Rasheeda Bhagat

Courage includes compassion and grace

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on March 18, 2019 Published on March 18, 2019

Earining plaudits Jacinda Ardern

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has become a world hero for lending her shoulder to the Muslim community

If her black head scarf did not say it all, the expression of pain, compassion and kindness in her eyes did. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minister, was celebrated last year as a symbol of a progressive and unconventional young woman leader (she is an unmarried mother) who gave birth while she was PM, and even brought her baby to the UN.

She has now caught the admiration of the world for the calm and compassionate, but also firm manner in which she handled one of the most heinous terror attacks in recent times, particularly in the tiny country considered among the safest in the world.

Her leadership skills were put to the ultimate test following a horrendous attack during Friday prayers in two mosques in Christchurch where a racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim white man from Australia gunned down 50 men and children who had assembled there.

As he was shooting, he streamed a live video of the gruesome massacre on social media. After the man’s arrest, the Ardern’s measured response won hearts and minds across the world. She told reporters at Parliament as the horror of the tragedy unfolded: “We represent diversity, kindness, compassion…. a home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who need it”.

Her response to the mass murderer was: “You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you.”

This was signal enough from the leader to the people of New Zealand who reached out to the Muslim community in this tiny country of barely five million people. Not only in Christchurch but also in other cities such as Auckland, people came out in support of both Muslims and immigrants and hashtags supporting the Muslim community started trending on twitter in no time.

Even while she was hailed for her compassion and kindness across the world, particularly by Muslims, Ardern showed her tough side too. Expressing the “strongest possible condemnation of the ideology of the people who did this,” in a widely circulating video, she added firmly: “We cannot and will not be shaken by this attack. We are a proud nation of more than 200 ethnicities, 160 languages and amongst that diversity we share common values, and the one on which we share currency right now, tonight, is our compassion and support for the community of those directly affected.”

The next day she turned up at the Kilbirnie mosque in Wellington to lay flowers. And leading a delegation from various parties she specifically asked Muslim leaders what they expected from the leadership; she was told to visit the families of the victims and comfort them, and this is what she did. How many leaders across the world show this kind of humility?

Refreshing contrast

In an era where the machismo of male leaders is celebrated and their greatness gauged by how “tough” they can be and how powerful their threats while responding to terrorism, Ardern’s compassion and concern comes as a breath of fresh air.

Interestingly, as she came to power and was being hailed for her special brand of charisma and for celebrating her motherhood and not shying away from it as she performed her responsibilities as the country’s prime minister, she was often compared to the exact opposite in world leaders - American President Donald Trump and his brash brand of politics. Hence all eyes were on her response to Trump when he called her after the attack. In her own words, the conversation went like this: “He asked what support the United States could provide... My message was: sympathy and love for all Muslim communities. I conveyed the sentiment that I think exists here.”

No wonder that Ardern became an instant hit with not only her own people but also people from across the world, and hundreds of gushing tweets came rushing in.

But there are challenges ahead for Ardern. Already her statement that she will review the country’s gun laws has been met with criticism from the gun lobby. Even though the context is different, I can’t resist quoting from Harper Lee’s classic ‘To kill a Mocking Bird’, where the protagonist Atticus Finch tells his son that real courage is not “a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

Ardern is a leader we must look up to and admire. She has altered the contours of courage to include compassion and grace.

Published on March 18, 2019
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