A Call to Prayer for Peace and Freedom

A Call to Prayer for Peace and Freedom

The Christchurch, New Zealand Shootings—full text of speech delivered at United for Human Rights’ Stand Together

Dr. Arik Greenberg

March 30, 2019 (at the Lebanon Theater, Church of Scientology, Los Angeles) Unabridged, original version of speech.

Brenton Tarrant, a 28 year old Australian national, shall forever be known as the perpetrator of the Christchurch, New Zealand, Islamic mosque shootings. A white nationalist who worked as a personal trainer at a local gym near Sydney, Australia,[1] he lost his father in 2011 and took most of his inheritance and used it to travel widely in Europe, visiting places that had significance to his growing white nationalist ideology, and becoming radicalized during his travels.  Notably, visiting France, he said he observed an “invasion” of immigrants, a perception which seemed to fuel his nascent xenophobic attitudes. Australian prime minister Scott Morrison commented that Tarrant expressed admiration for other violent white nationalists and conveyed his intent to “create an atmosphere of fear” and to “incite violence” against Muslims.[2] In the time leading up to the attacks, Tarrant had mailed his 73 page white nationalist and Islamophobic manifesto to numerous recipients, including the prime minister’s office, numerous media outlets, and shared links all over social media. This man was not to be trusted, but while he was not a known violent criminal, some have questioned why the authorities did not have Tarrant on some kind of terrorist watch list, nor were they aware of the threat he posed.[3]

On Friday, March 15, 2019, Tarrant drove in his vehicle to the Al Noor Mosque in a suburb on the west side of Christchurch, New Zealand, knowing that the Friday prayer would yield the largest number of victims of his terror.  Tarrant used a live stream on Facebook to broadcast the attacks, as if he were sharing with the world what he thought would be his vindication as a hero of the white race, and in the process, he played numerous military songs and several white nationalist anthems, to accompany his deadly rampage.  At 1:40 PM, as he walked up to the mosque, with what appears in videos to be a shotgun in his hands at the ready position, he is greeted by a member of the mosque, Haji-Daoud Nabi, a 71 year old man, who said in his final moment of life, “Hello, Brother, welcome.”

We cannot know if this man did not see the weapon and was merely doing his job as a greeter, or if he indeed saw the weapon and chose to face his death with the sentiment of love that the greatest prophets of the Abrahamic tradition have imparted to us.

Perhaps it was that this man wished to be remembered as imparting love to his attacker, rather than anger.  We cannot know this for sure, but his words stand as a stark contrast to the negative image of Muslims that Tarrant had in his head as he approached the mosque with deadly intent, echoing white nationalist Milo Yannopoulos’ claims that Islam was “barbaric.” Between three and five hundred people were in attendance that day, and their lives were forever changed by Tarrant’s violent actions, spawned and encouraged by other identitarians like Yannopoulos and Richard Spencer. 

Tarrant entered the mosque and shot indiscriminately at people, including old men, women, and little children. He spent several minutes inside of the mosque, exiting when he was out of ammunition, going back to his vehicle to retrieve another weapon, and re-entering the mosque to continue his bloodbath. During the attack, Naeem Rashid, a worshiper, attempted to charge Tarrant but was shot in the process. Thus, the first of two known heroes who attempted that day to stop the deadly attack.

Although he lost his life, perhaps Rashid’s actions distracted Tarrant for a moment and allowed others to escape.

But Tarrant continued his shooting, standing over those he had already wounded and shooting them to be sure that he ended their lives—to be sure that there were no survivors. As he exited the mosque, he shot and killed a woman whom he encountered along the pathway, pleading for mercy.  In all, 47 people died that day at the Al Noor Mosque. 

As Tarrant returned to his vehicle, he again played music to inspire his further carnage. He then drove to the Linwood Mosque, on the other side of the city, to the east, to continue the brutality.[5]  Whatever we may discover about Tarrant and those who might have assisted him, it does appear that he had prepared extensively for this and that his lethality was his own.  And so at 1:55 PM, the second barrage of gunfire began. Initially, Tarrant was unable to find the door into the mosque, and he began shooting through windows, perhaps giving the worshippers enough time to recognize what was happening and to hide.  At the Linwood mosque, a worshipper named Abdul Aziz Wahabzadah, a former refugee from Afghanistan, is credited with stopping the attack.

A father of four, Wahabzadah was worshipping with his children that day. Upon hearing the first shots and recognizing that the mosque was under attack, he picked up a credit-card reader and ran at Tarrant, hoping to distract him and prevent him from entering the mosque. Wahabzadah threw the credit-card reader at the intruder and hit him, after which Tarrant went back to the parking lot and began shooting at Wahabzadah, but was unable to get a bead on him as the worshipper ducked between a fence and nearby cars.  Wahabzadah retrieved a discarded shotgun that Tarrant had dropped and attempted to fire it at him, but it proved to be empty. Ultimately, he threw it at Tarrant’s vehicle, shattering the windshield and startling the attacker so that he drove away.[6] Wahabzadah was the second hero of the day, whose actions may have saved many lives, and whose quick thinking shows that bullies can in fact be overpowered or distracted, allowing others to escape harm. It is intriguing to note that he had emigrated from Australia just two years earlier, in order to escape the racism that he experienced there, having already fled the unrest in his birthplace of Afghanistan.  Seven people died at the Linwood mosque attack, and one person later died in hospital.

Many more might have died if not for Wahabzadah’s bravery. 

As Tarrant drove his vehicle away, back in the direction of the first mosque, the police were able to ram his car and stop him at a point halfway between the two locations.  After he was arrested, two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns, and a lever-action firearm were found at the scene.  

In all 50 people were killed between the two mosques. The oldest victim was 77 years old.  The youngest was 3.  In addition, 50 more people were injured in the attacks, many of whom have been treated for their wounds in hospital, some in very serious condition.  Among them was a 4-year-old girl in critical condition. Any of these people could have been our grandparents, our children, our neighbors, our own loved ones, ourselves.  Two heroes have emerged from the fray, confirmed by eyewitnesses and survivors. One lost his life, the other retained it. There may have been others who in their moments of agony and fear did heroic things, and we may never know, due to the eyewitnesses being dead.  But it is crucial that we remember the actions of those like Naeem Rashid, who later died of his injuries; and Abdul Aziz Wahabzadah, who lived to tell the tale, and to reject the title of hero, preferring to shift the credit to God; and even Haji-Daoud Nabi, the now deceased greeter at the Al Noor Mosque.  Blessings upon their souls.  May the rest of us be so brave and act with such selfless resolve, if we are ever confronted with such imminent evil.  

In the days following the attacks, NZ authorities advised mosques to shutter their doors and encourage their worshippers to stay at home until things could be considered safe for them.  During this time, several people were in police custody for potential connections to the attack, but at this time, it appears that Tarrant was the only shooter.  Since then, the Austrian government has confirmed connections between Tarrant and far-right identitarian groups in Austria.[7]  And a French Muslim group has filed a lawsuit for permitting Tarrant to live broadcast his deadly rampage.[8]

Friends, we have a problem here.  

In the past weeks, people from both sides of the political spectrum have tried try to capitalize upon this tragedy and to place blame in the laps of their already existent political adversaries; to use it as a politically expedient device or tool of partisan one-upmanship.  Some have insisted that NZ’s choice to ban all semiautomatic firearms should be the natural choice for the US and everywhere else, jumping on the bandwagon of old political tropes that are raised every time there is a handy opportunity.  Or, as soon as one member of the Islamic community of NZ seemed to blame Jews and Israel for the attacks, stating that “Mousad was behind this,”—a preposterously anti-Semitic reaction—the conservative media in the U.S. began proclaiming that “now New Zealand is blaming the Jews”, as if it were all of NZ speaking, or all Muslims.[9] 

But some, in particular, have sought to counter the claims of rampant Islamophobic violence by highlighting every instance around the globe in which Christians are being killed by Muslims, as if to say, “See? There is a global conspiracy against Christians, and the world’s Muslims are behind it.”

This was on the coattails of several conservative Christian media deliberately misconstruing the results of last year’s Pew Research to support their grand narrative that “Christians remain the most persecuted religious group in the world.”[10] And of course, valid complaints exist against actual forms of oppression and violence, but when leveled as a distraction against other valid complaints, their motive becomes suspect. Many commentators have chosen not to pay attention to the very dangerous connections that have been made between mainstream conservatives and the far-right hyper-nationalist and identitarian groups, the so-called “alt-right”, which has sought to normalize itself, to make the KKK and Neo-Nazis en vogue again, by aligning themselves with traditional conservative values—as if fascism, racism, and genocide were the natural outgrowth of traditional conservatism—the logical result of fiscal conservatism, and a desire for limited government intervention in private affairs.

Friends, this is not the time for political division and re-entrenchment in our little enclaves, using this tragedy as a reason not to change, not to grow. What we are seeing here is a falling back on tribalistic thinking. Vendetta based thinking.Where revenge is taken out against a whole group, as if the whole group is represented by any given member of their party. “Your people did something to my people, so I am justified in doing something against your people.”  

Friends, we are a planet of people who are more alike than we are different. The differences that we carry are what make us beautiful and unique. But the similarities are what urge our entire species toward mutual compassion and respect.

Racism and the violence that flows out of it; Religious chauvinism and the violence that grows out of it, any kind of hyper-nationalism or ethnic-based subjugation and the potential genocide that are the result—have no place in our modern world. These are things of the past and we must recognize them for what they are: cavemen sitting on opposite sides of a mountain decrying the quality of the rocks on the other side of that mountain.  My rocks are better than your rocks!  And I’m going to kill you over them! 

We may not agree on our concept of the Divine, God, our higher power, or the existence or non-existence of one, or the idea of the sublime reality.  But we have a responsibility to think of each other as fellows, as siblings in something larger than ourselves.  It is as if one skin cell on my right arm were to decry the existence of one skin cell on the other arm, and to wage war against it, not recognizing that it is part of the same organism.  You know what that is called in human medicine?

Cancer.  And that is exactly what hatred and intolerance are—cancer!

They are a cancer upon our species.  And we must do everything to stamp it out.  Because it is killing our species.

Jesus said to love your enemies.  How radical is that?  He didn’t say love your enemies, except the ones that think like this or that.  He said, without qualification, without exception, to

LOVE. YOUR. ENEMIES. Simple as that.

That is a truly radical thought, and I think that most people on this planet have a long way to go to accomplish that.  But it doesn’t exempt us from trying, from really trying.  And I want to bring your attention to Farid Ahmed, the surviving husband of one of the woman killed in Christchuch. He states that he forgives his wife’s murderer. That he didn’t want his heart to be boiling like a volcano.  That is love.  Brave love.  To forgive the person who killed the person you loved the most in this world.[11]   

In 2017, the Elijah Interfaith Institute sponsored a collaborative project with Twitter in which numerous major faith leaders from the world’s religions made a call to the world to reach out to people of other faiths and see God in them, make friends with them, make peace with them.  Reported in the periodical, Christianity Today, the 3 minute video of the project features Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew I, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Dalai Lama, and many others.[12] Already from two years ago, this is old news, but it is never more salient than today.  

The World’s Most Prominent Religious Leaders Call On Everyone To Make Friends Across Religions

With this in mind, I want to invite you to an important upcoming event. In 2016, the Institute for Religious Tolerance, Peace and Justice, which I represent, launched the first annual Interfaith Solidarity March, here in L.A. Since that time, we have led four marches in Southern California, including franchising a sister march in the San Fernando Valley. In 2018, we were contacted by an international coalition of interfaith marches, the Interfaith March for Peace and Justice, which was looking for a new corporate home.  Having partnered with them, we are now the umbrella group of what may become the largest coalition of interfaith marches in the world. In 2018, our coalition marched simultaneously in a dozen cities across the U.S., and at least two abroad. In 2019, we are slated to have no fewer than two dozen sister marches across the globe, coordinated simultaneously for Sunday, September 22, International Day of Peace.

In order to successfully carry off such a momentous task, we need your help. We need volunteers to help coordinate the L.A. march, as well as the global planning committee.  We need sponsors, and we need people to spread the word.  When tragedies like the Christchurch shootings happen, we often look to the next event to help rebuild and prevent the next tragedy.  It is my sincere hope that no such thing ever happens again, but the likelihood is that our species has not matured that far just yet. We are going to have to work a lot harder. 

And so the 2019 Interfaith March for Peace and Justice will be there to help spread the word of tolerance and friendship. 

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Yes, maybe there are some laws that can be enacted right now to curb violence.  Maybe these involve tightening firearms regulations, maybe they involve tightening control of weaponized social media, or aspects of terrorism and extremism that are being manipulated by various nation-states to exert control over others. These will have to be decided by each country. But the problem is deeper than that—than adjusting a few laws.

We all have a job right now, and that is to make sure that the root cause of this division and unrest is stamped out.  That hatred and racism and religious chauvinism are deconstructed and the component parts are put back into their original boxes and put away on a shelf in an archive where historians and scholars can study them as things of the past.  Things we no longer need or want.  Things that we have outgrown. 

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