OK, I admit, I’m guilty of it too: Jacindamania. It seems like half the world are cooing over New Zealand’s female leader, Jacinda Ardern.
It’s hardly surprising.
In a world where politicians routinely spew out hateful bile, poisoning us with twisted mistruths about others, slamming doors shut on war-torn refugees, refusing to act against climate change such that schoolchildren go protest, she is a welcome voice to soothe jaded ears.
In the face of the bloodiest terror attack of her country, the murder of 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, Ardern has shown the world what “real leaders” look like, as has been said.
She has been a mother to the nation, comforting and empathising, hugging bereaved family members, soothing people with the right words. She covered her hair out of respect and solidarity when meeting the Muslim community and greeted parliament this week with the Arabic welcome, “As-salaam-alaikum”.
To the killer, she took a hard line, refusing to even mention his name, to deny him the notoriety he desired. On racism and extremism, she was rigidly uncompromising. “We reject extremism in all its forms and we will be absolutely united on that,” she told Al Jazeera. She called on her people to “let New Zealand be a place where there is no tolerance for racism ever”. And she tightened gun laws a week after the attack.
Tell me, how often do leaders show such empathy and respect while standing firm on what matters? How many stand for zero tolerance on racism? Here, we’ve had politicians so arrogant that they’ve told us to leave the country if we’re not happy. (Nice to know you’re valued, huh?)
Ardern has issued a “global call” to reject racism. She said the world has a responsibility “to weed it out where it exists and make sure that we never create an environment where it can flourish”. Because where it flourishes, extremism emerges, and that is a tinderbox for violence.
Think about those words. Let them sink in.
How do we allow racism to flourish? It’s all too easy to make a racist slur, joke, or “obvious” generalisation. But when you condone or back racism in any way, you sow the seeds for hate and possibly violence. In the long-term, you’re building the tinderbox. It only takes one event, one spark, to light a fire in our multi-ethnic, multi-faith society.
Some here are making that link. Home Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin called on Malaysians to “learn” from the incident to not provoke religious enmity. He said the notion that one religion is “more superior” should be rejected. “We have to respect each other and not look down on other races.”
Also making a call to curb racial and religious hate was Housing and Local Government Deputy Minister Raja Kamarul Bahrin Shah. He told a news portal that social media is being used to fan racial and religious hatred; the terms used – halal darah (permissible to kill), kafir harbi (infidels who can be killed) and pendatang (immigrants) – provided “fertile ground” for conflicts.
He noted “certain opposition politicians who become livid over the threats against Muslims” abroad simultaneously “threaten and make accusations based on racial and religious sentiments” against minorities at home. In our political history, the short-term gain of scoring political points was never weighed against the long-term damage of deeper fault lines in race relations.
It’s time to stop exploiting race. The government needs to take firm action against any kind of hate crime and racist speech. Ultimately, all of us need to help heal those fault lines. That means thinking beyond race altogether.
All that talk about “us” and “them” is the essence of racism. To some, their identity is completely wrapped up in race. But that’s the ego speaking, which always seeks to be special, superior even, and thrives from identification, boundaries and separation. This is the raw material of that ugly white nationalism that slams immigration and rejects multiculturalism. It’s Donald Trump and his Wall. It’s Britain and Brexit.
By contrast, Adern’s language is one of unity, of “us”. Indeed, a much-quoted saying of hers following the tragedy was: “We are one, they are us.”
She also said: “If we want to make sure globally that we are a safe and tolerant and inclusive world, we cannot think about this in terms of boundaries.”
Emphasising unity, and thinking collectively, isn’t just a choice to combat racism. It’s an absolute necessity to address our dire climate crisis. Science is showing us more and more, day by day, that everything on this planet is connected – the weather, the oceans, the forests, the air and all living creatures.
Our future, our planet, depends on us making that shift to see that ultimately, we are all one.
Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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