Aarif Rasheed is a lawyer who helps to rehabilitate extremists when they’re released from prison.
In the wake of the Christchurch terror attack, counselling service Lifeline has been receiving calls from Kiwis seeking help with their extremist views. A lawyer who helps to rehabilitate people convicted of extremist offending explains how people become radicals, while a reformed white nationalist describes how they can moderate their beliefs. Harrison Christian reports.
The Christchurch terror attacks were a blow to Aarif Rasheed in so many ways: as a Muslim, a friend of the victims, and a lawyer who helps to rehabilitate convicted extremists.
The strategy for countering violent extremism in New Zealand had been heavily skewed towards would-be jihadis, while far-right extremism fell by the wayside. It was a wake-up call and, according to phone counselling service Lifeline, a catalyst for some Kiwis to seek help.
Rasheed was on his way to Auckland Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit when he received word that a gunman had opened fire in Christchurch.
His third child, Ali, had been born premature three days earlier. At one point the boy stopped breathing. For several weeks, Rasheed and his wife were ensconced in the fluorescent world of the ICU, while reports from Christchurch filtered in.
Ali has since been discharged and Rasheed’s focus has shifted to a new advisory group that will inform the government’s response to the mosque shootings.
‘HE IS ALMOST PERFECT’
Before the attacks, extremist offending in New Zealand had been limited to a small handful of Muslim men charged with possessing or spreading radical Islamic material. It was Rasheed who put together a rehabilitation programme for the men to help moderate their beliefs while they re-join society.
A man jailed for collecting and spreading extremist propaganda who the Sunday Star-Times has decided not to name, was released from prison late last year. He was once stopped at the airport while trying to fly to Syria to join Isis.
The 29-year-old’s parole conditions prohibit him from speaking to media, but his father told Stuff his son was “going well”, keeping his head down and working in the family’s Auckland takeaway shop.
“He is almost perfect,” the father says.
It had been difficult for his son to receive news of the Christchurch attack and “he wanted to go down and help,” he says.
The young man told the Parole Board in a March progress hearing he was enjoying Rasheed’s rehabilitation programme and found it intellectually stimulating.
He was now able to hold discussions about world politics and Islam more calmly, rather than becoming excited and disrespectful.
The Board was satisfied with his progress and saw no need for further progress hearings.
But he was reminded that he was still serving his sentence and if there was “any suggestion of a return to extremist conduct or displays of religious intolerance, Community Corrections may seek to have him recalled,” the decision says.
KIWIS WITH EXTREMIST VIEWS SEEKING HELP
Counselling service Lifeline says since the March 15 attack, it has had more people calling in with extremist ideas and radical views.
Executive director Glenda Schnell says, “We help people to recognise their underlying fear and distress and support them through that.
“We are mindful of any risks and any flags that come up and manage those as required.”
Schnell says people have been calling “with a range of perspectives over the spectrum of political views”.
Rasheed says it’s a good sign that people are seeking help, but he cautions that Lifeline “needs specialist support and training to be able to deal with it”.
Extremist groups confine themselves deliberately to their own echo chambers. Opening up to a therapist, or simply a friend, can supply much-needed perspective. The main precursor to extremism is isolation, says Rasheed.
Other factors include consuming hate speech online, and a lack of interaction with people from different backgrounds. Rasheed sees young men who lack a sense of self-worth or identity as particularly susceptible.
He reckons both far-right and Islamist extremism require similar conditions, but right-wing rhetoric is a lot more easily disguised as regular political discourse, while pro-Isis sentiments are more obvious.
“You can even present far-right extremism as being caring about the country, like saying we’ve gotta save our country from illegal refugees, or I’ve got a very strong immigration concern, and that’s how a lot of politicians get away with it.”
‘I HAD ALL THE OTHER CLICHES’
However, Rasheed sees a lonely role model for Kiwis with white extremist views in Andrew Judd, the former New Plymouth mayor who publicly renounced his racism against Māori.
Judd was widely criticised by residents, politicians and media personalities when he supported the creation of a special Māori ward in his city.
In 2015, a voter-forced referendum in New Plymouth overwhelmingly rejected the Māori ward proposal. Judd did not stand for re-election, but in the years since has given hundreds of talks across the country.
“Someone once said to me: Māoris are lazy, Māoris fill our jails, the Māori elite rort the system for their own gain, and the rest, they just want social welfare handouts,” was one of his opening remarks at a TEDx conference in 2017.
“Do you know who said that to me? I said that to me. My name is Andrew Judd, and I’m a recovering racist.”
Judd’s message was self-eviscerating; he admitted that he couldn’t even “look at a Māori flag without feeling somehow intimidated”.
The 54-year-old is no less honest today as he admits that in his former life, Don Brash’s infamous Orewa speech moved him to switch from voting Labour to National.
“I had all the other cliches: anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, Chinese drivers; the whole lot. Built on complete ignorance and fear, actually. Fear of something unknown.”
Coming out as a reformed racist was the end of Judd’s political career. He lost lifetime friends, faced ridicule from family members, was sworn and spat at in a supermarket.
Winston Peters slammed his ideas as separatist, while broadcaster Mike Hosking described him as “completely out of touch with middle New Zealand”.
There is however an important question in this type of behaviour says Rasheed: How many politicians and media personalities are getting away with fostering hate, and even extremism, under the guise of caring for the country?
He reckons Kiwis have perfected the art of deniable racism.
“So I think that is where the pathway to far-right extremism is a lot more sinister.”