We thought Christchurch would be a turning point, it wasn't
New Zealand recently opened public debate on new hate speech laws in response to the tragic 2019 Christchurch attack, but the pushback that ensued calls into question whether passing the laws will even be possible.
The debate in New Zealand sheds light on the challenges of confronting white supremacy and Islamophobia in New Zealand and beyond.
Two years ago, a far-right gunman opened fire on worshippers in two mosques, killing 51 and injuring 40. The incident shocked the world and prompted New Zealand to adopt stricter gun laws just 28 days later. The days following the Christchurch mosque shootings felt like a flashpoint, a global reckoning for the consequences of Islamophobia and governments' blindness to the threat of far-white extremism.
"The new hate speech laws have met with pushback"
Videos of gang members and students in New Zealand performing hakas in honor of the victims went viral, vigils were held in countries across the world, and the Empire State Building and Eiffel Tower turned off their lights in solidarity.
In the days after the shootings, people questioned whether these public displays of solidarity would be enough. As the Observer editorial team put it: "The world faces an important test in its response to Christchurch. Will it be to express solidarity and move on? Or will our leaders make more effort to call out all forms of racist hate wherever they are found?"
In answer to that question, New Zealand formed a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch attack to investigate the incident and make recommendations that would deter similar attacks in future.
Three weeks ago, the Commission released its decision: the amendment of hate speech and hate crime laws. The new hate speech laws would target speech that "intentionally stirs up, maintains, or normalises hatred", and could lead to up to three years in prison and a $50,000 fine - a significant increase from the current maximum fine of three months in jail and $7,000 fine.
However, the new hate speech laws have met with pushback. David Seymour, New Zealand's Act Party leader, claimed "the government's proposed hate speech laws are a huge win for cancel culture and will create an even more divided society."
New Zealand's struggle to pass hate speech laws - which would protect its Muslim and minority communities, and likely target the white supremacist speech the Christchurch shooter was consuming and sharing - is hardly unique. Despite the global uproar following the attack on Muslims in New Zealand, Christchurch was not a turning point. It did not prompt western countries to crack down on the threat posed by far-right extremism, nor write laws protecting their Muslim communities.
Instead, we have seen a dramatic rise of white extremist activism across the globe, from far-right rallies in Italy and Germany to the storming of the US Capitol, and few initiatives instituted to stop it. Like the push to discuss America's racial past in schools in the United States, initiatives to confront white supremacy have led to loud, and often violent, debates against "critical race theory" and "cancel culture."
"Instead, we have seen a dramatic rise of white-extremist activism across the globe"
However, the irony is that while politicians find themselves mired in stalled debates about passing hate speech laws that might confront white supremacy, the existing Islamophobic legislation frequently goes unnoticed.
Even as white supremacy gains a larger and louder platform, legal restrictions on Muslims across Europe and the United States have only increased, enshrining Islamophobia into laws across the world and allowing it to remain acceptable at the dinner table.
The Pew Research Center reported that laws restricting religious freedoms in Europe surged from 2007 to 2017, and that trend does not appear to have decreased, with laws targeting "radical Islam" passing in France, Spain, and Austria. At the same time, laws targeting political issues often important to Muslims, such as immigration and anti-BDS laws, have been passed in the United States and Denmark.
Only last month, Austria launched an "Islam map" marking the locations of nearly 200 mosques around Austria, as well as Muslim civil society organisations. As soon as the map went viral, Muslim activists in Europe voiced concern that it would make mosques and Muslims easier targets for far-right extremists.
Just days later, they were proven correct - racist signs with the words "Attention: Political Islam is nearby. See Islam Map for further info" began appearing close to mosques in Vienna. It took global pushback and the threat of lawsuits to take it down.
And today, the European Union's top court ruled that companies could ban employees from wearing the hijab at work.
When we focus on shows of solidarity in response to tragic acts of Islamophobic violence, like those that occurred in the days following the Christchurch shootings, we tend to forget that just because society is moving through the arc of justice, our legislative, governmental, and economic systems are not necessarily following suit.
"We tend to forget that just because society is moving through the arc of justice, our legislative, governmental, and economic systems are not necessarily following suit"
Islamophobia hides behind the face of the law just as white supremacy is often protected by it. When we look at legislation passed in the years before and just after the Christchurch shootings, we see that New Zealand's decision to pass restrictive gun laws was the exception rather than the rule.
In contrast, the fierce debate over hate speech laws that would actually confront white supremacy is commonplace, as is refusing to take the threat of far-right extremism seriously while simultaneously putting special scrutiny on Islamic extremism, and forgetting that this norm has consequences.
When I read about the current debate in New Zealand about whether to adopt hate speech laws and our global struggle to pass similar laws and confront white supremacy around the world, my mind goes to Christchurch and the question posed in that Observer editorial two years ago:
"Are we doing all in our power to prevent such an attack from happening again?"
Zaina Ujayli is an MA student at The University of Virginia focusing on nineteenth and twentieth-century Arab and Arab American writers.
Follow her on Twitter: @zainaujayli
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