Known as one of the safest and most isolated countries in the world, New Zealand has experienced its darkest day – a terrorist attack perpetrated by a lone gunman against Muslim citizens in Christchurch in two mosques during Friday prayers. For us, in this antipodean part of the world, it's our 9/11 reckoning.
"This is not us," is the resounding response across New Zealand since the 15 March.
And yet this is us. While the alleged gunman was an Australian citizen — and much is being made of this in both New Zealand and Australia — he was able to live in and plan his attack as a resident of Dunedin, a city that's about a four-hour drive to the south of Christchurch. He was able to procure his gun licence in November 2017, practise his shooting techniques at the local rifle club, and purchase successive weapons online from the Christchurch store, Gun City. He converted one of his purchases into a semi-automatic weapon.
As Kiwi journalist Steve Braunias wrote, it would be false to describe this event as New Zealand’s end of innocence.
While New Zealand is a relatively peaceful country, ranking No.1 on the Global Peace Index in 2010 and the second-most peaceful country in 2018, it's also been home to far-right extremist groups throughout the past century. Paul Spoonley, a New Zealand sociologist who researched 70 extreme right and white supremacist local groups in the 1980s, found that Christchurch was the home to most of these groups in New Zealand, their ideology linked to anti-semitism and belief in the supremacy of the British race. One of the mosques affected by the terrorist attack on 15 March has been a site of white supremacist attention in the past, receiving pigs’ heads delivered by a local Christchurch man, Philip Neville Arps, in 2016.
Evil connected online
Today, the ease of access to the internet and the rise of social media has enabled the spread of these ideologies to new recruits on the web, in chatrooms, on Facebook and Twitter.
Globalisation has lowered the cost of international travel as well as allowed new online and offline alliances to be forged among right-wing, white nationalist groups in far corners of the world — including Norway and New Zealand.
If we dig deep and across the poles of our planet as medieval Cumbrians did in Vincent Ward’s acclaimed 1988 film The Navigator, we'll see that we're connected in more ways than one. We face a frightening world of proliferating nuclear weapons and rising sea levels threatening island nations, and where a few alienated, angry people, usually young men, threaten us all.
In the New Zealand case, the arrested gunman was clearly influenced by his Norwegian kindred spirit who rendered the 2011 tragedy. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has refused to say the name of the gunman to stem his notoriety and prevent future copycat attacks — choosing to focus on the victims, their grieving families and the nation.
The online spaces where the gunman shared his manifesto, as well as video footage of his rampage, highlight the links between violent extremism and misogyny, racism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry and discrimination.
The same platform (8chan) the gunman shared his intentions on was also the site where Gamergate was primarily based, in which a harassment campaign that included doxing, rape and death threats, was used to target specific women working in or reporting on the gaming industry.
That video is now being hosted in part by a website whose owner was fired as an administrator for 8chan for his alleged promotion of pedophilia and violent misogyny (he's also known for his online harassment and stalking of women).
The website administrator’s refusal to cooperate with New Zealand police highlights not only the gendered language these men frequently use with relative impunity, but also how little the law can regulate or even access these transnational spaces.
Targeting violent extremism
Seeking to understand those who join and promulgate extremist causes is a difficult but necessary task.
We have to explain the root causes of violence without justifying it in order to stop future violence. Violent extremists target "others" be they Muslims, immigrants, minorities, women or, depending on their own ideology, left-wing politically affiliated people.
The killing of people seen as different, foreign or inferior connects far-right extremism, white supremacist extremism, "incel" extremism and Salafi jihadist Islamicist extremism. And as Michael Kimmel has suggested, violent extremists typically share one thing: their gender.
Monash University’s Noorhuda Ismael, in his study of Indonesian foreign fighters, has found that their life trajectories demonstrate radicalisation is rooted in a certain ideal of hegemonic masculinity. We cannot know fully yet the radicalisation trajectory of the Christchurch gunman; however, we do know that he lost his father as a teenager, and that since then on his world travels he sought the camaraderie of other extremist, white male supremacist role models.
Our research at Monash University’s Gender, Peace and Security Centre (Monash GPS) is examining gender-based approaches to preventing violent extremism and terrorism.
To that end, we've explored the relationship between attitudes characterised as "misogyny" or hatred of women, acts of violence against women and girls, and violent extremism.
In three countries in Asia, we found that support for violence against women and hostile sexist attitudes were both stronger predictors of support for violent extremism than religiosity, which is commonly perceived to be the major root cause.
In the aftermath of terrorist attacks across the world, we frequently hear that the attacker was known to police in part because of domestic violence charges, making these findings unsurprising, but also highlighting the importance of evidence in showing the links between violent extremism and violence against women.
Examining these gender-based factors in the support for violent extremism has the potential to better identify likely perpetrators of all kinds of extremist violence.
Warnings fell on deaf ears
In New Zealand, Muslim women’s early warning concerns about rising Islamophobia over the past decade were ignored or at least only minimally responded to by government.
Anjum Rahman writes: “For more than five years, Muslim representatives knocked on every door we could, we spoke at every possible forum.” Why was she not heard?
Rahman’s story shows the blind spot that authorities often have when it comes to countering and preventing violent extremism programming, targeting Muslim communities but paying scant attention to the growing threat of white supremacist violence.
This violence frequently targets Muslim women who wear the hijab, as they're frequently the most visible members of the community. The New Zealand security agencies tasked with this work are in a process of reckoning when it comes to past strategies as the Muslim community and others ask: how was this gunman missed?
It's important that similar questions are asked in other contexts also, since there's a common pattern here of women’s early warning calls not being heard or heeded.
Think also of Marawi, in the Philippines – before Islamic State took control of the city in 2017, women tried to inform local government of weapons stockpiling. They were turned away. Now is the time to take women’s voices seriously in our efforts to counter and prevent violent extremism (CVE/PVE) in all our societies.
Communities, neighbourhoods and families have a crucial role to play in countering and preventing violent extremism, and they need to be supported.
United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSC) 2242 (2015) requires states to consider a gender perspective on prevention, and opportunities for experienced women to participate in high-level decision-making where prevention strategies are designed and implemented. UNSC Resolution 2178 (2014) calls for the need to empower women as a prevention response and mitigating factor to the spread of violent extremism and radicalisation; and in June 2018, the Sixth Review Resolution of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy urged states and UN entities to integrate a gender analysis on the drivers of radicalisation to terrorism into their relevant programs, and to seek greater consultations with women and women’s organisations when developing CVE strategies.
Our research on gender and preventing violent extremism at Monash GPS has underscored the important role of communities and families in P/CVE (CVE/PVE). Where there is more empowerment and self-efficacy in communities through programming focused on empowering women, and building peaceful communities, people, particularly men, reported being less likely to use violence as a political tool to address poverty and inequality, and both women and men were more likely to report concerns about violent extremism.
New Zealand is lucky to have a prime minister who's a model of leadership. Ardern has been decisive, immediately rallying her government to tighten existing, and institute new, gun laws and to assist the victims. She's also shown compassion – listening to and empathising with the families and communities of the victims, as well as their cultural and religious needs.
She's proven that typically feminine behaviour is powerful, and – echoing Martin Luther King – Ardern has shown that only light can drive out darkness, only love can banish hate.