First they diverted the river, then came the flood

Many of us immigrants have heard in the last few days that ‘this is not New Zealand.’ It’s meant to be a comforting sentiment. It’s understandable where it’s coming from. What can you possibly say about unspeakable horror, without needing to disavow it?

In recent Aotearoa history, it’s been rare for an event to be pointedly and brutally targeted at an immigrant minority. For those who think it’s come out of nowhere, though, the warning signs have been here for a long time. Muslims have been scapegoated and dehumanised by those with power for decades now – by successive governments, by our spy agencies, and by our mainstream media commentators. One could cite the prolonged persecution of Algerian immigrant Ahmed Zaoui. Or how difficult it is for asylum-seekers from Africa or the Middle East to come here as refugees (the only exceptions are those with a family link and the recent emergency quota of Syrian refugees, agreed to with considerable reluctance). Or the call by six-year MP Richard Prosser to ban all Muslims or ‘Muslim-looking’ people from flying. Or our continued, uncontested involvement in the War on Terror. Or the recent campaign by the National Party against the UN migration compact (although the petition was hastily taken down last Friday). Or the multiple versions of events put forward by the New Zealand Defence Force concerning civilian deaths in Afghanistan, which have relied on our ability to collectively forget previous lies. These all point to long-standing scaremongering in our engagement with the Muslim world.

As for the media, the dog-whistling had reached a crescendo over recent years. It’s hard not to feel cynical about some of the crocodile tears of this past week. Pundits complaining about queues of shoppers from South East Asia looking like snakes, stoking fears about Muslim refugees, just wanting to ‘have a conversation’ or ‘uphold free speech’ (a courtesy never extended to counter-arguments or counter-protests), all of whom are now saying they don’t understand how this could have happened. Don’t make something that was clearly political, political, man. It’s like people who diverted a river now pretending they had nothing to do with the flood. All of this dehumanising has had the effect of making Muslim lives not ‘grievable’, for they are clearly defined as Other.

And we can’t say we didn’t warn you. There is absolutely no satisfaction in saying so. People of colour and Māori have been talking over and over again about the toxicity of our discourse. The vitriol poured on director Taika Waititi for saying New Zealand was ‘racist as fuck’ perfectly reflects the attitudes of white New Zealand.

The consequences of Muslim lives and bodies and opinions not mattering is what lead to events like Friday’s atrocity, but also extend far beyond it.  Women have been repeatedly harassed for wearing hijab, including an incident in Auckland immediately after the Christchurch attacks. Mosques have had pigs heads placed in front of them. Incidents of everyday abuse in public spaces have been cited in a number of pieces of commentary this week, including those by Anjum Raman, Faisal Al-Asaad, Mehdi Hasan, Pakeeza Rasheed and Lamia Imam.

It’s something I’ve been caught up in, too. I’m not Muslim but I am coded as one, even though adherents of Islam come in all ethnicities. In recent years, I have experienced considerably more abuse from people who assume me to be Muslim in most major centres in New Zealand. Overseas, I have experienced degradation in an airport from a border official of a supposedly liberal democracy, who assumed me to be Muslim. I was separated from my white friend who was told to wait in the terminal while a man took me to a room, snapped on a glove and sexually assaulted me. He knew there was nothing I could do and that nobody was going to stop him. When I obliquely referred to the incident in an article, New Zealand punters commented that it was the price we have to pay to be safe. That my shame, my body – coded Muslim – are worthless provided they feel safe. I have seen other minority and Indigenous communities rally around Muslims in the last few days because we know what it’s like, that racism and intolerance isn’t new for us. What is new is the sheer horrific scale of it all.

There is a tendency to think New Zealand is insulated from the rest of the world’s toxic discourse. That the Trumps and the Orbans and the Tommy Robinsons and the Le Pens are over there, somewhere else. And it’s important to recognise that scapegoating of Muslim populations are a global phenomenon in the twenty-first century. China’s treatment of its Uighur populations, India’s Hindu Islamophobia-fuelled nationalism, Sri Lanka’s and Myanmar’s Buddhist led-crackdown/genocide perpetrated against Muslims show that this is not just a problem of the West. Closer to home, Australia’s offshore detention gulags are clearly built on foundations of anti-Muslim sentiment.

I have also experienced the consequences of untrammelled scapegoating, and how it can lead to the most horrific consequences. During the second half of the twentieth century, there had been a long and steady dehumanising of Tamils in Sri Lankan public discourse. In July 1983, a number of Sinhalese soldiers were killed by the Tamil Tigers in the far north of the country. The government reacted by parading the bodies of the dead soldiers in Colombo and handing out electoral information showing where the Tamils in Colombo lived. In the following orgy of violence, thousands of Tamils were massacred in a few days. A mob had come to our place. My Mum – who was pregnant with me – and my grandparents were only saved because our next-door neighbour hid us in his back room and told the mob that all of the Tamils on the street had escaped. Our neighbour was Muslim.


The idea ‘that this is not New Zealand’ relies on a certain sense of exceptionalism. One reason why this feeling is so prevalent, I suspect, is the segregated nature of our discourse. I know my liberal friends are likely never to listen to talkback radio or read online comments. They wouldn’t go near the cesspits of the internet, where some young white men are lathering themselves up with their grievances. Sure, we know these things exist, but they’re an easy punchline, something to pin on your racist old uncle or an intellectual inferior. I also suspect for those who do listen to talkback radio, comment online, or lurk on the dark corners of the internet, the experience is similarly walled off. And when your national conversations are grounded around notions of common sense and not appearing too smart, it’s hard to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.

These things aren’t slaters under rocks though. They wandered around in plain sight and we need to acknowledge it. There are the obvious measures to be taken like changing the gun laws, recording hate speech and pulling our spy agencies into line, and letting in refugees who are most vulnerable, regardless of where they are from. But if we truly believe that we’re better than this – and the outpouring of community and support following Friday suggest we are capable of it – then we actually need to do things better, structurally. Otherwise, the deaths of fifty innocent and beautiful Muslims would have been for nothing. And the terrorists will win.

We can’t turn a blind eye toward politicians’ dehumanising rhetoric because of political tribalism. We need to teach our kids – and our adults – that difference is normal, diversity is normal and ignorance isn’t bliss. We need to acknowledge that charlatan commentators don’t actually believe in free speech or the value of debate – they’re grifters who know that they can turn a quick buck by being controversial. And if people want to change, actually change, instead of quietly burying our past transgressions like some of our political parties and media organisations have been doing over the last week, they will need to own up to their mistakes and vow to do better. Recognition and self-reflection does not mean eternal damnation. We need to be prioritising more diverse voices. I am glad we are hearing Muslim voices in mainstream media in the aftermath, but we shouldn’t only be hearing Muslim voices in the aftermath of tragedies. They should be heard just being. We need to be centring voices that – up to now – have been marginalised and mocked.

All of this takes time and constant work. There’ll be a need for listening, and more listening, and everyone looking inwardly and outwardly, and even more listening. We can’t blame this on a lone wolf because he didn’t appear out of nowhere. I have been heartened by New Zealand’s response, that Muslim lives are grievable, the feeling that many have also expressed: to our Muslim New Zealanders, we are with you. But we also need to recognise that the events of Friday clearly put paid to the idea that this is not who we are. We can strive for something else – we have to. We have to ensure that this is not who we will be.


Image by Julian Meehan

Brannavan Gnanalingam

Brannavan Gnanalingam is a writer and lawyer based in Wellington. He has published six novels through Lawrence & Gibson.

More by Brannavan Gnanalingam ›

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  1. Thank you Brannavan for your enlightening comments: I was one who was saying that the events in Chch did not represent NZ – and yet I also have acknowledged openly that NZ is racist and lacking in tolerance for “others” – ethnically and religiously. I will be more circumspect in future.

  2. Hi Brannavan

    ‘I have just read your article ‘First they diverted the river…..’

    You are understandably angry, I am angry too. The points you make are well-founded and sad for us all.

    In the type of work I do much of what you describe as being experienced by Muslims and others, is known as ‘othering’ reducing the other different person or group into a generalisation.

    It is a small price to pay for the opportunity to read and appreciate your article and I willingly pay it. However, as a ‘white’ New Zealander you have othered me with ‘….perfectly reflects the attitudes of white New Zealand.’ Amongst those of my white family and friendships it doesn’t. My white family has diverse relationships including mixed race marriages and children.

    1. Unfortunately, Overland has strayed far from the vision of it’s founders and regularly wallows in (American-centric) identity politics.

      Hence the weird obsession with “the body” and “shame” that keep coming up in articles…

  3. Thank you for this Brannavan,

    I have to say that I’m a little shocked by your article though, I always thought that the endemic racism in my country was a direct result of the despicable White Australia policy.

    Fool that I am. Sadly it seems to be part of Anglophone cultures everywhere.

    Kia kaha…

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