How we can tackle hate in light of New Zealand massacre

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How we can tackle hate in light of New Zealand massacre

Friday is the day when Muslims seek God in their search for peace, forgiveness and guidance. They go to the nearest mosque at a particular time of day, individually or in groups or families, young and old. The mosque is a place of worship — it is a house of God, where people can find solitude and communal space, where they can be close to God and feel safe and in comfort with their brethren as they pray together with one voice.

The brutal terrorist attack on peaceful worshippers in two mosques in a faraway corner of the world last Friday marked the end of Muslims feeling safe anywhere. The coldblooded massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, that was viewed live on social media by people around the world shocked and numbed the senses of the international community. But it also rallied the world’s collective conscience to express condemnation, grief and support for the victims’ families and all New Zealanders, who were just as horrified by the presence of such hate in their country. Hate is roaming free in the world today, aided by the media, politicians and legislators.

As much as the vicious attack by the white supremacist Brenton Tarrant, from Australia, and his manifesto explaining his beliefs and motives was shocking, it was eerily familiar. In July 2011, Anders Breivik massacred 77 people in Norway the same way and for the same far-right motives as Tarrant. In fact, Tarrant claimed to be inspired by Breivik. From 2011 to 2019, what concrete, practical actions have been taken to stop this tide of anti-multiculturalism, anti-immigration and anti-Islam? While much discussion has been going on about Islamist extremism and terrorist groups, few have tackled the resurgence of nationalism, white supremacism and far-right parties.

Poll after poll and report after report have sounded the alarm on the rise of intolerance, racism and xenophobia. The latest annual Islamophobia Observatory Report by the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which was released this month and covered the period June 2018 to February 2019, highlighted a rising tide of Islamophobia and hate speech in the world, resulting in a worrisome surge in hate crimes and attacks against individuals perceived to be Muslims, mosques and community centers, particularly in Europe and the US. Examples of anti-Muslim hate and violence take different shapes and forms and can be seen across Europe, in North America, Australia, China, Myanmar, India and other places.

Places of worship are obvious and easy targets for bigots, extremists and terrorist groups. Just as Jews go to a synagogue every Saturday and Christians go to a church every Sunday, Muslims around the world go to a mosque every Friday. They will all continue to go to their places of worship every week because this is one way to defy the terrorists and say, loud and clear, that there is no place in the world for racists and hatemongers. However, there has to be other ways of making our communities safe without having to see and feel the heavy presence of security garrisons, surveillance and intelligence.

There has to be other ways of making our communities safe without having to see and feel the heavy presence of security garrisons.

Maha Akeel

For starters, gun control. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has shown leadership, strength and compassion, and she is right in promising to reform gun laws. Another is regulating video games that make violence and murder look like a walk in the park or a party.

More important is the regulation of social media content. The fact that Facebook had to remove 1.5 million copies of the shooter’s video in 24 hours, while YouTube also deleted it thousands of times, is an indication of the voyeurism it evoked, with complete insensitivity to the families of the victims, which is against basic media ethics and international laws on human rights. It also indicates the broad appeal and support such white supremacists and their degenerate acts have. Furthermore, it highlights the enormous challenges involved in keeping violent and offensive material off social networks — but it is a job that has to be done. The live streaming of murders and suicides has been increasing and it has to be addressed by the service providers. The pressure is on for social media companies to step up their efforts to tackle online hate and violence.

Criminalizing hate speech that incites violence also needs to be considered. While I believe in freedom of speech, the rise in violent acts of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and against immigrants that have been inspired by hate speech should make us take action. The freedoms of speech and expression cannot be unlimited.

Countering far-right rhetoric is another issue, as political games for gaining votes are becoming dangerous. Overzealous speeches during election campaigns are bonfires for the herds and lone wolves. There is no difference between the terrorist citing a “fatwa” to justify his actions and a white supremacist referring to or quoting a political leader. Those issuing these “fatwas” and statements and spreading them should be held accountable. Words carry weight, especially those of religious, political and community leaders. The repulsive words of Australian Sen. Fraser Anning are a case in point of vile hatred coming from a position of power and influence that should not be accepted.

The world continues to mourn as the families of the victims in Christchurch bury their loved ones. Their ages range from as young as 3-year-old Mucad Ibrahim to 71-year-old Haji-Daoud Nabi, and they were originally from diverse and distant places, most of them escaping wars and conflicts in their home countries — Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria or Palestine — to find peace and safety, while others immigrated to start a new life. Their deaths should not be in vein. 

• Maha Akeel is director of the Public Information and Communication Department at the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Twitter: @MahaAkeel1

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