Christchurch was my home since early 2002 until I moved to Brisbane for my PhD, in April 2014. Over the years, I have had many friends and acquaintances who have worshipped in Christchurch mosques. I became a New Zealand citizen in Christchurch. I was visiting the city about three weeks before the mosque shootings. The news hit me hard and continues to haunt me.
More white supremacist shootings have since occurred, most notably, in El Paso and Norway, that were inspired by the ‘manifesto’ of the New Zealand-based Australian shooter, Brenton Tarrant. Tarrant chose his victims inside and outside the mosques based on their race. Despite all the focus on ‘white supremacy’ and xenophobia, it is rarely noted that this hate-filled violent ideology is deeply influenced by the crusading tropes. The manifesto makes this clear by arguing that NATO should consist of only European forces and they should push ‘Turkey once more back to the true position of a foreign, enemy force’. In a section titled ‘To Christians’, Tarrant mentions specific racial-religious crusading justifications and ends with this rhetorical question in capital letters: ‘ASK YOURSELF, WHAT WOULD POPE URBAN II DO?’ It should come as no surprise that Norway’s mosque attack suspect refers to the Christchurch shooter as ‘Saint [Brenton] Tarrant’.
Many in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s current government have enabled, normalised and exploited racism and xenophobia in New Zealand for decades, as Suraj Kandath Girijashanker informs us. My own views critical of Ardern government and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters’ Islamophobic speeches have appeared in letters published in The New York Times and The Sydney Morning Herald. Do I think Jacinda Ardern is racist? Absolutely not. But this dynamic goes beyond personal sentiments. It would be more accurate to state that the New Zealand Labour Party and Jacinda Ardern are beneficiaries of racially exclusionary politics towards Asian New Zealanders.
The NZLP has historically been a diverse and inclusive political force. Things took a turn in 2005 when Prime Minister Helen Clark, in her desperation to hold on to power, made an alliance with the nationalistic and hawkish New Zealand First Party. It’s not unusual for members of far-right groups such as the National Front to openly express support for its leader. In more recent years, the Labour Party has tried to woo NZ First voters by campaigning for significant immigration cuts, and has even engaged in a dog-whistle attack on Asian New Zealanders when housing spokesperson Phil Twyford compiled statistics on foreign ownership of Auckland houses based on the names that ‘sounded Chinese’ – a deeply hurtful episode for which Ardern has pointedly refused to apologise. At the same time, there has been no serious consideration for significantly raising New Zealand’s dismal refugee intake, which remains far less than Australia’s on per capita basis. New Zealand continues to discriminate against refugees from the Middle East and Africa. There have been renewed calls to end this racially motivated refugee policy that Ardern hasn’t challenged.
Most people beyond New Zealand don’t know that Christchurch’s famed rugby team is named the Crusaders and carries the symbols of crusading armies, including swords and armours. To this day, the team’s website proudly describes these regalia. It mentions ‘the spine-tingling atmosphere when the Crusaders horsemen enter Christchurch Stadium’ and ‘more recently the addition of the Crusaders sword as an imposing centre-piece on the field.’ When the media reported that Ardern had proposed a name-change for the rugby team, she became flustered and called the rumours ‘appalling’. Ardern knows that the name is very popular among both notable and ordinary New Zealanders, and instead of showing moral leadership, she chose to indulge populism.
Haunted by the images and memories of Christchurch massacre, I felt compelled to write to the Christchurch’s flagship newspaper, The Press, which published my letter on 27 June. I made a case that, in spite of its popularity, this disgraceful name and its symbolism had always troubled me and, after the Christchurch atrocity, it had to be changed. At least, big commercial sponsors like Adidas and Bank of New Zealand should take away their funding until the brand name and its symbols are changed. As expected, lots of angry letters poured in with predictable responses. Two of the letters mocked my position as a form of virtue-signalling. One writer said the name should not be changed because of ‘one stupid act’, referring to the mosque shootings.
The Press published my subsequent rebuttal. I wrote with exasperation: ‘I don’t believe in censorship but object to bigoted sentiments and tropes gaining mainstream legitimacy, coupled with disturbing erasures’ and ‘it is fallacious to claim the Crusaders brand’s symbols have not been pandering to historical, racial and religious antagonism. On the crusaders logo [a sword-wielding man] clearly evokes these tropes.’ I argued that after the racial-religious butchery Christchurch should be the last place on earth to celebrate sporting events under the Crusaders name. While Jacinda Ardern is travelling all over the world preaching to Facebook and Google to curb hate-speech, the mass glorification of the symbolism of the Crusades is set to continue in Christchurch for at least another year, and probably beyond that.
The secrecy around the investigation of Brenton Tarrant is worrying. As the New York Times reported, New Zealand Muslims feel sidelined by the inquiries, when they can provide details about first-hand experiences with the far-right elements. Tarrant, quite possibly, received material support from New Zealand-based individuals and groups. Around the time he lived in Dunedin, July 2018, anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denying leaflets were distributed. In 2017, Tarrant and the odd behaviour at his Dunedin gun club were reported to the police by a hunter who claims that the police ignored his warnings. Tarrant himself did not portray the New Zealand police as an adversary of white supremacy, observing that, ‘unlike in other European nations such as France, the UK, or Norway they have so far remained loyal to the people’.
Even after the Christchurch shootings, casual racist and Islamophobic abuse carries on in Christchurch. A Christchurch man who shared the shooter’s video called it ‘awesome’ and remains unrepentant. On the other hand, due to a troubling security lapse, Tarrant has been able to relay his crusading ‘call to arms’ from the prison to his supporters worldwide. As a murderous and perverse crusader, he has enjoyed certain free agency before, during and after the Christchurch shootings. Meanwhile, his victims feel sidelined and under peril.
I don’t use Facebook, but I do have an account. Days after my letter appeared in The Press, a Christchurch man appeared in my notifications. On his Facebook page he had various pictures of him in his house’s back garden, holding different kinds of handguns and shotguns. I am not alleging that it was a threat, and nor am I afraid of voicing my opinion. But I certainly feel that my anti-racist stand – along with many Asian and Muslim New Zealanders – is marginalised, mocked and silenced in the face of populism aided and abetted by New Zealand’s opportunistic power elite (politicians, broadcasters, commercial interests). Racism and racist violence almost always have powerful enablers. And New Zealand is no exception.
Image: Geof Wilson, Flickr