On March 15, 2019, a white supremacist walked into two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and shot and killed 50 Muslims. All over the world, vigils to mourn the dead were quickly organized to bring together communities in shock. In New York City, two NYU students, Leen Dweik and Rose Asaf, were present at a local vigil for the Muslim victims, as was Chelsea Clinton.
After the event, they spoke to her and questioned her presence and her support of Muslims in this incident, when she had previously contributed to the Islamophobia against Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Black Muslim woman in Congress, through her statements on Twitter. The two women made a connection between Islamophobia and white supremacy and how Clinton, through her words and actions, contributed to that global environment (Dweik and Asaf 2019).
The incident became a media story when a cell phone video of the encounter went viral. The focus, however, became the alleged disrespect to Chelsea Clinton rather than the critique that Dweik and Asaf were articulating (Itkowitz 2019, NYU Local 2019). They became the subject of threats and online harassment. Instead of focusing on the importance of the vigil and mourning for the victims of the terrorist attacks, the story became about ‘what happened to a white woman.’
This was, of course, not just any white woman. This was a powerful white woman, the daughter of a former US President and a former Secretary of State, even if she herself didn’t hold political office. Clinton came to represent two things, the way in which whiteness is embodied in white women and white fragility, the inability to deal with any kind of stress placed on the image of white people as inherently “good” and well-meaning (DiAngelo 2018, 2).
Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, is another powerful white woman. In the days and weeks since the terrorist attacks in Christchurch, she has undertaken a number of highly-publicized actions as part of her country’s national response to this event. She has been applauded by people all over the world, Muslims and non-Muslims, who have characterized her response as “extraordinary” and “exceptional,” in stark contrast to the Islamophobic rhetoric from most western political leaders (Gessen 2019; Hage 2019; Mitchell 2019).
Though one is the Prime Minister of New Zealand and the other is a private American citizen, both Ardern and Clinton are variations on the same theme; they are white women who embody the inherent good-ness of white people. They have both sought to support Muslims from their respective positions of white privilege in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, with varying success.
But the media focus on them illustrates a preoccupation. A political moment which should be focused on Muslims and the impact of this tragedy on them is instead about what white women are doing. It demonstrates the re-centering of whiteness in a moment that is actually about the horrific consequences of its violence for Muslims.
I am interested in this shift and what it shows about how whiteness works in relation to Muslims. In particular, I am interested in what Jacinda Ardern represents as a white woman in a position of power in a country that is a white settler society. This is not about her, how nice or genuine she is as a person or as a human being. It is about the significance of who she is, her actions and its implications for the relationship between white majorities and Muslim minorities in the western nation.
This relationship exists within a broader historical and political context of white colonial settler societies. Whiteness is implicated in the founding of the nation itself. The violence of the white supremacist who killed Muslims in Christchurch is connected to the violence of the white majorities who see themselves as the owners of the “white nation” (Hage 1998). This terrorist attack made this violence publicly visible, as part of the long history of white violence against non-whites, including indigenous, Black and racialized minorities. Thus, this attack is not divorced from history, as an exceptional moment. It is a continuation of it.
White Saviors and Exceptional Leaders
If we look at the state of Muslims across western countries (not just the in US), Islamophobia has become normalized and institutionalized as part of the policies of the state (Bayrakli and Hafez 2017). Many people, including Muslims, have been pointing this out and criticizing these policies for years, with limited success, as political and media discourses and state policies have targeted Muslims as “dangerous” in the global context of the “war on terror” (Hassan 2016; Jamil 2016).
In this global context, Ardern’s actions make her seem not only exceptional, but also exceptionally “good.” It has become so routine for political leaders across western countries to vilify Muslims, that she stands out for treating them nicely. Her visible empathy towards them, as if they are people and not stereotypes, makes her seem exceptional.
The good/bad dichotomy exists in multiple nuanced layers. While the dominant discourses about Muslims have characterized them as “bad” in relation to the white majority, this incident reversed their position. Instead of being seen as violent perpetrators, Muslims were the victims of violent Islamophobic attacks by a white man. Thus, they became “good” and their attacker became “bad.”
At the same time, the fact that this violence was carried out by a white supremacist challenged the position of white majorities as “good.” Jacinda Ardern stepped into this breach. She is the Good White Woman in contrast to the Bad White Man who killed those Muslims, to elaborate on Mamdani’s Good Muslim/Bad Muslim trope (Mamdani 2004). As the leader of the country, her actions represent a collective national response that emphasizes this “goodness” of the nation and the white majorities who constitute it. She is a redemptive figure. As a white woman, she becomes a symbolic figure of the “good” in all of “us”. She is able to be a “good white savior” to the Muslim mourners, their families and communities, as both a white woman and the Prime Minister. She embodied it through her hugs, which aimed to comfort Muslims and to hold them close, literally and symbolically.
In the aftermath of these attacks, there is an understandable desire to look for heroes and heroic actions, especially underlined by the moral innocence of the victims. Jacinda Ardern has become this s/hero. Ardern’s “goodness” as a white savior woman fills this gap, because it can be lifted up into defining and redeeming the nation in this traumatic moment.
Reframing the Nation: “You are us”
Speaking shortly after the attacks, Ardern emphasized the unity of New Zealand as a form of solidarity and support in response to the violence. This solidarity is part of a dichotomy where love as a unifying force is contrasted with – and preferred over – the divisiveness of hate and violence. Muslims are recuperated back into the nation through this focus on love and unity. Ardern expressed it in the statement “you are us” when she addressed Muslims in New Zealand.
“You are us” is spoken from the position of the white majority. It implicitly recognizes that Muslims were pushed out first, such that this move is now required. It incorporates the “you” of Muslims into the existing “us” of the nation. But as a gesture of empathy that recognizes Muslims as distinct, it should be the other way around: “we are you.” The “we”, the white majorities of the nation identify with “you” by placing ourselves into the position of the minority, the “you” of Muslims. This is a subtle difference; Ardern’s statement shifts the focus from Muslims to the nation, from the “you” of Muslims to the “us” of the nation that needs to be repaired through this process of inclusion.
The point here is not to dismiss the rhetorical and symbolic importance of unity and solidarity, nor of love as a unifying force. But, as the song goes, love is not enough. The subtle privileging of the nation in “you are us” is significant. While it seems to erase the negative aspects of difference, which in this case are associated with the hatred and violence of the attacks, it in fact maintains the centrality of white majorities as the constituents of the nation. A nation that emphasizes love continues to be the same as it always was. Ultimately, the focus on love and unity deflects attention from the violence of whiteness that constitutes the nation. The violence is reflected in these terrorist attacks on Muslims in this moment, but even when this moment is over, that violence will still exist. Thus, the question of how to repair the relationship between white majorities and Muslim minorities remains unresolved because the ontological basis for it – the construction of the nation – is not addressed.
Say their names
I have critiqued the different ways in which whiteness continues to be centered in the aftermath of the Christchurch terrorist attacks. I want to conclude by centering Muslims, the 50 who were killed and the global Muslim community that mourns them.
Naming the dead in order to pay our respects, collectively, is a ritual of commemoration and remembrance. It is also a way to affirm the lives and the humanity of Muslims, when they are often and so easily dehumanized. These attacks created a global Muslim community of mourners all over the world, who heard the news and felt the immediacy of it, the vicarious sense of being both a victim and a mourner. It had particular resonance for those in Quebec, who experienced a similar attack by a white supremacist at a mosque two years ago. Six Muslim men were killed in that shooting, and many others injured.
Just two months ago, I wrote about the importance of remembering the Muslim dead on the second anniversary of the Quebec shooting this year.
“Perhaps the bigger question is can we remember Muslims, officially, publicly, politically, in Quebec and Canada today? That would require telling a story in which Muslims are valued as Muslims when they are alive, in order to be valued when they are dead.” (Jamil 2019)
I was thinking then about the limits of the nation and the impossibility of centering Muslims in the national contexts of Quebec and Canada. I want to propose another possibility now – that perhaps centering Muslims does not require the nation at all. Perhaps it only requires Muslims.
Say their names.
Bayrakali, E. and F. Hafez, eds. (2017) European Islamophobia Report 2017. Ankara, Washington DC and Cairo: SETA, Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research. http://www.islamophobiaeurope.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/EIR_2017.pdf Accessed March 26, 2019.
DiAngelo, R. (2018) White Fragility. Boston: Beacon Press.
Dweik, L. and Assaf, R. (2019) “Here’s why we confronted Chelsea Clinton at the Christchurch Vigil.” March 16. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/leendweik/why-we-confronted-chelsea-clinton Accessed March 29, 2019.
Gessen, M. (2019) “Jacinda Ardern has rewritten the script for how a nation grieves after a terrorist attacks.” New Yorker. March 22. https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/jacinda-ardern-has-rewritten-the-script-for-how-a-nation-grieves-after-a-terrorist-attack Accessed March 29, 2019.
Hage, G. (2019) “You can’t copy love: why other politicians fall short of Jacinda Ardern.” Guardian. March 26. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/26/the-difficult-love-of-jacinda-ardern-cannot-be-easily-emulated-not-by-white-australian-culture-loving-itself?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other Accessed March 29, 2019.
Hage, G. (1998) White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. Sydney, Australia: Pluto Press.
Hassan, M. (2016) Public Enemy Series: Episodes 1-4. Radio New Zealand. https://www.radionz.co.nz/programmes/public-enemy/story/201826249/public-enemy-episode-1 Accessed March 29, 2019.
Itkowitz, C. (2019) “Students at center of viral Chelsea Clinton video at New Zealand vigil speak out.” Washington Post. March 17. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/03/16/new-zealand-vigil-chelsea-clinton-confronted-over-her-criticism-rep-ilhan-omar/?utm_term=.dd5adabb420e Accessed March 29, 2019.
Jamil, U. (2016) “The War on Terror in Canada: Securitizing Muslims.” Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2 (November), pp. 105-110.
Jamil, U. (2019) “Remembering is a Political Act.” ReOrient. January 22.
https://www.criticalmuslimstudies.co.uk/remembering-is-a-political-act/ Accessed March 30, 2019.
Mamdani, M. (2004) Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books.
Mitchell, S. (2019) “International petition pushes for Jacinda Ardern to get Nobel peace prize.”
NYU Local. (2019) “NYU Activists Harassed Online after confronting Chelsea Clinton at Christchurch Vigil.” March 15. https://nyulocal.com/nyu-community-unites-holds-vigil-after-christchurch-terrorist-attacks-1e20924a95b1 Accessed March 29, 2019.