Because There Is No Difference: On Bikers, Headscarves, Haka and Unity

Haka by gang members. Photo by Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty

In need of a glimmer of light, we looked to New Zealand, where in the face of a bloody cataclysm the country has risen together in extraordinary strength and grace to steadfastly proclaim, "We are one." The nationwide acts of solidarity have offered both solace to those in pain and a way forward to a country that refuses to be broken. Even as the mourning goes on apace in the aftermath of the Christchurch attack, the government has swiftly stepped up to help: They have promised to fund mental health treatment for survivors, even those without physical injuries; offered financial support, including payment for funerals, to those in need; organized a memorial ceremony for Friday; and, putting a paralyzed U.S. to shame, moved to ban assault weapons within days.

They were led in all endeavors by their exemplary Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has spoken up with heart and courage at every turn, declaring of the victims that "they are us" even as she refuses to recognize the perpetrator: "We will give him nothing, not even his name." Ardern opened the first Parliament after the attacks with the Arabic “As-Salaam-Alaikum,” or "Peace Be Unto You," and then invited an imam to lead lawmakers in prayer. Donning a headscarf in a show of solidarity, she has laid wreaths at memorials for the victims, and wept with and embraced their relatives, and visited a Muslim early childhood center owned by a critical injured victims whose son died in the attack. She ordered the first Friday prayers after the shootings to be broadcast nationally, along with a two-minute silence to be observed in honor of the victims. In her brief, solemn appearance at what became a massive outdoor gathering, she vowed, "New Zealand mourns with you. We are one."

Much of the country followed her empathetic lead. After consulting with Muslim groups, a doctor began "Headscarves for Harmony" to encourage all women to wear headscarves to support their Muslim sisters fearful of wearing hijabs in public. Muslim families held gatherings for victims' relatives and friends, cooking their loved ones' favorite foods. Groups, from students to street and biker gangs, performed stirring haka, the ancient Māori war dance to express pride, strength and unity. A human chain of love was organized to stand guard around mosques during Friday prayers; at the Jamia Masjid Mosque, the protectors included members of the Māori-dominated gang Mongrel Mob, along with Hells Angels and King Cobras. “We will support and assist our Muslim brothers and sisters for however long they need us,” said Mongrel leader Sonny Fatu; he stressed they would be peaceful and unarmed "to allow them to feel at ease." Asad Mohsin, head of the Waikato Muslim Association, thanked them and invited them to  join those at prayer, unafraid. "We want you to be inside, with us,” he said. "Our differences are the glue that hold us so tightly together."

That celebration of diversity was a common theme. At those first Friday prayers, held outside and drawing over 5,000 people, Imam Gamal Fouda praised Arden - “Thank you for holding our families close" - and called for unity. “We are brokenhearted, but we are not broken," he said. "We are alive, we are together, we are determined to not let anyone divide us.” Nearby, a non-Muslim woman tearfully said she wore a headscarf in case anyone else turned up "waving a gun." "I want him not to be able to tell the difference between me and a Muslim woman," she said. "Because there is no difference." That weekend, John Sato, a 95-year-old World War ll veteran, made the same stirring, deeply human point by laboriously taking four buses to join a rally in Aotea Square. Sato, who is Eurasian - Scottish mother, Japanese father - was one of only two Kiwi-Japanese soldiers in the army: "We all go through our furnace...and some of the things that happen to us will make us more understanding, I hope." Since the attacks he hadn't slept well, feeling "the suffering of other people," but at the protest hesaid people were "very kind." Christchurch was a tragedy, he concedes, but "look at what it brought out... People have suddenly realized we are all one. We care for each other."  

Photo by Jason Dornday, Stuff New Zealand

Ardern comforts a mourner. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

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Cooking for the community. Photo by Radio New Zealand

Mongrel Mob member offers comfort. Photo by AFP/Getty

John Sato makes his determined way. Getty Images

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