Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Christchurch, New Zealand Shootings—full text of speech delivered at United for Human Rights’ Stand Together—A Call to Prayer for Peace and Freedom (March 30, 2019 at the Lebanon Theater, Church of Scientology, Los Angeles) Unabridged, original version of speech.

The Christchurch, New Zealand Shootings—full text of speech delivered at United for Human Rights’ Stand Together—A Call to Prayer for Peace and Freedom (March 30, 2019 at the Lebanon Theater, Church of Scientology, Los Angeles) Unabridged, original version of speech. 

A Call to Prayer for Peace and Freedom

Dr. Arik Greenberg
March 30, 2019

Brenton Tarrant, a 28 year old Australian national, shall forever be known as the perpetrator of the Christchurch, New Zealand, Islamic mosque shootings. A white nationalist who worked as a personal trainer at a local gym near Sydney, Australia,[1] he lost his father in 2011 and took most of his inheritance and used it to travel widely in Europe, visiting places that had significance to his growing white nationalist ideology, and becoming radicalized during his travels.  Notably, visiting France, he said he observed an “invasion” of immigrants, a perception which seemed to fuel his nascent xenophobic attitudes. Australian prime minister Scott Morrison commented that Tarrant expressed admiration for other violent white nationalists and conveyed his intent to "create an atmosphere of fear" and to "incite violence" against Muslims.[2] In the time leading up to the attacks, Tarrant had mailed his 73 page white nationalist and Islamophobic manifesto to numerous recipients, including the prime minister’s office, numerous media outlets, and shared links all over social media. This man was not to be trusted, but while he was not a known violent criminal, some have questioned why the authorities did not have Tarrant on some kind of terrorist watch list, nor were they aware of the threat he posed.[3]

On Friday, March 15, 2019, Tarrant drove in his vehicle to the Al Noor Mosque in a suburb on the west side of Christchurch, New Zealand, knowing that the Friday prayer would yield the largest number of victims of his terror.  Tarrant used a live stream on Facebook to broadcast the attacks, as if he were sharing with the world what he thought would be his vindication as a hero of the white race, and in the process, he played numerous military songs and several white nationalist anthems, to accompany his deadly rampage.  At 1:40 PM, as he walked up to the mosque, with what appears in videos to be a shotgun in his hands at the ready position, he is greeted by a member of the mosque, Haji-Daoud Nabi, a 71 year old man, who said in his final moment of life, "Hello, Brother, welcome."

“Hello, Brother, Welcome” Haji-Daoud Nabi,
said in his final moment of life

We cannot know if this man did not see the weapon and was merely doing his job as a greeter, or if he indeed saw the weapon and chose to face his death with the sentiment of love that the greatest prophets of the Abrahamic tradition have imparted to us.

Perhaps it was that this man wished to be remembered as imparting love to his attacker, rather than anger.  We cannot know this for sure, but his words stand as a stark contrast to the negative image of Muslims that Tarrant had in his head as he approached the mosque with deadly intent, echoing white nationalist Milo Yannopoulos’ claims that Islam was “barbaric.” Between three and five hundred people were in attendance that day, and their lives were forever changed by Tarrant’s violent actions, spawned and encouraged by other identitarians like Yannopoulos and Richard Spencer. 

Tarrant entered the mosque and shot indiscriminately at people, including old men, women, and little children. He spent several minutes inside of the mosque, exiting when he was out of ammunition, going back to his vehicle to retrieve another weapon, and re-entering the mosque to continue his bloodbath. During the attack, Naeem Rashid, a worshiper, attempted to charge Tarrant but was shot in the process. Thus, the first of two known heroes who attempted that day to stop the deadly attack.

Although he lost his life, perhaps Rashid’s actions distracted Tarrant for a moment and allowed others to escape.

But Tarrant continued his shooting, standing over those he had already wounded and shooting them to be sure that he ended their lives—to be sure that there were no survivors. As he exited the mosque, he shot and killed a woman whom he encountered along the pathway, pleading for mercy.  In all, 47 people died that day at the Al Noor Mosque. 

As Tarrant returned to his vehicle, he again played music to inspire his further carnage. He then drove to the Linwood Mosque, on the other side of the city, to the east, to continue the brutality.[5]  Whatever we may discover about Tarrant and those who might have assisted him, it does appear that he had prepared extensively for this and that his lethality was his own.  And so at 1:55 PM, the second barrage of gunfire began. Initially, Tarrant was unable to find the door into the mosque, and he began shooting through windows, perhaps giving the worshippers enough time to recognize what was happening and to hide.  At the Linwood mosque, a worshipper named Abdul Aziz Wahabzadah, a former refugee from Afghanistan, is credited with stopping the attack.

A father of four, Wahabzadah was worshipping with his children that day. Upon hearing the first shots and recognizing that the mosque was under attack, he picked up a credit-card reader and ran at Tarrant, hoping to distract him and prevent him from entering the mosque. Wahabzadah threw the credit-card reader at the intruder and hit him, after which Tarrant went back to the parking lot and began shooting at Wahabzadah, but was unable to get a bead on him as the worshipper ducked between a fence and nearby cars.  Wahabzadah retrieved a discarded shotgun that Tarrant had dropped and attempted to fire it at him, but it proved to be empty. Ultimately, he threw it at Tarrant’s vehicle, shattering the windshield and startling the attacker so that he drove away.[6] Wahabzadah was the second hero of the day, whose actions may have saved many lives, and whose quick thinking shows that bullies can in fact be overpowered or distracted, allowing others to escape harm. It is intriguing to note that he had emigrated from Australia just two years earlier, in order to escape the racism that he experienced there, having already fled the unrest in his birthplace of Afghanistan.  Seven people died at the Linwood mosque attack, and one person later died in hospital.

Many more might have died if not for Wahabzadah’s bravery. 

As Tarrant drove his vehicle away, back in the direction of the first mosque, the police were able to ram his car and stop him at a point halfway between the two locations.  After he was arrested, two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns, and a lever-action firearm were found at the scene.  

In all 50 people were killed between the two mosques. The oldest victim was 77 years old.  The youngest was 3.  In addition, 50 more people were injured in the attacks, many of whom have been treated for their wounds in hospital, some in very serious condition.  Among them was a 4-year-old girl in critical condition. Any of these people could have been our grandparents, our children, our neighbors, our own loved ones, ourselves.  Two heroes have emerged from the fray, confirmed by eyewitnesses and survivors. One lost his life, the other retained it. There may have been others who in their moments of agony and fear did heroic things, and we may never know, due to the eyewitnesses being dead.  But it is crucial that we remember the actions of those like Naeem Rashid, who later died of his injuries; and Abdul Aziz Wahabzadah, who lived to tell the tale, and to reject the title of hero, preferring to shift the credit to God; and even Haji-Daoud Nabi, the now deceased greeter at the Al Noor Mosque.  Blessings upon their souls.  May the rest of us be so brave and act with such selfless resolve, if we are ever confronted with such imminent evil.  

In the days following the attacks, NZ authorities advised mosques to shutter their doors and encourage their worshippers to stay at home until things could be considered safe for them.  During this time, several people were in police custody for potential connections to the attack, but at this time, it appears that Tarrant was the only shooter.  Since then, the Austrian government has confirmed connections between Tarrant and far-right identitarian groups in Austria.[7]  And a French Muslim group has filed a lawsuit for permitting Tarrant to live broadcast his deadly rampage.[8]

Friends, we have a problem here.  

In the past weeks, people from both sides of the political spectrum have tried try to capitalize upon this tragedy and to place blame in the laps of their already existent political adversaries; to use it as a politically expedient device or tool of partisan one-upmanship.  Some have insisted that NZ’s choice to ban all semiautomatic firearms should be the natural choice for the US and everywhere else, jumping on the bandwagon of old political tropes that are raised every time there is a handy opportunity.  Or, as soon as one member of the Islamic community of NZ seemed to blame Jews and Israel for the attacks, stating that “Mousad was behind this,”—a preposterously anti-Semitic reaction—the conservative media in the U.S. began proclaiming that “now New Zealand is blaming the Jews”, as if it were all of NZ speaking, or all Muslims.[9] 

But some, in particular, have sought to counter the claims of rampant Islamophobic violence by highlighting every instance around the globe in which Christians are being killed by Muslims, as if to say, “See? There is a global conspiracy against Christians, and the world’s Muslims are behind it.”

This was on the coattails of several conservative Christian media deliberately misconstruing the results of last year’s Pew Research to support their grand narrative that “Christians remain the most persecuted religious group in the world.”[10] And of course, valid complaints exist against actual forms of oppression and violence, but when leveled as a distraction against other valid complaints, their motive becomes suspect. Many commentators have chosen not to pay attention to the very dangerous connections that have been made between mainstream conservatives and the far-right hyper-nationalist and identitarian groups, the so-called “alt-right”, which has sought to normalize itself, to make the KKK and Neo-Nazis en vogue again, by aligning themselves with traditional conservative values—as if fascism, racism, and genocide were the natural outgrowth of traditional conservatism—the logical result of fiscal conservatism, and a desire for limited government intervention in private affairs.

Friends, this is not the time for political division and re-entrenchment in our little enclaves, using this tragedy as a reason not to change, not to grow. What we are seeing here is a falling back on tribalistic thinking. Vendetta based thinking.Where revenge is taken out against a whole group, as if the whole group is represented by any given member of their party. “Your people did something to my people, so I am justified in doing something against your people.”  

Friends, we are a planet of people who are more alike than we are different. The differences that we carry are what make us beautiful and unique. But the similarities are what urge our entire species toward mutual compassion and respect.

Photo by Matteo Paganelli on Unsplash

Racism and the violence that flows out of it; Religious chauvinism and the violence that grows out of it, any kind of hyper-nationalism or ethnic-based subjugation and the potential genocide that are the result—have no place in our modern world. These are things of the past and we must recognize them for what they are: cavemen sitting on opposite sides of a mountain decrying the quality of the rocks on the other side of that mountain.  My rocks are better than your rocks!  And I’m going to kill you over them! 

We may not agree on our concept of the Divine, God, our higher power, or the existence or non-existence of one, or the idea of the sublime reality.  But we have a responsibility to think of each other as fellows, as siblings in something larger than ourselves.  It is as if one skin cell on my right arm were to decry the existence of one skin cell on the other arm, and to wage war against it, not recognizing that it is part of the same organism.  You know what that is called in human medicine?

Cancer.  And that is exactly what hatred and intolerance are—cancer!

They are a cancer upon our species.  And we must do everything to stamp it out.  Because it is killing our species.

Jesus said to love your enemies.  How radical is that?  He didn’t say love your enemies, except the ones that think like this or that.  He said, without qualification, without exception, to

LOVE. YOUR. ENEMIES. Simple as that.

That is a truly radical thought, and I think that most people on this planet have a long way to go to accomplish that.  But it doesn’t exempt us from trying, from really trying.  And I want to bring your attention to Farid Ahmed, the surviving husband of one of the woman killed in Christchuch. He states that he forgives his wife’s murderer. That he didn’t want his heart to be boiling like a volcano.  That is love.  Brave love.  To forgive the person who killed the person you loved the most in this world.[11]   

In 2017, the Elijah Interfaith Institute sponsored a collaborative project with Twitter in which numerous major faith leaders from the world’s religions made a call to the world to reach out to people of other faiths and see God in them, make friends with them, make peace with them.  Reported in the periodical, Christianity Today, the 3 minute video of the project features Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew I, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Dalai Lama, and many others.[12] Already from two years ago, this is old news, but it is never more salient than today.  

The World's Most Prominent Religious Leaders
Call On Everyone To Make Friends Across Religions 

With this in mind, I want to invite you to an important upcoming event. In 2016, the Institute for Religious Tolerance, Peace and Justice, which I represent, launched the first annual Interfaith Solidarity March, here in L.A. Since that time, we have led four marches in Southern California, including franchising a sister march in the San Fernando Valley. In 2018, we were contacted by an international coalition of interfaith marches, the Interfaith March for Peace and Justice, which was looking for a new corporate home.  Having partnered with them, we are now the umbrella group of what may become the largest coalition of interfaith marches in the world. In 2018, our coalition marched simultaneously in a dozen cities across the U.S., and at least two abroad. In 2019, we are slated to have no fewer than two dozen sister marches across the globe, coordinated simultaneously for Sunday, September 22, International Day of Peace.

In order to successfully carry off such a momentous task, we need your help. We need volunteers to help coordinate the L.A. march, as well as the global planning committee.  We need sponsors, and we need people to spread the word.  When tragedies like the Christchurch shootings happen, we often look to the next event to help rebuild and prevent the next tragedy.  It is my sincere hope that no such thing ever happens again, but the likelihood is that our species has not matured that far just yet. We are going to have to work a lot harder. 

Yes, maybe there are some laws that can be enacted right now to curb violence.  Maybe these involve tightening firearms regulations, maybe they involve tightening control of weaponized social media, or aspects of terrorism and extremism that are being manipulated by various nation-states to exert control over others. These will have to be decided by each country. But the problem is deeper than that—than adjusting a few laws.

We all have a job right now, and that is to make sure that the root cause of this division and unrest is stamped out.  That hatred and racism and religious chauvinism are deconstructed and the component parts are put back into their original boxes and put away on a shelf in an archive where historians and scholars can study them as things of the past.  Things we no longer need or want.  Things that we have outgrown. 

[5] I say this without any humor, but it is ironic for those of us who live in Los Angeles, that such a man was able to get to the opposite side of a city in under ten minutes.  It is this which caused many to assume that these were two separate, but coordinated attacks, with multiple assailants.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Phony Christians and Their Hate-Filled Flavor of the Month

I was reminded recently of something that happened a few years ago, but which I had neglected to share with you, my friends.  In June of 2015, the Institute for ReligiousTolerance, Peace and Justice received a letter in the mail that had no return address.  The handwritten address of the IRTPJ was somewhat shaky and the envelope elicited suspicion from me.  When I opened it, I found a pamphlet, somewhat roughly put together, but comprised of a tremendous number of unfounded stereotypes and accusations against Islam.  There was a salmon-colored post-it note affixed to the pamphlet which read, in the same shaky, almost juvenile hand, “Please help these people; they hate US….Peace”.  

I looked around for some indication of who sent this letter to us, and all I found was a Facebook page (Counter Jihad Coalition) and an email address:  Initially, I was annoyed, having just come from an interfaith event in which I witnessed a room full of over 300 Muslims and Jews praying side by side and sharing a meal together, in honor of the Muslim month of purificatory fasting, called Ramadan. 

Photo by Paul Robert on Unsplash

This event was inspiring and demonstrated that Jews and Muslims can and do get along in many places around the world and always have, despite what many Right Wing media sources insist.  

After my initial annoyance, I began to realize that receiving this letter was a good sign.  An organization devoted to slandering, libeling and defaming Islam (as the enemy flavor of the month, now that global Communism is on the wane), had found us on the internet and thought us significant enough to reach out and contact us.  This is quite a compliment. 

It means we are doing our job, and that our web presence is effective.  

But despite this optimistic positivity, the thing that struck me is that the individual who wrote the note and enclosed the pamphlet took a tone that was decidedly “Christian” in its attempt to appeal to those who want to make peace.  Frankly, the rhetoric in the pamphlet was anything but conciliatory, or pacific; it was nothing but misguided, prevaricatory, one-sided rhetoric, devoted to revealing the “true colors” of the Muslim faith, and committed to its ultimate dissolution. 

The request that we “help these people” is a farce, since the authors and disseminators of this pamphlet are doing absolutely NOTHING to help those of Muslim extraction.

This kind of hate-mongering and the spreading of one-sided half-truths about a major world religion comprised of over 1.5 billion peaceful people does nothing but contribute to the global impression of the US as a nation of uneducated bigots who travel the world bullying less powerful nations and torturing people—an opinion that a good friend of mine based in Korea had confirmed during the height of the Bush administration’s obsession with torturing “evil-doers” and restoring “democracy” to the world through the murderous henchmen of Big Oil like Halliburton, Blackwater, and others.  This is the impression held of us by many industrialized, civilized nations, including those of Europe and Asia, notwithstanding the many Islamic nations of the world that continue to reel from the West’s incessant meddling.  

I see many conservative Christians trying to assuage their collective consciences for bearing the banner of anti-Semitism for so long by expressing outward support for the Nation of Israel, as if it were the repository of Judaica and the representation of global Jewry, as if their sudden support were an act of contrition or a global confessional where one can do penance and purchase an indulgence for one’s sins; recognizing in their hearts that the Holocaust was the natural outgrowth of nearly two millennia of ingrained and systematic anti-Semitism and outright hatred for all that is Jewish.  And while they attempt to clear their consciences by giving money to pro-Israel causes and claiming to support Israel, they seek to divert attention away from their historical sins while purporting that Islam, as a monolithic entity, is seeking to wipe Jews off the face of the map—as if Christian nations and forces had not already come dangerously close to that themselves without the help of any Muslims! 

At this moment, I speak as a Jew (putting aside my maternal Christian heritage).  And I speak to the phony Christians, who have put country and nationalistic fervor before Christ: do not pretend that throughout your history, you have been our friend.  Time and again, you have tried to destroy us.  And numerous times, you nearly succeeded.  Only in very recent times have the most liberal minded and conscientious of you demanded that we be treated with respect, like equals.  And even still, many of your brethren continue to blame us for global problems well beyond our control, citing conspiracy theories that are preposterously unfounded.  Only recently, have some of your number seen fit to support Israel, as a symbol of Jewish identity.  But in reality, I see through your pre-Millenial ruse to employ Jewish autonomy as a tool for your own self-aggrandizement and world domination, presupposing that we will be the key to the manifestation and realization of your own version of the Christian apocalypse.  We are not your tool, nor are we your slaves.  

Do not use our story to support your fear-based grand narrative of rampant Islamicization as an eternal threat to the survival of Christendom.  The racist underpinnings of this grand narrative were similarly used against Black Americans over the last century and a half, and it was similarly used against Jews in the first half of the twentieth century.  Then, it transformed into red scares and fears of global Communism and the Domino Theory, fueling many wars and police actions fought in the name of “Democracy”, until it settled on its next enemy—global Islam.  And when Muslims around the world see your hate mongering, what will they think of you?  Will they put aside their religion and see the “truth” of your arguments, turning to favor Christianity?  

For centuries, while Christians were taking their time in recognizing the importance of Judaism to their religion, foisting upon us one expulsion after another, one genocide after another, we were largely safe and respected in Muslim lands.  While Jews were being brutally murdered and oppressed in nation after nation all over Europe throughout the Middle Ages, they were safe in Moorish controlled Spain, where Judaism flourished for centuries.  The lot of Sephardic Jews was dramatically different from the Ashkenazi Jews who eked out a living throughout Eastern Europe despite the odds against them, finding a niche for themselves in professions that Christians were forbidden to engage in.

But Jewish culture and art and literature flourished in Muslim controlled lands, with Jews treated as a protected minority—a dhimmi—the elder siblings of the Muslim people, fellow children of Abraham, and devotees of the same God.  

And when Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain issued the Alhambra Decree, everything changed.  Paraphrasing the old adage: in 1492, Columbus sailed the oceans blue; but never forget what happened, too, that Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jew. As many as a million Jews were expelled under pain of death, with their only option conversion to Christianity.  Many were brutally murdered in the process of expulsion, while a handful chose to convert nominally in order to remain in the land they had grown to love over the centuries.  But this exposed them to the Spanish Inquisition, which brutally tortured and murdered tens of thousands of conversos suspected of being “Crypto-Jews,” who were now officially under the authority of the Catholic Church, having just converted. As for the hundreds of thousands who willingly left, where did they go?

Many were lovingly accepted into the heart of the Ottoman Empire, the largest Islamic kingdom on earth at that time. 

Sultan Bayezid II had ships waiting off the coast of Spain to take these Jews, as refugees, into his kingdom.  And as he often said to his court, “Do you think this Ferdinand a wise ruler, who has impoverished his own kingdom and enriched mine?” 

Sultan Bayezid II

For Bayezid knew that the Jews, as a whole, were an industrious, peaceable people who made model citizens for any nation, something that many Christians still have not yet realized today.  The descendants of those Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews remained in Muslim lands for the next few centuries, until once again—now under Hitler’s Third Reich—they were rounded up and exterminated under the yoke of Christian anti-Semitism.  So, when I hear people slandering Islam, as a religion, as a culture; or people intimating that Jews and Muslims have never gotten along, or that they are, by nature, natural enemies, my ire is roused, and I feel I must remind them of these facts.  And to the Muslims who harbored my ancestors as refugees, I thank you.  And if the emblem and fruits of Christianity are racism and imperialism, then maybe we don’t need Christianity to “save” Western culture. On the other hand, maybe we just need to rethink who has the right to speak for global Christendom. And as for those who pretend to be our friends in the guise of serving their own political ends, how do we know that when you grow tired of toying with the Muslims, you will not go back to toying with us? Even as recently as August of 2017, hundreds of “alt-right” marchers gathered in Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally, chanting “the Jews will not replace us!” As if that was our intention. 

All of our religions have imperfections. 

If we are to judge a religion exclusively on the evil it has wrought, we would all be found terribly wanting—perhaps Christians most of all!  If we were to judge a religion on the most embarrassing and inscrutable aspects of its scriptures, taken out of context and viewed without any knowledge of the history or debate over its interpretation, we would, once again, all come up wanting—perhaps the Jews most of all!  But if we were to judge a religion on both the good and the bad, and take into account the progress it has made in issues of compassion and human rights, and in their relationships with other faiths, we would see that all three of the Abrahamic faiths have come very far, but still have far to go. 

To end with my favorite quote from the Apostle Paul,
“We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23)