American Muslims are praising New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s response to last week’s mosque massacre ― and pointing out how Ardern’s words and actions sharply contrast with the way President Donald Trump has responded to white supremacists in the past.
It’s been about four days since a gunman opened fire on two Christchurch mosques during Friday prayers, killing 50 worshippers and injuring dozens more. Since the attack, Ardern has visited and listened to the bereaved community, pledged to make reforms to gun laws, and repeatedly emphasized that Muslims are a vital part of New Zealand’s community.
“They were loved ones and they were New Zealanders,” Ardern said about the victims during a press conference Sunday.
Ardern wasted no time in condemning the shootings as “terrorist attack” on Friday. She visited Christchurch’s Muslim and refugee community the next day, wearing a black headscarf over her hair and conveying a message of “love and support” on behalf of her country.
Photos of Ardern hugging and consoling community members spread quickly online.
Ardern listened to families’ concerns that some loved ones’ bodies have not yet been released by authorities ― even though Islamic tradition compels bodies to be buried within 24 hours of death. On Sunday, Ardern pledged that all victims’ bodies will be returned to families by Wednesday.
Ardern also made it clear that Christchurch survivors will be able to take advantage of government programs that provide funeral grants to citizens and visitors who are injured in an accident in the country. Since many of the victims of the shooting were their families’ breadwinners, she said the government would provide financial assistance to survivors left without income, according to The New York Times.
Even though these benefit programs were already in place, it’s encouraging that Ardern’s government is actively working to make sure Christchurch survivors get the help they need, Robert McCaw, director of government affairs for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told HuffPost.
“You can see the compassion and openness of the New Zealand government in how it treats its Muslim citizens,” McCaw told HuffPost.
During a press conference on Monday, Ardern promised to announce reforms to New Zealand’s gun laws within 10 days of the attack, although she hasn’t provided details of these reforms.
Ardern’s actions during a time of crisis in her country has elicited admiration from U.S. Muslims.
Hoda Hawa, a Washington, D.C. director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, told HuffPost that Ardern has done an “exceptional job” and is demonstrating how a politician should lead a country after such a horrific attack.
“She has not only remained religiously sensitive when dealing with the aftermath of the attacks, she’s also remained compassionate and aware of the role that extreme rhetoric manifests itself into hate-motivated violence,” Hawa said. “She’s continued to emphasize that New Zealander Muslims are New Zealanders, and that they are one of many communities that make up the nation.”
Ardern, 38, is New Zealand’s youngest leader in 150 years. Since becoming prime minister in 2017, Ardern has been celebrated as a progressive voice in international politics. She was the second world leader to give birth while in office. In 2018, she became the first world leader to attend the United Nations’ general assembly meeting with her baby.
Ardern has faced some criticism on home turf, however. She pledged to address the country’s affordable housing crisis by helping build 100,000 new homes within a decade. But her government had to scrap the ambitious plan this year after failing to meet its initial targets. Some critics have claimed Ardern is all style and no substance, The Washington Post reports.
Still, Ardern’s response to Friday’s massacre has earned her fans in the U.S. Farhana Khera, executive director of the civil rights group Muslim Advocates, told HuffPost that her organization commends Ardern for demonstrating an “honest, compassionate, and strong response” to the tragedy.
Khera also pointed out that Ardern has ordered a review of the country’s intelligence and security services, to determine what these agencies may have missed in the leadup to the massacre. The man charged with the murders did not come to the attention of New Zealand’s country’s intelligence or law enforcement communities before the attack.
“She’s willing to ask the hard question: Why have her country’s intelligence and security services resources predominantly been focused on Muslim communities, neglecting the white nationalist threat?” Khera told HuffPost. “This is a conversation that desperately needs to happen in our nation by our president, Congress, and intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”
Khera said Ardern’s performance has illustrated the “night and day” differences between the prime minister and Trump.
Trump, who was mentioned in the gunman’s white supremacist, anti-immigrant manifesto, has condemned the shootings as a “horrible, disgraceful thing.” But when a reporter asked if he thought white nationalism was a rising threat around the world, the president responded, “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess.”
Shortly afterwards, the president echoed the racist rhetoric of “invasion” that the New Zealand shooter used to describe immigration.
“People hate the word invasion, but that’s what it is,” Trump said Friday, referring to “crimes of all kinds coming through our southern border.”
“Not only has Trump failed to acknowledge the threat of white nationalist violence, he is actively stoking it,” Khera said.
Hawa also suggested there’s a “stark contrast” between Trump and Ardern.
“When these situations occur, leaders should use the power of their bully pulpit to emphasize unity rather than continue to sow discord and marginalize communities; which is exactly what Trump continues to do,” Hawa said.