New Zealand shooting: Hate crimes and free speech

March 19, 2019
New Zealand shooting: Hate crimes and free speech
Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi

When a story hits the wires in today’s new media, it goes from one end of the world to the other in minutes. The Australian terrorist who attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, during last Friday’s prayers, didn’t wait that long. He broadcasted his crime live!

Facebook was a bit late in deleting his video, but compensated for the delay by later deleting 1.5 million videos of a similar nature. The United Nations Security Council, the Vatican and world governments were quick to condemn the hate crime.

Except for a few Christian crusaders, like the Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini and Australian Senator Fraser Anning, most world leaders were loud and clear in their condemnation. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Kate Laurell Ardern touched our hearts with her sympathetic and sincere stand, speech and response. Wearing hijab, she was quick to visit the victims’ families to assure them of her country’s commitment to protect them and to stand against such atrocity in the name of Christianity. The Australian Prime Minister issued a strong formal statement against the far-right Senator Anning, and hundred of thousands of Australians signed an online petition to sack him from Parliament.

The international media coverage was as responsible and principled. Many scholars followed with analyses explaining the why and how. Some pointed to the Islamphobia trend in Europe and other parts of the world like China and Myanmar that created such an environment. Others called for international laws against hate speech.

As shocking as the terrorist attack was, it showed how much solidarity humanity has developed against religious and racial intolerance that fed the hatred behind the crime. Like past attacks on other houses of God around the globe, this too was a totally unprovoked assault on peaceful, unarmed civilians.

The global response to Friday’s hate crime reminded me of a similar experience after the politically motivated, religiously fed attacks of 2001 on New York and Washington.

The day after 9/11, candlelight vigilantes came in increasing numbers to surround our Islamic center in Eugene Oregon. “We were nervous at first,” the Libyan imam told me, “but they assured us ‘we are here to protect you ... your religion won’t be held responsible for the crime committed by terrorists in the name of Islam.’”

The following Friday, the mayor joined our prayers, assuring us of a similar stand. He relayed the governor’s support.

Muslim scholars were invited to speak in local churches and we were invited to Christian and Native American events.

Colleges across Oregon organized an awareness campaign about peaceful Islam. University papers and local media participated.

As a result, imams with extremist messages were impressed and moved. Now, they talked more of interfaith cooperation, harmony and peaceful coexistence in sermons and the media.

Oregon media and civic institutions not only showed religious tolerance, but also raised the beautiful Oregonian consciousness to a new height of understanding and knowledge. That was an educating and enlightening experience for the world to see.

“But what about free speech?” a journalist may wonder. “Give me one example of media reporting that started a war?” another may challenge.

My answer is that journalists should be good citizens and responsible human beings. Providing a platform for hate speech leads to conflicts. We saw that in the Middle East when media has been used to promote division and hate. People now fight over 1400-year-old racial and sectarian issues. We saw that in Rwanda in 1994, when the media enflamed the hatred of the Hutu majority against the Tutsi minority. As a result, a million people were slaughtered within 100 days.

On the other hand, the American media, especially in Oregon, were wiser and more responsible after 9/11. They didn’t use and abuse their freedom to publish hate speech. Instead they sought positive messages about the peaceful nature of Islam to balance the negative ones from terrorists and extremists.

What we need, today, is a code of ethics to guide coverage of religious conflicts. Our goal is to inform the public about current events, not to provide a platform for preaching hate.

I hereby call on opinion leaders in the traditional and new media of the Muslim world to act responsibly. The terrorist in New Zealand was acting on his own. Judaism and Jews, Hinduism and Hindus and Christianity and Christians are not to blame for the actions of a psychopath. Neither are the beautiful people of Australia and New Zealand. If anything, we need to unite with them and the rest of our neighbors and partners on this planet to fight extremism in all its forms and hate in all its colors. Heart to heart, hand in hand, we can win this war.

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. He can be reached at kbatarfi@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @kbatarfi

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