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Christchurch writer: How hate came to my hometown

Updated 3:12 PM ET, Fri March 15, 2019

Editor's Note: Jaimee Stuart, a native of Christchurch, New Zealand, is a lecturer at the School of Applied Psychology at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. Stuart is a developmental and cultural psychologist whose research focuses on the impact of rapidly changing social environments on young people and how to promote resilience in at-risk or vulnerable populations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) - A brazen attack driven by hatred has rocked my hometown of Christchurch. It has shaken my nation. We are wondering if we will ever be the same.

Terrorism and Islamophobia: These are not words that the international community often associates with New Zealand, a small island nation in the Pacific. Yet on Friday, at least 49 people are confirmed dead -- victims of the deadliest mass shooting New Zealand has ever seen. Many more are physically and psychologically injured.

"This is not who we are," New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden said in response to the attacks. Her statement reflects the disbelief of many that something such as this could occur in a country that was ranked second on the Global Peace Index of the Institute for Economics & Peace think tank, and the third-highest on safety in 2018, according to the risk analysis travel site SafeAround.

We are asking: How and why did this happen?

In New Zealand, Muslims are a numerically small group (numbering about 46,000 or about 1% of the population, according to the 2013 census), but they are also one of fastest-growing, ethno-religious groups in the country. And they are very diverse; most (around 75%) are born overseas -- arriving as both immigrants and refugees -- and the largest proportions identify ethnically as Asian and Middle Eastern. But there are also European, Maori and mixed-ethnicity Muslims living in New Zealand.

In this environment (as in many other settler nations), Muslim peoples represent a relatively new and culturally different minority group. In fact, while New Zealanders' attitudes toward multiculturalism are generally positive, research has found that settlers from predominantly Muslim countries are consistently viewed less positively than other major immigrant groups.

Unfortunately, these attitudes are often borne out in the experiences of New Zealand Muslims themselves, with large numbers reporting first-hand experiences of prejudice and discrimination. However, many Muslims also acknowledge that negative attitudes are held by a minority, and where this occurs it generally has little to do with Islam at all but rather stems from personal misconceptions and mistrust of different worldviews.

Intolerance or fear of difference is not the same as violent extremism, nor is it not the same as condoning hate crimes.

Like most other rapidly changing multicultural nations, there are intercultural tensions in New Zealand, but these are far outweighed by positive social movements that promote diversity and inclusion. This means that we cannot reduce these events to a problem that resides within New Zealand as a country. Instead we should be looking to the broader global environment to understand how the seeds of hatred are being spread to all corners of the world -- and have now infiltrated some of these places that we thought were immune.

Can we now resign ourselves to the fact we cannot be safe from threats of terrorism anywhere?

In working together with the Muslim community (and in particular with young people) in New Zealand over the last decade, I have consistently found hope and resilience. I have been amazed at their stories, which show gratitude for opportunities to learn, grow, educate others and be representatives of their faith.

Therefore, as much as I grieve for Muslims in Christchurch, the community all across New Zealand, and everyone who is affected by these events, I also grieve for our loss of innocence.

I mourn for the New Zealand I know and love, which has allowed diverse young people the freedom to thrive.

I appeal to New Zealand and the international community to rally together against violent extremism in all its forms, and to treat this as the global problem that it truly is, rather than simply as another local tragedy.


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