Thinking about the 'other' - approaching Easter

Jenny’s Blog – 25 February 2022

Recently Julanne Clarke-Morris, editor of Anglican Taonga Online who lives in Dunedin, wrote to the editor of the Otago Daily Times in response to reports of an assault on a Muslim student. Julanne has given us permission to share this letter.


Three challenges from the Otago Girls’ attack 

The alleged hate attack against three Muslim girls at Otago Girls’ High School last week puts us firmly in solidarity with the Muslim student Huda Al-Jamaa and her two friends. No student in a New Zealand school should ever have to suffer racist violence from their classmates. Three elements of this incident point to wider problems that offer all of us a choice.  We can either point the finger at the offending schoolgirls and let ourselves off the hook, or take steps to play our own part in changing the attitudes and assumptions that lie behind an iceberg-tip incident like this one.


Three insights from the Otago Girls’ High School attack:


1. Racism allows us (knowingly or unknowingly) to privilege ourselves and our culture’s point of view above others’

The Otago Girls’ High School students used racist tropes about Middle Eastern people to equate three Muslim girls in their Dunedin school with overseas acts of terror those girls had nothing to do with. Only racism can make logic out of that kind of equation. A great way my life caused me to counter my innate racism (as someone from a dominant culture) was to live in Japan, a country where I was the obviously the ‘different’ one. Everything from city planning to education to farming – even to the way you take a bath – told me that Japanese culture was right and how I expected to live was wrong. Only a few people spelled that out to me directly (Japanese people are very polite), but living in a deeply different culture was a masterclass in how everything you once thought was “normal” just turned out to be “cultural”. Needless to say, plenty of Māori commentators have already pointed out that none of that is news to them. 


2. Religion is an easy target in secular “Kiwi” land.

At some point, “nice people” in New Zealand started believing that being religious meant being nasty, judgmental and abusive. At some point later, “nice people” in New Zealand decided that it was OK – even commendable – to be nasty, judgemental and abusive, if religious people were the well-deserved target. For Christians in this country that default position has been tempered by the common understanding that churches “also do a lot of good”.

But for Muslims, whose religion is newer in this land, there was no such balance in the public view, so anti-Muslim commentaries had little brakes on them at all. Only after the Christchurch mosque terror attack did most New Zealanders first come to see Muslim people in something closer to three dimensions.

As a country we desperately need more of that.Religious people are as diverse as the religions themselves. 


3. Social media values fuelled this attack

We don’t know which social media platform the Otago Girls’ attackers used: was it Facebook, TikTok, Instagram,Youtube? But we do know that those videos may have been more than a byproduct of the attack. They may even have served as one motive for it. Somewhere out there in the ether, we now know that social media IT boffins have been hardwiring discussion feeds with algorithms that ended up promoting conflict and favouring extremist content. Hate gets lots of reaction, which in turn means social media success – so long as it “goes viral.” Is it possible that we are starting to see a world where children get so hooked into seeking a social media endorphin high, that they are willing to act in objectionable ways to gain a fleeting moment of notoriety?


So what do we do now?

We don’t know any of the other reasons the particular girls on both sides got to this point, but whatever the outcome of the ensuing investigation, the underlying problems above remain. 

I have no foolproof three-point plan to deal with what led to these girls’ behaviour, but for now I would say to my daughter: 

1. Don’t trust teenage girls, especially in packs. If you feel afraid, tell me and a trusted teacher about it. We’ll believe you and make sure the school protects you.


2. Be yourself and don’t apologise for who you are. Be kind. Remember that what we think of as ‘normal and proper’ is our way of doing things and not everyone’s. Look for what you can learn from others who are different, there will always be something. Remember to treat others as you would want them to treat you.


3. You have the right to express your faith and feel safe to do so. Tell the teachers if anyone abuses you for your faith or says racist things to you or your friends. Don’t assume you know everything about another person’s religion because you know one thing about it. Ask religious people you know what their faith means to them – you might be surprised.


4. If people are abusive online, that is real and you don’t have to put up with it. Look out for people trying to seduce you online to use you for their own profit.

In the real world, violence is never OK.

– Julanne Clarke-Morris