Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 151, 26 August 2020

New Zealand: Gunman behind the Christchurch mosque shooting sentenced to life without parole 
Sourina Bej

In the news 
On 27 August, in a trial that lasted for three days, the gunman who pleaded guilty in orchestrating the terrorist attack on two mosques in New Zealand was awarded life sentence without parole. The sentencing of Brenton Tarrant, an Australian, comes a year after the shootings on 15 March. He became the first person in the history of New Zealand to be imprisoned for life without parole in a terrorist attack. On the fateful day, he drove to the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, entered the building, murdered 51 Muslims with semi-automatic guns and streamed the shooting live on Facebook. 

Issues at large 
First, the trial opens the space for reconciliation. The Muslim community has become a vulnerable minority in New Zealand, at a time when migration has led to a global debate on the status of immigrants. In New Zealand, immigrant groups from the Sikh to Muslim reside, but their integration into the multi-ethnic spirit of the country is unachieved. This trial is a step towards recognizing this exclusion and opening a space where the group can come together to get answers for the brutality on them. 

Second, the trial in and of New Zealand. The question of reconciliation will be fulfilled when a strong leader conveys the verdict in an acceptable form to the whole community. Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has been able to achieve it by showing her empathy and solidarity. However, the legal proceedings are less about political statements and more about technical adherence. The gunman has shown no remorse, and the victims seek repentance for the act. The trial has been watched by the rest of the world on how home-grown radical white terrorist is put on trial. It will be hard to ignore a consequence on whether his words will similarly inspire another lone wolf attack in another part of the world. 

Third, the transnational character of white extremism. The impact of the trial is significant in the context of the transnational character of white extremism in liberal democratic countries. The killer was radicalized while travelling in Britain and Australia's anti-immigrant sentiment also shaped his extreme view. The gunman's theory that all immigrants are invaders and all immigrants are distorting the European culture resonates with many lone terror attackers in London, Germany and Canada. The European migration crisis has added to this deep-rooted anti-racist view. And as a majority of Muslim refugees entered Europe from MENA, it further led to the belief that all immigrants are Muslim and thus invaders. The trial will not be an internal affair of the country and will have transnational consequences, just like the cause of radicalization. 

In perspective 
First, learning lesson for both the state and the other lone-wolf attackers. For the Western democratic countries countering white extremism, the sentencing brings in a socio-political message in which the minority group has been given a scope for representation. However, both right-wing extremists and Islamist networks could interpret the life sentence as an act of valour by a man who stood by his message. 

Second, the sentence can open space for more discontent among anti-immigrant believers. The reconciliation for one group will lead to discontent among another group. The anti-immigrant sentiment is shared by a large population in New Zealand and in the rest of Europe. It has to be seen whether the trial of Tarrant will be seen differently. This has to be avoided.

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