As Jacinda Ardern walked up to the microphone, the weight of the world seemed to fall squarely on her shoulders.
“Asalamu alaikum!” New Zealand’s prime minister uttered the universal Islamic greeting with grace and familiarity in front of thousands of mourners in attendance and millions more glued to TV screens. At this very moment, exactly one week after 50 of her countrymen and women were massacred, she didn’t push Islam to the margins and away from the cameras, but deliberately chose to bring it alongside her for the whole world to see.
She collected her breath, paused while everybody waited for her subsequent words and then read a saying of Prophet Muhammad.
“According to Prophet Muhammad – salla Allahu alayhi wa salaam (peace be upon him) – the believers in their mutual kindness, compassion and sympathy are just like one body. When any part of the body suffers, the whole body feels pain,” she said. “New Zealand mourns with you, we are one.”
Her message was clear. Islam is neither the “other” nor the “invader“. Islam is New Zealand and those adhering to it, departed or alive, are at home in this country.
Over the previous week, Ardern had donned a hijab while grieving alongside mourning families, listened attentively while attending recovering mosques, and most potently, repeated and repeated the names of the 50 Muslim victims.
She had refused to utter the terrorist’s name, stating: “He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”
Clad in a hijab, a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion, and a traditional black gown, Prime Minister Ardern chose to shine a light on Islam – for all the world to see – precisely 168 hours after a “white supremacist” shot worshippers in two mosques.
“We are one,” she closed, echoing the message of the prophet. Then walked to join the rest of the gathering in Christchurch to listen to the adhan – the Islamic call to prayer – broadcast live throughout the entire country.
It was powerful, sublime, muscular and unapologetic. It was an unprecedented gesture on a stage of such magnitude and more importantly, it was far more than mere symbolism or political bluster.
The sincerity streamed from a place of empathy – empathy that absorbed the full violence of Islamophobia – which for her and the whole country, unfolded in real time and right before their eyes.
The massacres at Al Noor and Linwood mosques highlighted the reach and realness of that evil. It also revealed its relationship to the loaded rhetoric unleashed by political populists, most notably America’s Donald Trump and France’s Marine Le Pen, whose brazen demonisation of Islam and its adherents, have been arming white supremacist ideologies and equipping them with ammunition. After the Christchurch attack, it became crystal clear that xenophobic populism, and the Islamophobia it wields, is not empty rhetoric or a distant phenomenon. It is an enemy within.
The shock of the massacre comes at a time when western democracies are being reshaped in line with the image of xenophobic and white supremacist populism. This process has pushed for the imposition of veil and Muslim travel bans, mounting surveillance, and restrictions on public calls to prayer – all policies, which the Christchurch terrorist claimed as inspirations.
On March 15, New Zealand and its prime minister came to understand how these policies radicalise terrorists like him and what the risks are of following in Europe and the United States‘s supremacist spiral.
In the aftermath of New Zealand’s deadliest attack, Ardern turned away from this global Islamophobic tide. Instead, she embraced everything that the West has come to hate: the headscarf, the religion which it symbolises and its final messenger and prophet. As her country stood silent and the whole world was watching, the call to prayer rang and reverberated as a decisive blow to the politics of Islamophobia gripping governments across the globe.
This wasn’t political posturing. It was personal. Fifty New Zealanders, 50 of Ardern’s people, were murdered only miles away from where she donned the hijab so gracefully, quoted the prophet so eloquently and listened to the Islamic prayer so honourably.
In the turbulence of the attack aftermath, Ardern was shaping a new model of engagement with Islam for her people to follow, and with the attention of the world locked in on New Zealand, challenged the reign of global Islamophobia. This new model does not espouse religion as a marker of difference, but rather – in the words of black feminist Audre Lorde – as an item to be recognised and celebrated.
This was more than just a tribute. It was a transformative precedent for the world to see and learn from. As the adhan rang through the streets of Christchurch, it was clear for the whole world, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, that Ardern had answered the call to confront – both in walk and word – the Islamophobia that had ravaged her country and claimed the lives of 50 of her people.
Today, I am a New Zealander.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.