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As I See It: Standing together against discrimination in wake of NZ terror attack

A white woman, foreground, hugs a Muslim woman, after a shooting attack at a mosque in Christchurch, in New Zealand's South Island, on March 19, 2019. (Mainichi/Shizuya Fukuoka)

I recently traveled to the city of Christchurch in New Zealand's South Island after the March 15 massacre of 50 people at two mosques in the city. The attacker, who had obtained several firearms, is believed to have been motivated by white supremacy and extremism.

New Zealand is said to be tolerant toward immigrants, but even in this peaceful country, I felt the influence of hate speech seeping through social media. I wondered how we could counter the spread of discrimination.

-- A country that accepts diversity

When I was a student, I lived in Auckland, in New Zealand's North Island, from 2000 to 2001. My dorm roommates were from New Zealand and China. I got on well with people from Taiwan and from Iraq and Germany, too. There were many immigrants there of Chinese and Indian descent. Neither I nor the people around me experienced any discrimination. New Zealand gave us the impression that it was an easy place for foreigners to live. So my heart was heavy as I traveled to this country I fondly remembered to cover the tragic mosque shootings.

Near Al Noor Mosque, the first target of the terrorist attacks, residents of Christchurch lined up holding flowers to place at the scene. I also laid flowers there and said a prayer for the victims. It was difficult for me to listen to the gruesome accounts from people who were at the mosque at the time of the shooting, and anger welled up inside me against the suspect. Many residents, including immigrants, were united in their view that New Zealand is a country that accepts people from different religions and cultures. Some pointed out that the suspect was from Australia, and there were no people like him in New Zealand. As I continued my reporting, however, I encountered differing views.

Roseanne Taurima, 33, said that one day when she was working for a clothing retailer in Christchurch seven years ago, a young man came in wearing a T-shirt bearing a white supremacist slogan. Around that time, demonstrations had been held in New Zealand by white supremacist groups, attracting social attention. When Taurima told the man, "Get out of here," he shrugged his shoulders and left the store, she said.

In 2017, many flyers calling to expel immigrants were handed out in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, calling for a return of land from them. Qais Azimi, a 33-year-old resident from Afghanistan who has been living in New Zealand since 2000, said that after social media started to become popular, "disgusting ideas" spread. He said he felt more and more exclusionary ideas such as white supremacy had been seen since Donald Trump became president of the United States.

One 64-year-old man from Iraq remembers someone presenting a mark used by white supremacists to him. "Ninety-nine percent of NZ people are good and kind people, but some are f------ racist," he said. He said he thinks that without new legislation, hate and racism will only worsen, and that a new law is needed.

It appears that white supremacism, which has spread in some parts of Europe and North America, has had a degree of influence in New Zealand, too, through social media. But even if measures against hate speech were stepped up, it would be practically impossible to crack down on or delete all racist claims emanating from various countries across the world through social media.

-- Overcoming differences to embrace each other

The mosque shootings compel us to consider serious issues accompanying the development of social networking services (SNS) as a form of information transmission technology. One distinctive feature of the March 15 attacks was that the perpetrator livestreamed his assault over social media.

I believe social media can be used as an effective tool to build a better society. For example, the plea from a young girl in Sweden to end global warming spread across the world through SNS. But at the same time, the platform of SNS is becoming a tool to spread malice.

The New Zealand government has toughened firearms legislation in the wake of the attacks. It will probably also beef up security measures. But as long as malice continues to spread through SNS and other means, society will always be seated in a dangerous position. For people in Japan, this is not simply another party's problem. Japan recently revised its immigration laws to boost the number of foreign workers in the country. We cannot guarantee that crimes spurred by racism and other such causes will never occur in Japan.

What provided relief in New Zealand was the solidarity that residents across the country showed right after the terrorist attack. Across Christchurch, people were seen giving Muslims hugs of support regardless of their race or creed.

I saw Margaret Ross, a 78-year-old resident who is a Christian, giving a Muslim woman a hug.

"I wanted to cheer her up. Religion, race -- these have nothing to do with it," Ross said.

For several days after the attacks, New Zealanders of Maori ancestry -- the country's indigenous people -- performed the haka, a ceremonial dance, near the sites of the deadly shootings. The performances served as a sign of solidarity and a tribute to the victims.

The global proliferation of racism through SNS will probably continue in the future. I keenly felt that to stand against this, it is important for people to band together and connect with one another, transcending differences between religion and race to adamantly state, "We will never allow discrimination."

In Christchurch on Feb. 22, 2019, a deadly earthquake struck the city. The quake, which came just 17 days before the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, claimed the lives of 185 people, including 28 Japanese nationals. The terrorist attack occurred amid the city's steady recovery from this natural disaster. One 30-year-old man who identified himself as Peter hugged Muslims one after another after performing a haka for victims of the terrorist attack. He said that people had stood together after the huge earthquake, and added, "The more the challenges, the more we unite."

I'm sure that, true to these words, Christchurch and the rest of New Zealand will build a respectful society where anyone can easily live.

(By Shizuya Fukuoka, Taipei Bureau)

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