'Christchurch Attack Has Been a Very Rude Awakening For New Zealand' - Prof

© AP Photo / Vincent Yu / A police officer stands guard in front of the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, Sunday, March 17, 2019, where one of two mass shootings occurred
A police officer stands guard in front of the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, Sunday, March 17, 2019, where one of two mass shootings occurred - Sputnik International
The Australian man charged over last week’s twin mosque attacks in New Zealand is believed to have acted alone, police said. Three people arrested after the massacre are not believed to have been involved, Police Commissioner Mike Bush said but added that he couldn't be conclusive.

Some 50 were killed and 50 injured in what is the worst attack in New Zealand's history. Sputnik has discussed the Christchurch attacks and what it means for the country with Richard Shaw, politics professor at Massey University, New Zealand.

Sputnik: Are witnessing now the emergence of anti-Islamic extremism and if that's the case how dangerous is this phenomenon?

Richard Shaw: Yes, I think we are in New Zealand and it's dangerous to the extent that it's killed 50 people and 36 more remain in hospital, 12 of those people are in intensive care. So we live in a country that's never experienced this kind of thing before, we have an exceptionally violent and repellent example of anti-Islamic extremism, yes.

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Sputnik: What's your take on the statement made by the Australian Senator Fraser Anning. He actually blamed the attack on what he called "a huge wave of radicalised Muslims" in New Zealand, but I know the Muslim population is about 1% in New Zealand?

Richard Shaw: We have a very small Muslim population, many of those people were born in New Zealand, some migrants, some are refugees, they're all New Zealanders. That man's comments are beyond vile, beyond insensitive. They are just horrific, they make no sense whatsoever. The attack that has just occurred, the murders that have just occurred in New Zealand were perpetrated by a person who was in fact born in Australia, a white Australian man.

So the radicalisation has happened on the part of this person. What we are not seeing in New Zealand is Islamic radical extremism at all. These are men and women and children who were exercising their statutory freedom to religious expression. This person hunted down a five-year-old child who was running away from him. So far an Australian Senator to stand up and to give expression to those kinds of views is absolutely reprehensible and it has been very, very badly received in this country.

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Sputnik: The level of migration to New Zealand is actually quite low as well. Could you comment on what the situation is with immigration and is there an anti-migrant sentiment at all, to what extent is that really alive?

Richard Shaw: Since around about the mid-1980s the policy around migration in New Zealand has focused on skills. Prior to that, the majority of people who migrated to New Zealand came from the United Kingdom in the late 1960s. For example, around about 14-15% of all New Zealanders had been born overseas and around 80% of those people had been born in the United Kingdom.

We changed our policy settings in the late 1980s to focus on skills and since then we've become a much more multicultural nation. We have more than 200 ethnicities living in this country, and we have something like 160 or 170 different languages that are spoken. So we are a very diverse and a very rich multicultural nation, to the extent that there has been anti-immigrant sentiment, it hasn't been expressed in the formal political sense in the way that populist anti-migrant sentiment has been expressed in other parts of the world, but we can certainly find it online.

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There are casual acts of racism that have been perpetrated in this country that has always been the case. I think we've probably been a little bit too glib about those, but the events of Friday in the two mosques in Christchurch have been a very rude awakening for this nation.

Sputnik: How significant is the white supremacist movement in New Zealand and perhaps you could compare it to what the situation is in Australia?

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Richard Shaw: A colleague of mine, distinguished professor Paul Spoonley who is probably the leading scholar of the extreme right in New Zealand, published the book quite some years ago now in which he identified around about 70 extreme right groups: skinheads, neo-fascists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, who were active in and around the Christchurch area. So for quite some time now, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, Christchurch has been something of a center of white extremism; but I would imagine that prior to Friday, the vast majority of New Zealanders would have had no idea whatsoever that that kind of organised extremism existed in New Zealand.

It's very difficult to get an exact handle on how active that community is because it doesn't play out in mainstream politics in quite the same way as is the case elsewhere. But we certainly need to do a lot more than what we have done in the past to identify those people, to call them out, to proscribe some of their behaviours, and certainly to be aware of the extent to which they're active. But this is not exactly new territory for us, but the horror that those kinds of extreme political views can produce in our country is a very new and a very raw thing.

Sputnik: Do you think that there is significant legislation governing radical public expressions, radical posts and so forth on the internet, what's the situation with that? Is that something that New Zealand has been focusing on at all?

Richard Shaw: I don't think it has been. I'm not even sure that other countries in the world have been focusing on it, but I think we absolutely need to. That unregulated space that the internet inhabits and which some of the tech giants like Facebook and so on occupy largely beyond the reach of national and international legislative bodies, that something that has absolutely need to be attended to.

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We've not felt the need to do that previously in New Zealand. There's certainly anti-hate legislation and there's legislation that provides for freedom of expression of various kinds. We don't have particularly strong gun laws, they are about to be revised I would imagine. But I think the point you're making is the critical one, we need to find ways both as a national and an international community to regulate those currently unregulated online environments in which this kind of hatred can be formulated.

Sputnik: Another issue that has come up are the gun laws in New Zealand which are known to be looser than those in Australia. Do you think that was perhaps one of the reasons why Brenton Tarrant chose the city of Christchurch for his attacks?

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Richard Shaw: No, I don't think it was. I mean he has made it very clear, and I wouldn't want to give him anymore airtime that is absolutely necessary, but he made it quite clear that the reason why he chose Christchurch was because upon visiting Christchurch he found, and this was not surprising, because this is what our entire nation is like, he found it full of migrant people, all people of color many of whom are not migrants but are actually born in this country, second, third, fourth generation New Zealanders.

So I think the gun laws had necessarily anything to do with that. I certainly wouldn't want to speculate on his motives. There is something like 1.5 million guns owned legally in New Zealand. New Zealand is a country of 4.5 million or so people. So there is a relatively high rate of gun ownership, but I don't think it would be fair to say that this country has the same kind of cultural relationship with firearms that is the case certainly in the United States of America. The prime minister, however, and the attorney general have made it very clear that those gun laws will be tightened up. I would imagine that a ban on semi-automatic weapons will be not too far away and a gun register would also be not too far away neither which we presently have.

Sputnik: For such a peaceful country like New Zealand you can really say that Friday's attack was a point of no return in many ways, in your view what are the most important lessons that should be learned after the Christchurch tragedy?

Richard Shaw: I don't think this country can afford to be complacent any longer. New Zealand has had something of a habit of feeling a little self-satisfied perhaps about the extent to which some of the horrors that have been visited upon other parts of the world have not been visited upon us. We can no longer say that because they have now.

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So we cannot afford to be complacent about the fact that we have been a peace loving nation, and that we're at the far edges of the world, and that we're open, and we're tolerant of diversity and difference and so on. Because although, the person who perpetrated these attacks was born and spent a significant amount of his life in Australia, clearly he's found an environment in Christchurch, in this country which to some extent has been conducive to what he wished to do. So we need to own it as a country.

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We need to question ourselves. We need to look at casual acts of racism. We need to look at the extent to which really are accepting of people who think differently, who have different religious preferences, who may look different. So that New Zealand story it's almost a creation myth in this country, the idea that we are a rich and diverse group of people and we are a welcoming safe haven for those who have come from Syria or other much more violent places.

We can't tell ourselves that story with the same degree of complacency anymore. So my sense would be that in a day, perhaps, two or three when the immediacy of Friday's events has been somewhat attenuated, there will come a time when New Zealanders have to start holding a very challenging conversation. That conversation has to be an individual conversation. It has to be one with our family, with our neighbours, with our students, with the people with whom we live in neighbourhoods, and it has to be a national conversation, and it is going to be a very, very difficult one for us to have.

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Sputnik: Obviously, this attack was intended to among other things create fear and division in the community. I've actually seen quite a lot of footage of how it's actually unified the Christchurch community, would you just comment on what's going on right now in Christchurch and perhaps other parts of New Zealand. I would imagine that the unification and the reaching out to each other and supporting each other is not just limited to Christchurch, could you perhaps comment on what's going on across the country?

Richard Shaw: Sure, absolutely. If that was one of the objectives of this person then he has failed utterly, and in the words of my prime minister: "he may have chosen us for his actions, but we utterly reject and condemn both him and the ideology that he stands for", and there has been an enormous outpouring of support for Muslim people right across the country, from the far north to the deep south. Just before you and I began our conversation this evening I came back from an interdenominational and interfaith service in which there were eight different religious communities who'd gathered together in the Catholic Church just around the corner from where I live.

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There would've been 200-250 people there from a wide range of religious organisations coming together to support our Muslim sisters and brothers and our friends and our partners and so on and so forth. The other thing that's been happening, social media is full of this, is people have been visiting mosques and Islamic centres.

I live about 500 metres away from an Islamic centre in the town where I live which is a town of about 80,000 people; and there has been a constant parade of all sorts of different New Zealanders, young and old, locals, migrants, new New Zealanders, people who have been here, their families have been here for 200 years, all have been bringing flowers, and food, and water, and wanting to express to the members of our community, our people, who happen to be Muslim, but they are our people in the first instance, to what we have all wanted to do is put our arms collectively around them.

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And I've never seen, I certainly never experienced anything like the events on Friday. That is absolutely the worst day in the nation's history, but I've never seen the degree of unity and the strength of feeling that anger about the assault on our people, but also upon our way of life and our way of doing things.

So 50 people have died, 50 more were injured and a number of those people remain in intensive care, but I think this has had the unintended effect, perhaps, of absolutely galvanising New Zealanders in support of some of the principles that we hold very dear to ourselves; which are whoever you are and whichever God you choose to worship, should you choose to worship at all, you can come to this place and do those things and you can do so safely. So back to your original question, it absolutely has galvanised support for length and breadth of the nation, and I expect that to continue to be the case.

The views and opinions expressed by the speaker do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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