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The Christchurch Attack: A View from Iraq

Article – Garth Whitty

As a Christchurch born New Zealander I was shocked and saddened by the mass killings which took place in Christchurch last Friday. It was not that a terrorist attack took place in New Zealand, my engagement in forty years of global counter terrorism …

As a Christchurch born New Zealander I was shocked and saddened by the mass killings which took place in Christchurch last Friday. It was not that a terrorist attack took place in New Zealand, my engagement in forty years of global counter terrorism has meant that little surprises me, but that the victims would be Muslims during their Friday prayers and that Christchurch should suffer a second major disaster within a decade.

I like millions worldwide have been following events via television and the internet, have taken pride in the stories of heroism by victims and first responders, the strength, determination and compassion of our Prime Minister and the solidarity of support for New Zealand’s Muslim minority.

After such a horrific incident it is inevitable that there will be questions asked, reviews undertaken and changes made but while this is a necessary element of recovery and future risk reduction it should be neither rushed nor emotion led. It is critical too that the Australian Government undertakes parallel reviews to maximize the value of putting our own house in order.

Sixteen years of living and working in Iraq has taught me much about both Islam and the depth of ignorance amongst non adherents of the faith. It may come as a surprise that Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel are all revered in Islam. That the Islamic Golden Age from the 8th to the 14th centuries introduced such mainstream elements of our society as law, healthcare, engineering, mathematics and ornamental gardens and that it was a precursor to the European Renaissance.

Islam is not a united faith but as diverse as Christianity with followers of numerous interpretations, sects and sub-sects frequently in conflict with one another. The most obvious example of which is the ongoing battle between followers of Sunni and Shi’a Islam which mirrors the centuries of violence between Europe’s Roman Catholics and Protestants. Most Muslims want the same things from life as non Muslims – safety, security and a good standard of living for their families. Many of the characteristics and practices of Muslims that may be seen as strange or in some cases abhorrent to non Muslims are frequently neither uniquely Islamic nor common to all Muslims but have regional rather than religious origins.

Nevertheless we should not ignore the fact that a substantial proportion of global terrorist attacks are undertaken by Islamic Extremists while also acknowledging that the main victims of such attacks are other Muslims and that there are many brave and progressive followers of the faith including clerics waging physical and intellectual war on the extremists.

So what is the difference between an Islamic Extremist and a White Supremacist, the answer is very little particularly if we narrow down the former to Western ISIS volunteers. Exclusion, disenfranchisement, trauma, personality disorders, the desire for fame/infamy and power over others are all contributing factors; a detailed knowledge of the religion or a political philosophy are not key requirements and are frequently absent.

We have already heard calls for changes to New Zealand’s Gun Laws which is sensible and will make it more difficult for terrorists and other criminals to obtain semi automatic weapons. While the absence of Brenton Tarrant from a ‘watch list’ has been challenged it is difficult to assess as to whether his inclusion would have prevented the attacks. There are likely to be a number of individuals on the NZSIS Watch List but this does not mean that such individuals are placed under 24/7 surveillance as to do so would be prohibitively expensive and if Tarrant acted alone, as seems the case, there would be no electronic chatter to monitor. For all the sophistication and huge budgets of Western intelligence agencies neither 9/11 nor London’s 7/7 attacks were foreseen.

It has been articulated that warnings were given by the Muslim Community in the face of a rise in Islamaphobia that they feared an attack but in a target rich environment – mosques, community centres, business premises, family homes, social functions within and beyond Christchurch – and in the absence of a specific threat the Police Service is not resourced to the extent of having armed personnel deployed for an indeterminate period. An article posited the change of name for the Canterbury Crusaders and while it is true that the Crusades have an historical connotation of violence against Muslims – the Crusaders also killed tens of thousands of Byzantine Christians and Jews – the term has evolved to suggest overcoming an opponent or risk. We have experienced anti smoking crusades and anti drug crusades the latter led by a drug Tzar, before 1917 a title reserved for the Russian Emperor. As New Zealanders we often refer to our country as paradise, a term that has a very different meaning in Islam.

Sadly not everyone will be appalled by the events of 3/15; White Supremacists will hail the carnage as a great victory, Islamic Extremists will use it as justification for their own violent activities. Further attacks from either ideology cannot be ruled out but solidarity, courage and tolerance will prevail in New Zealand as it has elsewhere. As I write I am reminded that within a couple of hours drive a force of predominantly Sunni Muslim Kurds supported by Christian, Yazidi and other fighters backed by Western Special Forces and AirPower are on the verge of the final destruction of the ISIS Caliphate; what finer example of people coming together to overcome a threat to a society’s diversity.


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