Yesterday’s funeral prayers for Haji-Daoud Nabi, the 71-year-old Afghan refugee who died trying to protect others at the Masjid Al Noor last Friday, were briefly interrupted by a loud roar.
Members of the Mongrel Mob, one of New Zealand’s biggest bikie gangs, had arrived to pay their respects. A man in a suit, one of the mob’s leaders, emerged from a black limousine, flanked by several tattooed men on motorbikes, and was ushered right to the front of the funeral line next to Nabi’s family, eventually helping to carry the coffin.
It was yet another example of the unexpected ways the Christchurch tragedy has cut across New Zealand’s social divides, and brought together parts of the country that might usually never speak. This week, New Zealand’s bikie gangs offered to provide protection outside mosques across the country.
At a vigil beside the Masjid Al Noor, men in gang jackets stood shoulder to shoulder with heavily armed police. When the victim’s bodies started to be buried at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Linwood, people came from across the country to show their support. Shopkeepers took time off work and non-Muslim women donned hijabs in solidarity. To mark the first Friday since the tragedy, New Zealand’s TV and radio stations will broadcast the call to prayer live across the country today.
For an outsider looking in, watching a shattered country piece itself back together with such tremendous compassion and strength has been truly moving. But as an Australian, it’s hard not to ignore how starkly the past week has laid bare the differences between our two countries.
There is a slight tendency among Australians to view New Zealand as something of a backwater, the only country further from the world than us. But when it comes to reckoning with the wounds of racism, the Kiwis are miles ahead. Nowhere is this more clear than in the relationship with Māori culture, which is given a genuine sense of value and pride even among pākehā (white) New Zealanders rarely afforded to Indigenous culture back home. Māori hymns have been sung at most vigils for the dead, newsreaders and politicians, who are a far more diverse bunch than back home, frequently litter their speech with Māori words.
Of course, New Zealand is by no means a multicultural paradise. The greater visibility of Māori culture doesn’t obscure the fact that it has the same deep-lying structural racism common to settler-colonial societies. Still, from the Treaty of Waitangi, to the ongoing land settlements with Indigenous people, and a broad push for Māori education in schools, there is substance behind what might otherwise be tokenism.
In Australia, we can’t even do the tokenistic things, like changing the date of Australia Day, or acknowledging our ancestors’ complicity in genocide, without resistance and hostility. That same resistance and hostility has characterised our response to the Christchurch attacks.
While New Zealand has used this week to heal from a massacre perpetrated by an Australian, for Australia it has become yet another piece in our country’s never-ending culture wars.
News outlets who for years monetised racism and Islamophobia have rushed to wash their hands of any complicity in the Australia’s slow radicalisation. It’s nice that Sunrise’s David Koch found it in him to call out Pauline Hanson’s Islamophobia. It’s a pity he wasn’t concerned about it back when his show was giving her years of free airtime to bash Muslims, paving the way for One Nation’s political resurgence in 2016.
Other outlets, like Sky News, where presenters frequently hobnob with leading lights (if you can call them that) of the “alt right”, doubled down, and refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, pearl-clutching pundits tried to draw an absurd comparison between murdering Muslims and the egging of the neo-Nazi sympathiser Senator Fraser Anning (for the record, most people in Christchurch love Egg Boy).
The response from Australia’s politicians has also been predictably dismal. Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton were in full “both sides” mode, trying to argue that the Greens were just as bad as Islamophobes like Fraser Anning and Pauline Hanson. While New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won worldwide plaudits for her poise in the face of tragedy, Scott Morrison cast an oafish shadow all week.
First, he threatened to sue Australia’s most high-profile Muslim journalist Waleed Aly, over re-airing of allegations that he sought to win votes by demonising Muslims at a 2010 shadow cabinet meeting. Notably, none of the white journalists who originally reported this received such a threat. Then, while Ardern was announcing two minutes silence to commemorate the victims, Morrison was busy unveiling his plan to reduce Australia’s migration cap.
Last night, facing off with Waleed Aly, he refused to rule out preferencing One Nation over Labor. And just days before a state election in New South Wales, reports surfaced that Labor leader Michael Daley had trotted out the tired, racist trope about Asian migrants stealing jobs.
This was all just one week in Australia. It was a week when our political and media class had a real opportunity to take a long hard look in the mirror and hit reset. Many decided to simply go back to business as usual. Instead of acknowledging, like New Zealand has, the stain of Islamophobia in our society, so many in Australia chose to bury their heads in the sand.
Crikey has two reporters on the ground in Christchurch this week. Read more of their coverage here.