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Jacinda Ardern speaks at the Memorial for the victims of the Christchurch Shootings, Christchurch, New Zealand, 03/29/2019 © Sheryl Watson / Shutterstock

The Christchurch Killer Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Alexander Gillespie, professor of international law at the University of Waikato, New Zealand.

On March 15, 2019, New Zealand witnessed the deadliest mass shooting in its modern history. A 28-year-old Australian gunman opened fire on worshippers at the Al Noor Mosque in the Christchurch suburb of Riccarton, and went on with the shooting rampage at the Linwood Islamic Centre, killing 50 and injuring 50 others. He was driven by ideas of white supremacy, Islamophobia and far-right extremism.

The victims came from all over the world and all walks of life — teachers, engineers, accountants, a three-year-old toddler born in New Zealand to Somali parents, Afghan, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indonesian, Indian and Egyptian natives, and Syrian refugees. According to the New Zealand police, the assailant was likely on his way to carry out a third shooting spree when he was arrested. Brenton Harrison Tarrant is believed to have started planning the attacks two years earlier and chose his targets three months in advance.

New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, described the shooting as a terrorist attack and one of New Zealand’s “darkest days.” As a sign of solidarity with the families of the victims, she donned a hijab and met with the families of the victims the day after the attacks. Inspired by the premier’s pioneering gesture, women across New Zealand wore headscarves in show of solidarity with Muslims after the shootings.

Addressing some 20,000 mourners at a memorial for the victims of the terror attack, Ardern quoted the words of Prophet Muhammad, stressing that New Zealand is united in the face of threat: “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.”

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the prime minister announced that the country’s gun laws will be revised in order to decrease the likelihood of such a tragedy happening again. The ban on military-style assault weapons came into effect within a week of the shootings.

The heartbreaking loss of life prompted reactions from across the world, praising the country’s response to the tragedy led valiantly by Ardern. The attack also revived a longstanding debate on the exigency of tackling far-right extremism and Islamophobia.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Alexander Gillespie, professor of international law at the University of Waikato, New Zealand, about the Christchurch terrorist attacks, international reactions to the tragedy and the rise of Islamophobia in the West.

Kourosh Ziabari: The Christchurch attacks have been described as the deadliest mass shooting in New Zealand’s modern history. Do the attacks point to a global trend of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice?

Alexander Gillespie: With the rise in far-right attacks, you need to divide the trends into global, regional and national. In all instances, the waves of terror attacks over the 20th century rose and fell, and then rose again or changed into something else. With the far right today, the attacks are increasing, but at the global level the far-right remains a minority compared to other types of terror attacks. When looked at on the regional level, such as in Europe, [the situation is] similar, but on the national level, in some countries the trend is clearly increasing very fast. Part of the problem with the numbers is what is counted, and what is not. That is, some mass shootings could be classified as far-right attacks, but if the shooter did not leave a manifesto or justification, they may escape classification as terror attacks.

Ziabari: New Zealand is generally a safe place and was ranked second in the world in the Global Peace Index of 2019. Does the recent tragedy mean the country needs to prepare for tougher days and increased security?

Gillespie: Yes. Our terror alert remains on “high,” meaning that another terror attack is considered very likely. At all large public events, the police are now armed. Before this, New Zealand police were not, in general, carrying firearms in public.

Ziabari: Do you think the Muslim-bashing, anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies of US President Donald Trump have served as motivation for the Australian gunman?

Gillespie: I think people like the Christchurch killer are the tip of an iceberg. While I think only a few actively support such people, the few are often allowed to exist in environments which turn a blind eye to racism. That softer, indirect support for extremism from any politician does not help negate such problems and, in some instances, may actually help inflame it.

Ziabari: Were the international reactions to the Christchurch attacks proportionate? Would the response by the world leaders have been the same had a Muslim gunman killed the same number of innocent citizens?

Gillespie: That is hard to answer while being in New Zealand. The country has been overwhelmed, both domestically and internationally, with empathy and condolences. My main concern was more when some leaders, such as [President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan in Turkey, started playing politics with the attack. That was not helpful.

Ziabari: Many news outlets and media organizations that reported on the shootings refrained from referring to the perpetrator as a terrorist. Do you personally agree with the designation of terrorist in this case?

Gillespie: He is classified as a murderer, as that is [what] he is being charged with. Personally, yes, I think he is a terrorist. But if I was prosecuting the case, I would support keeping the case as simple as possible — murder is easy to prove — and finding ways to deny him any platform to speak. If you charge him with terror, the question of why he did it becomes part of the case. With murder, motive is not important. The other risk is that terror-related laws can be hard to prove, and the prosecutors do not have a good record in New Zealand in this area. This is not the time for fancy legal footwork.

Ziabari: The Christchurch terrorist had published his views in a 73-page manifestoThe Great Replacement, giving reference to the famous right-wing conspiracy theory that states that the white Christian populations are being systematically replaced by immigrants. Are such views popular in the West these days? Does this signify that similar tragedies can happen in the future?

Gillespie: Yes, similar tragedies can, and I expect will, happen again. Are the views widely popular? I would say no, but there are extremists in all communities who will subscribe to such ideas.

Ziabari: Why are Islamophobia and other forms of racism on the rise internationally? How is it possible to stop the spread of hate and bigotry against minorities and those who are more vulnerable to discrimination and racism?

Gillespie: I think they are on the rise, but measuring that is hard. Racism has a terrible history, and it’s not just now. This is a big question. The answer ranges from laws and policies right down to every individual considering, for themselves, how they interact with those of different ethnicities.

Ziabari: The live stream of the Christchurch attacks, which was broadcast on Facebook by the gunman, was reposted on many video streaming services and social media platforms. What is the role of social media in inciting racial disharmony and widening the social, ethnic and religious gaps in our societies?

Gillespie: Very, very, very large. The Christchurch murderer was not talking to an audience in Christchurch or even New Zealand. He was speaking to a global audience. In many ways, this is going to be one of those major challenges of the 21st century — to ensure that the technologies that we all so love can be used for good, and not be allowed to become tools for [evil]. What this means is that the answers to controlling these technologies will need commitments at the international, and not just national, levels.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.