Thoughts on Terrorism

Any crime, let alone an act of terrorism, always raises many questions. With the awful and disturbing stabbing of seven people while supermarket shopping by an Islamist terrorist, there is no shortage of such questions.  I should start by saying – and what will be the theme of this opinion piece – is that questioning is good.  In fact, the more questions, the more discussions, the more uncomfortable conversations, the better; Indeed, it is how we learn, grow, and improve.

I want to focus on just three questions or aspects. The first is a question of why our terrorism laws were not updated since the March 15 terror attacks. The second is the need to understand the religious aspects of this attack and importantly, not to downplay them as some are already seeking to do. Finally, a bid to call out the developing and rather inconsistent messaging by some political and media commentators who are keen to define this recent act of terrorism as nothing more than the actions of one person, and yet are happy to reflect on other acts of terrorism in New Zealand as the responsibility of every group they disagree with.

The first question is probably the easiest insofar as it is simultaneously clear what the answer is.  That is, our laws around terrorism are inadequate. In particular, and as the Judge himself noted, the parliament needed to make ‘planning a terrorist act’ a criminal offence. The government has not speedily enough pursued this legislative change. Why, two and half years after the mosque shootings, are we still awaiting refreshed legislation? The momentum after that awful act of terrorism should have driven faster change, especially knowing that there remain multiple threats here in New Zealand. While the parliament will now consider changes under urgency – which is both right and good – we must also be aware that hasty legislation often has unintended consequences.  Vigilance, therefore, will be and is necessary.

The second question is around the religious dimension to this act of terrorism. This dimension is hard to fully articulate as there are many nuances and sensitivities, but it is also a discussion we must not shy away from. It is already clear that many are trying to downplay the fact that this man was inspired by ISIS and radical Islamist thought. His motivations will be many, but they do include a religious component. To ignore his Islamist inspiration is to ignore a vital understanding of why this happened.  If we fail to include this motive, we will fail to understand how to properly confront it.

I should be clear that these motivations is not what Islam is about, but we unfortunately cannot say that it has nothing do with Islam. This is the key distinction and one we are at risk of ignoring.  As local Islamic leaders have noted, his ISIS views are wrong and not in the true spirt of Muslim belief and thought. I would point out, the very word ‘Islam’ means peace. However, those who follow ISIS and other radical Islamist groups are following what they believe is their faith.  As some others have pointed out, those in ISIS, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and others are often following a very particular, often literal, view of their religion. We might not agree with it and can point out huge inconsistencies; we may note  that the vast majority of adherents have a different view. However, we cannot say their view is completely separated from Islam.  And nor should we for, in my view, part of the solution to this violence – be it here in New Zealand or in the likes of Syria and Afghanistan – will be found within Islam; found within those who follows its precepts in a life-giving way.

I think it is incredibly important to note that Islam does not stand alone in this dynamic. Other religions have gone through very similar experiences in their history – that is, competing ideas of how to live out their religious devotion. We have those seeking a much more fundamental, doctrinaire approach – one that often ends violently for its innate intolerance of differing views. The history of the Western Christian Church for example, pays bloody testament to hundreds of years of warfare as different groups fought for the truth of their particular interpretation. Only once they had butchered themselves and many innocent people into stagnation did they step back and say that violence was no longer the way forward.

Make no mistake, it is wrong for anyone to say that this man’s actions are a reflection on Islam as a whole, or to use his actions to blame, scapegoat, and abuse our Muslim community; it is clear that this behaviour is unacceptable But it is equally a mistake if we ignore the religious fervour, wrong as it was, behind his actions. Furthermore, when the PM and others say things like “[He was] gripped by ideology that is not supported here by anyone or any community”, this is perpetuating a deliberate ignorance and wilful blindness. As much we would not like to admit it,  this ideology is supported by others here in New Zealand and certainly overseas. If we refuse to see this, it will be only time before it re-emerges again.

Finally, we must draw attention to the glaring inconsistencies of how this recent act of terror is being spoken of in comparison to the terrorist attack in March 2019. One is being portrayed as that of a single person, with no associations beyond him. The other was represented as symbolic of a number of people and philosophies.

Speaking about the recent terror attacks, the Prime Minister said:  “It was hateful, it was wrong, it was carried out by an individual, not a faith, not a culture, not an ethnicity, but an individual person who was gripped by ideology that is not supported here by anyone or any community. He alone carries the responsibility for these acts.”

Yet, after the horror of the terrorist attack on the mosques, many commentators were keen (and remain keen) to ensure the killers action were not simply his own.  They were very much the actions of a ‘white’ man; a Christian; an Australian; an environmental activist; a supremacist; a far-right activist, and so on. In fact, strikingly, this one person has been deliberately and consistently identified with pretty much any and all of the groups the left-wing and progressives dislike. 

Put simply, we cannot have it both ways.  Or rather, we shouldn’t have it both ways. Those who are seeking to describe or attribute these attacks in different ways are simply politicising these horrid actions to suit their own agenda. Their narratives are telling of what they seek to downplay and what they seek to promote. These inconsistent descriptions give no justice to those who die and those who suffer, and it certainly does not help us as a society understand what happened and seek the best and rational way forward.

As I said at the start, we must ask questions, no matter how uncomfortable they are. To do anything else is wilful blindness, which is already an increasing problem in Western countries, including our own.