It was supposed to be another Friday prayer, both in Muslim countries and in countries where large Muslim communities gather to perform this weekly rite. In Christchurch, New Zealand, where some 50,000 Muslim immigrants and refugees live, hailing from different Arab and Muslim countries, from Syria to Afghanistan, many of those gathered had chosen New Zealand when fleeing war and destruction in their countries of origin.
No one expected this particular Friday to witness a carnage that claimed the lives of 50 innocents, all of the Islamic faith, who just happened to be at two mosques in the second biggest city in New Zealand. A 28-year-old called Brenton Tarrant, from a small town in Australia that goes by the name of Grafton, opened fire on the unsuspecting worshippers, mowing down scores with many more injured, some of them critically.
The bullets fired that black Friday did not only shatter the lives of the deceased but also reminded the whole world that mankind has almost lost its humanity. As German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the same day the mass shooting took place, “when people are murdered solely because of their religion, this is an attack on us all.”
Eight minutes before he had started firing at the worshippers, Tarrant had sent an 87-page manifesto to New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, filled with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim vitriol. He has described himself as a white supremacist out to take revenge for the attacks in Europe “perpetrated by Muslims”. It has been reported that he toured Europe and visited some Muslim countries, such as Turkey and Pakistan during the last three years. In Europe, he also toured Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, in late 2016. What is surprising is that he studied the battles between “Christendom” and the Ottoman Empire. He also visited France, Spain and Portugal in 2017. Last November, he made a trip to Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary.
What all these countries have in common, more or less, is that historically they had seen wars and battles between Christianity and Islam, but also tolerance and renaissance.
Tarrant is a symbol of a growing far-right extremism in the Western world against non-Whites and non-Christians. This far-right extremism has had its counterpart in the Muslim world led by the Salafis, political Islam and Islamic fundamentalism. What the two phenomena have in common that they are absolutist and almost totalitarian in nature; in addition, they have preached hatred and rejection against all those who do not share their vision.
When Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi emerged in 2014 to proclaim the so-called “Islamic Caliphate” in large parts of Syria and Iraq, he was incarnating a message of rejection as well as shaping an identity that excludes those who do not share his vision and those of his followers, of Islam and the world.
However, neither Tarrant nor Al-Baghdadi represent all Christians and Muslims. They represent a small minority of a disenfranchised mass of people who have not found their proper place in a globalised world. The rapid pace of globalisation in the last three decades has created divisions among nations, and divisions within nations across the world. Syria’s Raqqa in 2013, Iraq’s Mosul in 2014 and New Zealand’s Christchurch in 2019 are a reminder that today’s world is adrift, and dangerously so.
Prime Minister Ardern called last Friday, 15 March, the “darkest day” in the history of her country and that the heinous crime perpetrated by Tarrant “is not us” — meaning the people of New Zealand. In a gesture of sharing in the grief of the Muslim community in New Zealand, she wore a “hijab” when she visited the bereaved families in Christchurch. Her message was meant to stress that New Zealand’s national identity transcends religious affiliation.
In fact, this message is urgently needed around the world. Religious or racist bigotry has no place in today’s world. The instrumentalisation of the politics of identity for short-term political gains, be it in the West or in the realm of Islam, should be rejected.
In the age of empires, the politics of identity was almost absent. Empires had succeeded in turning their domains in a melting pot for different races and religions. It is ironic that globalisation has failed, so far, in developing a set of universal values that could bring about solidarity and coexistence among existing civilisations.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Professor Samuel Huntington’s book entitled, The Clash of Civilisations. In an article in Foreign Affairs under the same title one year before his book was published, Huntington wrote: “It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principle conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilisations. The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future.”
The last 25 years have neither proven Huntington right nor wrong. However, growing wealth disparities among nations and within nations have tended to exacerbate economic, ethnic, sectarian and religious differences. The politics of fear and exclusion have contributed, among other political and geostrategic developments (11 September 2001, the invasion of Iraq, the ill-defined war on terrorism, Israeli expansionism and warmongering), to the rise of all forms of extremism in the world.
If the pretexts given by the likes of Tarrant and Al-Baghdadi for their atrocities are clad in racial and religious messaging, the true and deep causes for their supremacist visions of the world are to be found elsewhere than in the “clash of civilisations”.
Still, the most urgent challenge after the mass shooting in Christchurch is how to prevent the deepening of the divide between two worlds, one civilised and the other a world of hatred and insurmountable and deadly racial, sectarian and religious divisions.
Four centuries ago, in Toledo, Spain, there had stood a church called Santa Maria La Blanca. Muslims used to celebrate their Friday prayers there, Jews theirs on Saturdays and Christians their Mass on Sundays. This site was a mosque, a synagogue and a church all combined together in one place. A House of God for all.
Maybe today’s world needs to recall this lofty spirit and vision.
Let us unite in a moment of prayer for all those who have lost their lives at the hands of extremists and terrorists, regardless of race, sect and religion.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister
**A version of this article appears in print in the 21 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Christchurch between Tarrant and Baghdadi