that such terrible things could happen in a country viewed internationally as peaceful, tolerant and respectful toward minority groups.
Well, it seems we all got it wrong. Because in the days following the shootings, an alternative narrative emerged.According to this alternative narrative, we are a hateful nation of racists, white supremacists and Islamophobes.
Not only that, but the massacre was no surprise. A sudden outburst of violent race hatred was bound to happen. Rather like the cataclysmic earthquake we are constantly warned to be prepared for, it was not a question of if, but when.It was, we were told, the inevitable outcome of a society which condones hate speech.
The former narrative, the one most of us never thought to challenge, was the dominant one in the mainstream media, but the alternative version – let’s call it the “We told you so” version - gained a lot of traction on the online comment platforms favoured by the commentariat.It’s a narrative of self-loathing that wants us to think the worst of ourselves. It’s a narrative that shamelessly seeks to politicise the killings and create a moral panic in the hope not only that we’ll tighten the gun ownership laws – no arguments there – but far more ominously, that we might be persuaded to discard such democratic niceties as freedom of speech.
We were told, for example, that Islamophobia is “deeply embedded in our society”. That comment came from former Green MP and lifelong sanctimonious far-Left finger-wagger Keith Locke, who quoted former Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy as saying that every Muslim woman she knew had faced racist abuse.We were told that Muslims in New Zealand wouldn’t be safe until we had tough new laws governing “hate speech”, however that might be defined. We were urged to dispense with old-fashioned democratic notions of free speech and balanced debates.
According to this argument, some views are so self-obviously correct that no one should be allowed to challenge them and others are so self-obviously contemptible that they must be prohibited. It worries me deeply that I frequently hear this line even from journalists, who should be the first to defend the barricades when freedom of speech is at risk.We were told too that the Islamic Women’s Council had been trying for years to alert the government to the existence of extreme racists and Islamophobes in New Zealand.
But I found it hard to reconcile that statement with the interview I heard on the BBC with a Muslim woman from Christchurch who said she and her family came to New Zealand because it was safe. She told BBC correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes she had never felt threatened here.This leaves me wondering exactly who the Islamic Women’s Council represents and what its agenda might be. None of the Muslims I saw and heard being interviewed in the painful days following the shootings expressed even a faint hint of recrimination. None blamed their adopted country or mentioned Islamophobia.
On the contrary, they gave the impression of cherishing their lives here and seemed as perplexed as the rest of us by the violence – which, we need to keep reminding ourselves, was perpetrated by a non-New Zealander.Obviously, people like Keith Locke weren’t listening. Or perhaps they ignore anything that doesn’t align with their preferred narrative of a divided, oppressive society.
Yes, it’s deplorable that Muslim women are sometimes abused. But who should we allow to serve as the model that dictates the agenda: a few misanthropic cranks who haven’t yet got their heads around the new multicultural New Zealand, or the countless thousands of New Zealanders who attended vigils, donated money or quietly grieved at home for fellow citizens who happen to be Muslim?Call me a Pollyanna, but the latter group says a lot more to me about the sort of society New Zealand is than isolated instances of abuse in shopping malls.