Explainer: Christchurch mosque massacre

Image credit: Michal Klajban CCLicense

By Lianne Kolirin, 24 August 2020

A white supremacist who murdered 51 people in two mosques in New Zealand last year has appeared in court for sentencing. On the first day of the hearing, he watched without showing emotion as families of the victims told of their horror.

Brenton Tarrant, an Australian national, has pleaded guilty to the killings, as well as 40 attempted murders and one charge of terrorism. He livestreamed the first shooting on Facebook.

Prosecutors say Tarrant, then 28, planned the murders to cause maximum carnage during Friday prayers. He first attacked the Al Noor mosque, before moving on to the Linwood mosque. He had planned a third attack on a mosque in Ashburton.

According to the Pew Research Center, New Zealand’s Muslim population is small but growing in a country where people largely accept religious minorities and immigrants. At present, the think tank said, they make up about one per cent of the country’s five million people.

Writing last year, Pew said: “However, while this group is expected to remain small, it is growing, mostly due to immigration as well as to their relatively young median age and higher fertility rate than the general population.

“Muslims are expected to make up about three per cent of New Zealand’s population by 2050.”

Muslims have been in the country for about 150 years, but most have come more recently as migrants and refugees. Victims of the attack came from many countries — including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Syria — some having been born in New Zealand and others immigrants decades ago.

New Zealand has some of the lowest levels of government restrictions on religion in the world, with a score in 2016 of 0.48 out of 10 on Pew’s Government Restrictions Index. In addition, Pew research shows that the country has mostly low levels of religion-related social hostilities, with cases of religiously motivated violence relatively rare.

However, some say New Zealand is not quite the peaceful idyll it is often portrayed.

Paul Spoonley, a sociologist who specialises in the far right and hate speech, told CNN last year that the country had been “sleepwalking a little”. He said: “We haven’t really listened to the people who are the victims of racism.”

In 2018, when Spoonley chaired a group of government departments and non-governmental organisations looking into hate speech, CNN reported, he found the country had a “permissive” environment towards hate speech, with a large volume of Islamophobia on New Zealand websites.

Within days of Tarrant’s attack on 15 March, the country’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, won praise for introducing tough gun laws.

Spoonley believes there has been a shift in New Zealanders’ awareness of the Muslim community. “I think most people wouldn’t have understood either that we had an important Muslim community in our midst, or that we had extremist terrorists who were prepared to articulate and to attack on the basis of extremist views,” he said. “We were very complacent on both scores.”














Paul Spoonley,  research fellow of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. (+49) 551 4956 – 246

Pew Research Centre (+1) 202-419-4372

Anjum Rahman from the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand, who repeatedly warned of terror attacks. iwcnz@gmail.co.nz  00-64-(021) 236 9254 muslimdirectory.co.nz/muslim-womens-support-groups-charities/