Literal fake news is fuelling attempts to divide New Zealand’s religious communities, writes Aaron Hendry, an Auckland youth worker and Christian.
In the wake of Friday’s horrific attack there is no doubt that New Zealand has changed. But perhaps one of the most welcome changes to emerge from the shock and horror is the overwhelming show of support and interfaith unity which has taken place over the last week.
Following Friday’s tragedy, we saw the New Zealand Jewish community close their synagogues on Shabbat as a sign of solidarity with their Muslim whanau.
On Wednesday, representatives from various faiths joined together in unity to offer their prayers in parliament.
And across New Zealand, churches have opened their doors in invitation, joining their Muslim brethren in grief and prayer. Ponsonby’s Sacred Heart church welcomed their Muslim neighbours to worship alongside them, and countless other Christian communities have reached out to their Muslim whanau with offers of service and support.
Yet, amidst this beautiful out pouring of kotahitanga, there have been attempts to further divide and halt the growing unity between the faiths.
Following Friday’s attack, rumours are circulating that seek to take attention away from the events in Christchurch, pointing to alleged Christian persecution abroad at the hands of Islamic terrorists.
The story that is being spun is that the media is ignoring these atrocities against Christians abroad, while painting Muslims in a sympathetic light here at home.
One such story which has been doing the rounds is that in the days prior to March 15th a group of Islamic extremists attacked and killed Christian worshippers in the Philippines, slaying 30.
There are claims that the massacre was ignored in light of Christchurch, and pointed to as proof of “Christian persecution” here in the West.
However, this was quickly fact-checked by Snopes who, after investigating, reported that 20, not 30, people had been killed, and that the event had occurred in January, not March. On top of this, the claim that the media was ignoring the killings was completely false, as the massacre had indeed been reported at the time.
A second story that has been circulating regards an alleged “Christian genocide” which is “currently” taking pace in Nigeria. The story was propagated by the right-wing website Brietbart which claimed that over a three-week period in late February and early March, upwards of 120 Christians had been killed by Muslim extremists. Snopes also investigated this allegation and found that although the numbers of deaths reported was likely accurate, the Nigerian conflict is not really a religious at all: it has a lot more to do with resources and conflict surrounding land usage than it does with faith. Brietbart also failed to report that while the killing had been carried out by a group associated with the Muslim faith, in February an equally heinous atrocity had taken place resulting in the death of the largely Muslim Fula community at the hands of Christians.
It is no coincidence that these stories have begun to be circulated at a time when our Muslim whanau are receiving some much-deserved sympathy and aroha from the New Zealand media and wider public.
These narratives are designed to cause division and drive a wedge between the Christian and Muslim communities. They are an attempt to prey on people’s fears and recast the Muslim community in the role of the villain.
Those who share these stories have bought into the lie that the Muslim community is to be feared. That ultimately the true face of Islam is ISIS, and that to forget this is to risk the safety of European culture and civilization.
It’s a narrative that attempts to hark back to the crusades, one which calls on the white man to “defend his lands” because eventually “they” will come for us. Our religious faiths are placed in the context of an ancient war, where the Christians are the righteous, white defenders of European culture and the Muslims are coming to take your land, your house, and all you hold dear.
It is a narrative which feeds into the false idea that Christians are persecuted and discriminated against, while Muslims and other religious groups are encouraged and celebrated.
This narrative is divisive and dangerous.
It is the same narrative that is pushed by white supremacists.
It is exactly the story the terrorist wanted told.
And those who have brought into it by propagating these lies have assisted the terrorist in spreading his message of division and hate.
For a long time, we have been told that Muslims are the enemy. Now we realise how how wrong we were.
Our Muslim Kiwis are whanau, colleagues, local doctors, police officers, business owners, friends. They are us.
They are not our enemies, and the narrative that says that they are is long due to be put out to pasture.
The events of Friday 15th should serve as reminder for us all of the dangers of buying into such toxic and ignorant rhetoric.
If we are to realise the dream cast for us by our tupuna at the signing of our treaty – of one nation, joined in unity – we must defend the kotahitanga we have fostered over the last week.
In times of fear, uncertainty and doubt, it is easy to grasp hold of old narratives that are familiar to us.
But this is not a time to fall back on old stories founded on hate and fear. Instead, as our prime minister has modelled for us, this is a time a time to hold onto love, and strive above all to place compassion at the centre of who we are.