By Rasheed Abubakar
I woke up on Wednesday morning, April 24, 2019 to receive a call from NIPOST, Surulere, Lagos, Southwest Nigeria that I have a parcel from New Zealand. Immediately, I knew what it was, as I had been expecting it since the day my beloved brother, Abdul-Hasib Suenu, who lives in Christchurch, New Zealand ordered its content for me.
The gift was the special Friday, March 22 edition of The Press, New Zealand’s most widely read daily newspaper, which honoured on its front page the victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks of Friday, March 15, 2019.
Coincidentally, it’s just six weeks and a few days since a daredevil far-right supremacist terrorist, identified as Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant, 28, murdered 50 worshippers in cold blood at Masjid Al-Noor and Linwood mosque.
50 others, who sustained various degrees of injury, are still receiving treatment in various hospitals, and till date, “some of them are still afraid to sleep, haunted by the memories of the shooting,” as stated in the first story I read in The Press newspaper, titled: ‘Shooting victim too afraid to sleep.’
Frankly speaking, the terrorist deserves no accolades from the hostile community whose devilish interests he served, even though he killed scores of harmless Muslims who were in the mosques to worship their Lord. He is nothing but a coward who was stopped by a worshipper, Abdul Aziz, and “scared off in a cat-and-mouse chase that led to his capture.”
One would have expected the 28-year-old Australian, who had in his possession an ample cache of firearms, to engage the two policemen who rammed his car – even if he had to die in the process – just like the Orlando, U.S. nightclub gunman, who was killed in a gun battle with the police after his gruesome murder of 49 people in 2016.
Alas! Tarrant was rough-handled and dragged like a common criminal. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, whose leadership skill has been extolled by many all over the world, has ensured till date that the terrorist did not get the fame he craved.
Interestingly, nowhere in the 48-page newspaper was the terrorist’s name mentioned. Adjectives like shooter – page 2, gunman – page 6, killer – page 7, the man accused of Friday’s massacre – page 2, anti-Muslim terrorist – page 16 and dehumanised fanatic – page 18, among others were conspicuous in describing Tarrant and his atrocities.
I, as well as millions of netizens, were thrilled when the Press newspaper, founded in May 1861 by a non-Muslim politician, James FitzGerald, honoured all the victims of the Christchurch massacre by not just mentioning their names and ages on its front page, but also its strong message of “peace”, meaning “Salam” in Arabic, symbolising what the religion, Islam, represents.
Carol Kuruvilla, a religion reporter at HuffPost, in another report published on March 22 with the headline: ‘Christchurch newspaper’s front page uses Arabic to beautifully honour victims,’ wrote;
“The Press, a Christchurch-based daily, printed the word ‘Salam’ in both English and Arabic on its front page for its Friday edition, which was published on the same day that Muslims in New Zealand and around the world are returning to mosques for weekly congregational prayers.”
The simple cover and page 1 to 9 of the 13-page news segment were all centred on the Christchurch terror attack, with powerful news, tributes and in-depth analyses/opinions on pages 14 to 21. The stories helped to further unite the bereaved communities, rather than setting the country against the remaining Muslim immigrants, which was the primary intention of the attacker.
“I’ve been impressed with Jacinda Ardern, and also with our media covering the Christchurch mosque attacks”, Rosemary McLeod said in her op-ed on page 18, titled; ‘Truly the best amid the worst’, stressing that, “In the face of the worst that can happen, they’ve stayed on task when words would have failed many of us.”
The 70 year old columnist painted a scenario of a young man “who believed the lie that ‘invaders’ were a threat to their peaceful existence as a country. He couldn’t comprehend that he was the unwelcome invader, and his targets were just people, each different, each the same in seeking a better life, in their love of family, and in their religious observance.”
That is why the newspaper published what looked like an advertorial on page 8, a full page open letter, titled: “Standing together we are strong”, jointly signed by the 15 CEOs of New Zealand’s international NGO community, to denounce the action of the terrorist and unite for the Muslims, majority of whom are immigrants.
It read in part: “The New Zealand we believe in is one where the hope of refugees and migrants arriving in any New Zealand community are realised with welcome and safety. It’s one where our Muslim Whānau (a Māori-language – spoken by the indigenous population of New Zealand – word for another extended family or a community ‘of Muslims’) who have long been part of Aotearoa New Zealand would remain safe.”
Page 20/21, tagged In-Depth, with the headline: ‘Down the online rabbit hole’, revealed how some elements, an ‘anonymous community’ as the newspaper captured it, tried hard to spread the terrorist’s streamed video along with his manifesto “as far and as wide as possible on the Internet, and as soon the video was posted, there was a group of people who got to work making sure this material went viral, and no matter what Facebook and Twitter did, they were never going to be able to get rid of it,” the newspaper’s special report said.
Yes, The Press was right. It was a difficult time for Facebook and despite deleting 1.5 million copies of the video from its platform within 24 hours, millions of netizens still got the gory video through another platform, WhatsApp, also owned by Facebook.
The central message of the article was that the Internet was supposed to bring us closer together, and it is surely doing that, but then, “social media companies need to be more proactive and less reactive.”
Surprisingly, I have not come across the kind of pure love exhibited to the Muslim community by the oldest privately run newspaper and by extension, all New Zealand media outlets, in my modest years of analysing Nigerian media’s reportage of attacks on Muslims during ethno-religious crises, which have claimed thousands of lives, including children, women and the aged.
At no time, either recently or in the past, has any mainstream Nigerian newspaper ever published on its front cover, as a sign of honour, the names and ages of all the victims of Boko Haram in the North-East or bandit attacks in the North-West, majority of who are Muslims, as done by The Press of New Zealand.
A similar example to the Christchurch massacre in terms of casualty numbers was the 2017 Mubi mosque suicide attacks, where 50 Muslim worshippers lost their lives according to official figures released by the Adamawa police command, though Nigeria has experienced by far more devastating attacks in the hands of terrorists.
Unfortunately, unlike the honoured victims of the New Zealand shootings, the Mubi massacre was downplayed by the Nigerian media. In fact, some top print media mischievously ignored the facts that the attack took place in a mosque and its victims were Muslims in their headlines. Asking them to list their names might be a tall order for the Nigerian media, which was built on colonial Christian mentality.
There are many instances of imbalanced reporting in the Nigerian media, many of which I cited in my 4th and latest book, titled; ‘Media Narratives of Muslims in Nigeria: Facts and Fallacies’, but it has always been the other way round in the coverage of attacks on Christians – because many media owners are church goers or business men and women who use the instrument of the media to further their personal agenda. Many Nigerian journalists and media owners have thus become heavily compromised.
The bias against Islam and stereotypes against Muslims is not limited to Nigeria. It is global. The Press also admitted in her editorial, titled: ‘Day to remember and to reflect’ on page 16 that, “For too long, media companies both overseas and in New Zealand – and Stuff has not been immune – have helped to perpetuate ignorant and fearful stereotypes of a religion of peace. Some commentators have made the welcome decision to apologise for such content. Others have yet to do so…”
It is never too late for Nigerian media owners and journalists to apologise for years of bias against and misinformation about Islam in the media, and work together with Muslim media practitioners in the interest of Nigeria. Like New Zealand media, Nigerian media can go beyond publishing bombast to impress and posturing to mislead, which are capable of overheating the polity with the intent of dividing the nation.
– Politicisation of terrorist attacks
The Christchurch massacre was not politicised by the opposition or politicians in religious garb, as all New Zealanders rallied round their Prime Minister and pushed for stronger laws to protect all the citizens. In page 2/3 of the newspaper, there was a debate on banning military-style, semi-automatic guns and assault rifles and compensating gun owners, which was largely supported by the parliamentarians. There was even an article on ‘How to hand over your gun‘ as quickly as possible.
In early April, the New Zealand gun bill was passed into law by a vote of 119 to 1 “in the House of Representatives after an accelerated process of debate and public submission”, and few days later, the New Zealand Governor General, Dame Patsy Reddy formally signed it to law. It may interest you that the process took less than a month – just 26 days – since the Christchurch massacre.
In contrast, it has taken the US Congress many years to consider federal gun law, and it still remains unpassed. Sadly, in 2018 alone, there were 47, 220 gun related-incidents in the US, which killed 11, 984 people, according to data compiled by Gun Violence Archive, an independent data collection and research group. Going by this figures, it is evident that Americans killed by gun violence are now more than Americans killed by the so-called “lslamists” the Trump administration is fighting, since after the 9/11 attacks.
There is no controversy in Nigeria over gun legislation. The Firearms Act has clearly stipulated that, “No person shall have in his possession or under his control any firearm of one of the categories…” identified in the sections of the Firearms Act. Unlike abroad, you can’t just go to any open gun shop to purchase same. By law, only a State Commissioner of Police has the right to issue gun licences and the process of getting licenced is tedious for ordinary Nigerians, except for some special private citizens.
What is however close to gun violence is the spate of widespread jungle justice in Nigeria and unfortunately, the 8th assembly did not pass any relevant bill against such into law, despite the outgoing Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki’s promise to “protect and prohibit Nigerians across the country from meting out extra-judicial justice to perceived offenders without recourse to statutory legal channels.”
There are also a number of lessons Nigerian Muslims need to learn from their New Zealand brethren. The Muslim community didn’t call for war or reprisal attacks against the killer of their brothers and sisters, nor did they threaten their Prime Minister to resign. Instead, they accepted the incident as the will of Allah.
In fact, one of the survivors, Farid Ahmed said he had forgiven the terrorist that killed his wife. He said, “I could not accept what he did. What he did was a wrong thing. But when I see him, I would say to him; ‘I love him as a person’. The best thing is forgiveness, generosity, loving and caring, positivity.”
In Nigeria, politicians would have thrown caution to the air, instigating the victims’ families and using religious organisations like the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) (I’m not apologetic to mention that) to call for the head of the President, who himself may not visit the scenes of the attacks as the whole world saw the New Zealand Prime Minister do.
But really, it’s not about the President paying courtesy visits, especially when his Vice President or the Governor of the State has done that. The most important thing is for the President to come up with actionable plans to put an end to the killings in Borno, Benue, Zamfara, and other violence-ridden parts of the nation.
The enmity between Nigerian Christians and Muslims has reached an alarming level. Efforts by the apex Muslim body, the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) to bring about love and religious harmony between Muslims and Christians have been frustrated by CAN. It is on record that all church leaders across the world, including Pope Francis, offered condolences to the victims of the New Zealand attacks except CAN!
The Sultan of Sokoto, who is the President of the NSCIA, did a similar act earlier this week, by sending condolences to the Sri Lankan government over the death of 250 Christians, including foreign tourists, who were killed in attacks during the Easter Sunday celebrations.
Sadly, till date, the Nigerian Christian body has also neither honoured nor praised Chief Imam Abubakar Abdullahi for saving 300 Christians during the 2018 attacks in Plateau. If it were to be on the other side, CAN would have written several fiery and combative press releases alleging that the Muslims are killing Christians in Nigeria, and such would instantly make cover headlines in the Nigerian non-Muslim dominated media.
This is the reason I also faulted what I described as a “careless political statement” by the Sri Lankan Defence Minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, who said that the Easter Sunday coordinated bombing attacks that claimed the lives of more than 250 people were “retaliation” for the New Zealand attacks!
Though the killings are no doubt condemnable and the killers are devil incarnates, it is rather unfortunate that the minister, whose ministry failed to defend innocent civilians despite advanced warnings, uttered such a statement without providing evidence or explaining where the information came from.
The same government, in a bid to further blame the attacks on Muslims, wrongly used the picture of a prominent American Muslim activist, Amara Majeed as Fathima Khadiya, one of the suspects in the Easter attacks. Although the authorities have apologised to Amara, a Brown University, U.S. student who founded ‘The Hijab Project’ when she was 16 to encourage Muslim ladies to wear the Islamic attire, this is yet another example of politicisation and demonization New Zealand avoided during the Christchurch massacre.
Rather than deploying better strategies to protect all citizens, especially the minority Muslim and Christian population of about 9.7% and 7.4% respectively, which have both been victims of extremist Buddhist attacks in the past, the South Asian country with a Buddhist majority (70%) is considering banning the Burqa and Niqob, the Muslim female veil.
Will banning the Niqob stop terrorism? I doubt that, because it has never been part of the solution but another abuse of the rights of the Muslims who have over the years enjoyed a cordial relationship with Christians in Sri Lanka.
The proposed ban is nothing but a continuation of the persecution of the Sri Lankan Muslim minority by the Buddhist-led government, which has been happening long before the Easter attacks. For instance, the many atrocities, including killings of Muslims and attacks on mosques allegedly carried out by the Buddhist nationalist group, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) are all over the internet, with little to no response from the government.
The ban yet another example orchestrated state terror – designed to punish the humiliated and unwanted Muslim minority for the offence committed by a few individuals in the name of the religion, even when there are no strong evidence that the accused group carried out the attack. It amounts to vendetta against Muslims, which did not start today and will not end today except there is a paradigm shift in inter-religious and political culture.
Sri Lanka needs to take a cue from New Zealand, which despite the mosque attacks that claimed 50 Muslim lives, didn’t go after any of the country’s 200 ethnicities or ideologies.
The terrorist, a self-confessed far-right terrorist was singlehandedly dealt with by the Jacinda Ardern-led government, the same way the government of Sri Lanka should handle the Easter attacks by going after the terrorists without offending the religious sensibilities of the Muslims and their beliefs, including the Niqob.
Those who kill Muslims in the name of Christianity or Buddhism and those who murder Christians in the name of Islam are doing so to tear the affected countries apart with their evil ideologies, which have torn the world apart.
Like New Zealanders have shown the world that their unity is unbreakable, it is important that Nigerians – irrespective of religious or ethnic inclination – realise the need to come together and build a better Nigeria. The religious institutions must not let anyone under any guise divide them, and no matter the inconveniences in this ‘marriage’ that binds us as a nation, we must determine to love one another.
– Understanding ideological differences
In New Zealand, thousands of non-Muslims were seen lighting candles outside the Al Noor mosque during a vigil to commemorate the victims of the attacks (see page 2/3). It is one of the ways to help show solidarity with the New Zealand Muslim community and Christchurch dwellers. There is evidence that some Muslims in the West also gather for such, which they believe is part of human nature, universal morals, as well as part of the religion to show sympathy in such situations.
However, it is rare for Nigerian Christians, in large congregations, to honour Muslim victims of terror attacks and I doubt if they will be bold enough to ‘dare’ show such sympathy in front of any mosque, especially in the North, without being rejected by the Muslims who may term such as an ‘innovation’ that is not welcome in Islam.
However, Southwest Muslims are tolerant enough to accept such in their mosques or do same for their Christian neighbours in the name of fostering unity, despite orchestrated attacks against Hijab-wearing Muslim girls in Southwest government-owned schools.
There are several methods both Muslims and Christians can deploy to help one another irrespective of their religious differences, as highlighted in page 14 of The Press under the headline, ‘Christchurch: How to help those in need.’
1. ‘Community members are invited to join hands to create a human wall around Masjid Al-Noor…’ A similar gesture was witnessed during the 2012 fuel subsidy protest in Lagos, where Christian protesters joined hands to create a human shield for Muslims during Jum’ah at the popular Gani Fawehinmi Square in Ojota. Such can be done by Muslims elsewhere for the Christians, so far they avoid free mixing of males and females.
2. The Christchurch March for Love, which had different programs, including speeches and performances by a local group. A similar event was recently organised by Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) during the 5th anniversary of the abduction of the Chibok girls. Pastor Ituah Ighodalo and Imam Nojeem Jimoh were both invited to give speeches. Muslims can emulate this but avoid performances not allowed by Islam.
3. The Christchurch Foundation created a new fund to raise money for Muslim families and communities affected by the attacks. I have seen Muslims in the West do this, as well as Christians, but I haven’t seen much of such in Nigeria, except funding support to complete multimillion naira state-of-the-art mosques or churches.
– Security lapses
Personally, I strongly believe there were security lapses on the part of the New Zealand police which the newspaper did not address or deliberately ignored. How could a lone man kill 42 innocent civilians with no hindrance in Masjid Noor, then move to the Linwood mosque and kill yet another 8 civilians before the arrival of the police?
The terrorist could have killed more Muslims, but was stopped and chased by a worshipper, not the police! The newspaper wrote on page 6 that the gunman was on his way to the third mosque, Ashburton in midtown Canterbury when he was arrested. That was “21 minutes after police received the first 111 call while driving on Brougham St.”
However, the Prime Minister’s exemplary leadership immediately after the brutal attacks, “which contrasts with the ‘dark, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant language that permeates Australian society” and her next line of action, including reforms on gun laws, made the world, including The Press ignore the police shortcomings. She was seen everywhere, in her simple black scarf, honouring the Muslims who had lost loved ones.
Jacinda praised the police instead, for apprehending the suspect. This made me think; when would the Nigerian police get the New Zealand treatment from Nigerians? I doubt that will happen anytime soon, not even now that the police has turned its guns – bought with taxpayers’ money – against the people it is expected to protect. Notwithstanding, there are still some good guys in the Nigerian police.
Discrepancies in documentation
Besides media bias against Islam, many factors could also be responsible for the media not honouring the dead by their names and ages, part of which is lack of proper documentation of citizens who lost their lives during bandits/herdsmen attacks. Evidently, the New Zealand authorities have records of all immigrants from different countries. Hence, it was easy to identify the names, countries and ages of the 50 victims.
However, does Lagos, the commercial nerve centre of Nigeria have the details of every ‘Meruwa’ (cart pushers who sell water) who sells borehole water to Lagosians for survival? Many of them are from the neighbouring Niger Republic, but it is difficult to differentiate them from the Hausas. I have one of them as my customer who supplies water to my house and one day, I asked myself, how would I trace him should he steal something from my house and disappear? How will their country demand for their corpses if anything should happen to them (God forbid), when there is no proper documentation? The truth is, “they sabi themselves, na we no sabi them’ (They know each other, it’s we who don’t know them).”
It will also be practically impossible for media or government to identify the victims of suicide attacks or infernos burnt beyond recognition, except if there was documentation prior the incident, similar to travellers who register at motor parks prior to taking off on journeys. I know friends who would not write their names for fear of accidents, but it goes beyond that and I do encourage same.
I have also been thinking whether it should be part of security measures for places of worship in the country. But, will Muslim worshippers be writing their names during every Salat? That can be decided by the mosque management teams.
Often times, it could also be lack of documentation that makes media inflate death tolls in accidents or communal crises, which usually creates panic in the minds of the general public. There have been many reports about the Benue crisis where the media wrote, for instance, that herdsmen wreaked havoc on villagers, killed 70 but only 11 people were identified. What happened to the remaining dead? That’s why in journalism, when calamities occur, the first casualty is the figure.
Hence, it’s safer to rely on official figures released by the police, but most times, media would say, “Police said 10 people died, but a community member said 30, while our reporter counted 15.”
– Rasheed Abubakar is the publisher of Muslim News and the author of “Media Narratives of Muslims in Nigeria: Facts and Fallacies”. Twitter @rawshieldpr