Being a leader in a time of sorrow: the power of compassion

On 15th March 2019, the world was faced with yet another threat of hate and division. During an ordinary Friday Prayer at the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch (New Zealand), a gunman live-streamed footage of his atrocious attack that later continued at the nearby Lindwood Islamic Centre. The man, described by the media as a white suprematist and extremist planned and publicly revealed these two consecutive shootings, storming into a peaceful place of worship where 50 people were killed and 50 others were severely injured.

The unprecedented event was immediately acknowledged as a clear criminal and terrorist attack, perpetrated in the name of a hatred and unjustifiable violence.

In the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks, many have voiced their opinions on matters of racism, extremism, violence and security. Others observed, petrified, the frightful unfolding of a dangerous ideology of supremacy and terror.

Whatever our reaction to the event, however, in the light of this dreadful massacre, we can all agree that finding the right words to condemn its unraveling whilst honoring the lives and legacy of those who were lost was anything but an easy task.

That is why there is something quite exemplary in the way New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promptly handled the consequences of the 15th of March.

Following the press conference that she held in order to draw the disturbing conclusions on that afternoon, she flew to the site of the attacks to meet the survivors and console the families of the fallen. In an act of respect and profound empathy she wore a symbolic hijab while she physically embraced those who were affected by the attacks and expressed her sadness when asked how she was doing.

The authenticity of her attitude of compassion was able to comfort and reassure not only the Muslim community that was terribly harmed on that dark day, but the nation she leads as a whole. Her warmth “embraced” everyone, as shown by the standing ovation she received when getting on stage to deliver her speech at the national remembrance service that took place later that month. On that stage, she openly demanded that an end be put to the vicious cycle of extremism and racism, for no act of hostility and resentment towards other human beings is welcome in her country, or in the world.

As she reminded the audience, New Zealand is a proud nation of 200 ethnicities sharing common values of diversity, compassion and support. It cannot claim perfection, but it can “strive to stay true to the words embedded in [its] national anthem”, calling for peace and respect among all men of any faith or race.

Her determined response also received the Government’s support, which on 10th April banned semi-automatic firearms, magazines and parts through the approval of the Arms Amendment Bill.

In the wake of “New Zealand's darkest of days”, Ardern’s human yet firm response led both to a tangible change in the country’s gun law and to a renewed sentiment of rejection of any ideological apparatus of power. Her kind and empathic leadership indeed appealed to the hearts of many people around the world. Following Ardern’s path, communities of all religious backgrounds and ethnicities supported the condemnation of the anti-Islamic rhetoric by stating that the deplorable actions of the Christchurch attacker neither speak for them nor represent their values and beliefs.

Today, as a matter of fact, nobody remembers the name of the man who, amongst other things, primarily sought notoriety from his act of terror. In the face of our compassion and fight against islamophobia, the attacker is and will always remain nameless.

So, if “the answer truly lies in our humanity”, our hope is that Jacinda Ardern’s condemnation of violence serves as an example for all global leaders to join forces in a collective response to hate.

In the knowledge that there is no “us” against “them”, Ko tãtou tãtou, As-Salaam-Alaikum - We are one, peace be upon you.

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