WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 19: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern embraces a woman who attended the House session at Parliament on March 19, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand. 50 people were killed, and dozens are still injured in hospital after a gunman opened fire on two Christchurch mosques on Friday, 15 March.  The accused attacker, 28-year-old Australian, Brenton Tarrant, has been charged with murder and remanded in custody until April 5. The attack is the worst mass shooting in New Zealand's history. (Photo by Mark Tantrum/Getty Images)
A look at Jacinda Ardern's actions after mosque attacks
02:54 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Farah El-Sharif is a PhD candidate in Islamic intellectual history at Harvard University and writes on topics related to Islam, culture and politics. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

In the aftermath of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo terror attack which left 12 dead, world leaders flocked to the streets of Paris and partook in an iconic unity march to condemn the terrorist attack.

Contrast this with the aftermath of the Christchurch mosques massacre just over a week ago, in which an alleged Australian white supremacist brutally gunned down 50 Muslims during prayer. In the wake of these senseless killings, a global gathering of world leaders did not occur in the streets of Christchurch.

Farah El-Sharif

But a march of another, relatively larger magnitude did occur – and it was led by one woman. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern quickly became a symbol of solidarity with the slain Muslims of Christchurch. The nation’s 38-year-old Prime Minister showed up for her people, for the victims and for their families in ways other leaders simply have not for their respective Muslim communities.

The admirable stances she took on behalf of the New Zealand Muslim community there have raised the bar for what principled leadership should look like today. And they have begun to change the global narrative of animus toward Islam and Muslims.

Ardern’s firm and unequivocal condemnation of the terrorist nature of the attack stands in stark contrast with the narrative of those – such as US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who, in the past, have appeared to base part of their political platforms on inciting anti-Muslim sentiment and associating Islam with terrorism.

A member of the progressive Labour Party, Ardern decided to act fast and stand with the victims’ families – a decision which drew widespread global attention and won the respect and admiration of Muslims.

Sharing on Twitter the now-iconic photo of a somber Ardern in a black headscarf, which she donned the day after the attack as a sign of respect to Muslims, Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., wrote that Ardern “reflects the type of sincere, people-oriented leadership that the world needs to evolve from its current chaotic state.” Indeed, Ardern’s stances represent a far cry from the divisive tune of right-wing nationalist incitement against Islam and Muslims that has become all too normalized in global political discourse today.

Meanwhile, in the days since the shooting, Ardern has announced the ban of all military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles in New Zealand and visited Christchurch twice. In a parliamentary speech, she declared that she will not dignify the terrorist by ever mentioning his name, so as not to give in to his pitiful and evident thirst for publicity. Setting a uniting tone of anger, grief and solidarity for all of New Zealand, she implored her countrymen and women to “speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them.”

Some might say it is easy to exhibit unifying and humanistic leadership in the aftershock of such a ghastly attack, especially in a peaceful country like New Zealand. One can easily criticize the pre-existing climate of microaggression and Islamophobia in New Zealand and Australia and ask what Ardern had done for the Muslim community before the attacks happened. Others have rightly questioned New Zealand’s military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. These valid criticisms demand serious introspection and action on the part of Western politicians.

And although Ardern’s leadership has just set a new bar for a more compassionate, responsible and inclusive response to instances when Muslims are the primary victims of mass violence, it still falls short. Such a narrative must also seriously ask what role the “War on Terror”– which has killed approximately half a million people in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan – plays in the escalation of hate crimes, such as the Christchurch attack. Arden should use this moment to critique the ongoing military involvement by Western powers in Muslim-majority countries.

Ideally, Ardern’s empathy would not be considered unique or novel, but amid the highly divisive, “strong-man rhetoric” so ubiquitous in world politics today, her stance is powerful and potentially game-changing.

She even told Trump (who the terrorist reportedly mentioned in his manifesto) that the best way the US could support New Zealanders during this difficult time is by offering “sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.” This recommendation speaks volumes: her discourse on solidarity with Muslims possesses the power to extend itself beyond Christchurch to reach vulnerable Muslim communities in places like the USA, Europe, India, Myanmar and China.

On Friday, during the first weekly congregational prayer since the attack, Arden joined mourners for a two-minute silence for the slain after a national broadcast of the athan (the call to prayer), when she cited a moving hadith (saying) by the Prophet Muhammad.

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    In European countries, where prejudiced attitudes toward the hijab and the building of mosques are still rampant, the call of the athan nationwide is a symbolic stance against Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry. This and other gestures represent the best of what liberal progressive policies toward religious minorities can look like.

    Ardern’s moral leadership must signal to other leaders that their hardline political platforms – built on waging war, imprisonment, surveillance, animosity and travel bans on Muslims – only add fuel to the fire of extremism and incitement of violence against immigrants and Muslims worldwide.

    It should not take a tragedy such as the Christchurch massacre to humanize Muslims. Still, Ardern’s leadership can help counter anti-Muslim sentiment globally and begin to reverse destructive foreign policies in Muslim-majority countries. This type of leadership must become the norm – not the exception.