COMMENT

When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced there would be gun law reforms within 24 hours of the mosque attacks, someone in the US tweeted sardonically "did they even TRY thoughts and prayers first?"

The saying 'thoughts and prayers' has become synonymous with a lack of political action after a mass shooting in the US, when politicians and leaders offer up their thoughts and prayers but little else by way of change.

The past week has shown that thoughts and prayers do actually have some power as well.

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Ardern's refrain about kindness and compassion has been mocked by many as empty fluff, words that sound good but are a cover for a lack of concrete action.

But over the past week, kindness and compassion has certainly come into its own.

It has also proved a powerful diplomatic tool.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs and consoles Bri, a year 9 Cashmere High School student. Photo / AP
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs and consoles Bri, a year 9 Cashmere High School student. Photo / AP

The quick action on gun reforms was aimed at showing a New Zealand audience something was being done.

But Ardern has much wider problems to deal with.

Protecting New Zealand's reputation internationally was also a priority, especially in Muslim-dominated countries.

New Zealand does not have the size, power and wealth of many other countries. Instead, it has long traded on its reputation of being peaceful, an honest broker, and a tolerant country. Friday's massacre put that at risk.

Citizens from many countries died in the attack – people from Syria, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia. The attack led to fears of either copycat or revenge attacks, either here or overseas.

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Some terrorist groups did issue calls for revenge including Al Qaeda, and Islamic State.
The response of the leaders of Islamic countries was critical in countering those calls.

Islamic countries based in the Asia Pacific were quick to be supportive, such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's comments were more worrying.

He is the leader of a large Islamic country, one with influence over other countries, and one with which New Zealand has had a respectful relationship for many, many years.

That relationship was forged on forgiveness on Turkey's part for New Zealand's part in the failed Allied invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula.

Now it seemed in peril because of the actions of a citizen of one Anzac country in the land of the other in which Muslims were the victims.

Erdogan started using the video of the shooting in his campaign rallies to rail against Islamophobia in Western countries.

Al Jazeera reported crowds gathering in Istanbul mosques with signs reading "Crusader Savagery in New Zealand".

Erdogan also made a chilling link to the Anzacs' Gallipoli campaign, warning anyone going to Turkey with ill intent would also be returned in "caskets like their grand fathers were".

Erdogan's comments have been seen for what they partly were – exaggerated rhetoric in an election campaign, aimed at a domestic audience.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan started using the video of the shooting in his campaign rallies to rail against Islamophobia in Western countries. Photo / AP
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan started using the video of the shooting in his campaign rallies to rail against Islamophobia in Western countries. Photo / AP

That may be so, but they had an international reach. Nor were his comments restricted to the campaign trail.

Erdogan's phone call with Governor-General Patsy Reddy was also released. In that he warned her Turkey wanted the terrorist and anyone associated with him brought to justice.

"We wouldn't want a shadow cast on New Zealand, the country of liberties," Erdoğan was reported as saying.

Other Islamic leaders were more moderate, but almost all immediately referred to the attack as terrorism – something Western countries were slower to do.

Ardern was the lynchpin in shoring up New Zealand's reputation.

After one day, Ardern labelled it a terrorist attack, answering the criticism of many Islamic leaders that Westerners associated terrorism only with attacks by extremist Muslims.

She visited Islamic centres in Christchurch and then in Wellington. Footage of her wearing a hijab and consoling Muslim women went worldwide.

Ardern's actions earned her widespread praise from Western media, but it was the response in Muslim countries officials were looking for.

Reaction was closely monitored. There was approval of measures such as paying for the funerals, and wearing the hijab. The few international media interviews included Al Jazeera Arabic and the BBC Arabic network.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has sent clips of Ardern visiting mosques in a hijab and clips of her speeches translated into Arabic and Turkish to Islamic countries. Photo / Alan Gibson
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has sent clips of Ardern visiting mosques in a hijab and clips of her speeches translated into Arabic and Turkish to Islamic countries. Photo / Alan Gibson

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs set to work – almost solely focusing on messages to Islamic countries.

It issued clips of Ardern visiting mosques in a hijab, hugging and consoling Muslims and clips of her speeches translated into Arabic and Turkish.

Ardern's statement in Parliament was translated into Arabic, Turkish, Indonesian, Malay, Urdu, and Bangla.

It also tweeted out more general scenes of the reaction of the public in New Zealand, by way of trying to dispel accusations of Islamophobia.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison is the leader Ardern has been in the most frequent contact with since that Friday. They have had almost daily phone calls.

The alleged gunman was Australian, and that made it an Anzac problem – not just one for New Zealand or Australia.

In dealing with Erdogan, Morrison lambasted his comments as offensive and even threatened diplomatic sanctions.

Ardern downplayed them, simply saying other Islamic leaders and Muslims at home had made different comments about New Zealand.

There were many reasons for the difference in tone.

Among them was that Foreign Minister Winston Peters was on his way to Turkey, at Turkey's behest, to meet with the 57 Islamic countries in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Ardern could not afford to aggravate matters ahead of that.

Photos of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a hijab have gone worldwide. Photo / Getty Images
Photos of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a hijab have gone worldwide. Photo / Getty Images

By Thursday Erdogan had pulled back.

Nonetheless, the message was clear: Islamic countries are watching and while they may not blame New Zealand, they do expect New Zealand to act.

What they want will come from the review of the gunman's actions and intelligence agencies' failure to spot the threat, justice for the victims in the punishment handed down to the gunman, as well as concrete steps to address Islamophobia.

Despite intense international and domestic pressure, it is here that the balance between thoughts and prayers and concrete change needs to be checked.

It is hard to argue against the first tranche of gun law reforms, banning the military-style semi-automatic guns with almost immediate effect, curtailing the usual legislative process.

Act leader David Seymour has argued the speed denies the public of a chance to have a say.

It does, but when one man can kill 50 people purely because he has evil and could get the guns, that is the only say that matters.

But Seymour's point should not be so easily dismissed when - and it is when rather than if - the government considers other measures to take.

Ardern has never been more powerful than she is now – she can do whatever she feels necessary. But she will need to show care.

The review of what the intelligence agencies knew and should have known will lead to recommendations for change.

There are also calls for stronger controls on 'hate' speech and restrictions for social media.

Many – including politicians and media - are finding their past words now coming back to haunt them.

But there is a fine line between justifiable restrictions on freedom of speech and censorship.

Any such changes should indeed wait for a time when cooler consideration can be given to them.