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Her empathy for the survivors of the Christchurch shooting, her swift implementation of practical measures and her refusal to be sucked into anti-Islamic rhetoric provide a lesson other countries should follow

There was something both comforting and distressing about the way the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, consoled her countrys Muslim community after the Christchurch mosque attack. Comforting because here, for once, was a normal human reaction; not robotic or platitudinous, not scripted or insincere. She hugged Muslim men, just as she did women, with a comfort that betrayed no self-consciousness. The power of her response came not only from her warm physical embraceof the survivors and families of victims, but also from symbolic gestures such as wearing the hijab and refusing to use the name of the chief suspect. This was backed up with the right messaging and followed swiftly with practical measures, such as new gun legislation.

It is a marvel to see a response so well calibrated. But it shouldnt be. This is the distressing dimension of Arderns compassionate poise, that it is so unfamiliar, so rare. At a time when governments in Europe and the United States are either brazenly anti-Muslim and xenophobic, or at best silent on the matter of immigration and Islam, what should be the norm is elevated to exceptional. It is a sign of the times that Muslims feel grateful for Arderns outreach, and that the world is lauding her for a response that should come easily to any head of state whose citizens have been slaughtered. Already, thousands of signatures have been collected to nominate Ardern for the Nobel peace prize. Her empathy brings the shortcomings of others into relief. Her performance was impressive, but the bar is low.

It is hard not to compare Ardern with her counterparts. Take Theresa May, a woman whose flawed response to the Grenfell tragedy sealed her reputation as someone so emotionally distant that she was unable to see that a prime ministers place is to comfort the bereaved, rather than mingle with a handful of members of the emergency services flanked by security. But Ardern not only displayed a temperamental superiority, she reminded us that being a head of government is a responsibility that one must rise to, regardless of public sentiment on immigration and Muslims, or how ones response will be perceived.

Theresa May was criticised for speaking with fire fighters after Grenfell but ignoring the bereaved. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Mays tenure at the Home Office and since as prime minister revealed a politician who never failed to miss a populist beat, relishing the ending of freedom of movement, deriding citizens of nowhere and, in her speech last week, barely stopping short of inciting the public against parliament.

In the United States, there is still a Muslim ban in effect a travel blockade that applies to citizens of Muslim-majority countries, which builds on Donald Trumps election pledge for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the US. Trump continues to pass on every opportunity to confront and condemn the threat of white supremacist ideology and it is inconceivable that the deaths of Muslims would be treated with the sanctity and respect shown in New Zealand.

Ardern herself, in her comprehensive response to the tragedy, appeared as a rebuke to the failures of others. It was as if she had done her homework, and ticked off every factor that had led to the Christchurch shooting that had been underaddressed or minimised by other politicians in her position. When she wore the hijab, I initially felt it was an inappropriate symbolic gesture, because it seemed to presume it was the sole definer of Muslim identity, yet she made a compelling case for it in an interview. It was meant to show solidarity with those most visible and hence most vulnerable to attack, she explained. If in wearing the hijab as I did gave them a sense of security to continue to practice their faith, then Im very pleased I did it, she said.

But, most importantly, she moved beyond the gestures, asking the bereaved what her government could do rather than deciding on their behalf how resources are allocated. Our time is for you to determine, she told them.

Then she proceeded to address other world leaders by saying: There are some things we need to confront collectively as leaders internationally. She specifically mentioned social media and broached the topic of regulation. We cannot, for instance, allow some of the challenges we face with social media to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, she said, demanding that tech platforms take responsibility.

Jacinda Ardern attends the Friday prayers outside Al-Noor mosque in Christchurch, 10 days after the shooting there. Photograph: Jorge Silva/Reuters

In a pointed remark to Trump when he called to console her and offer assistance, she asked only for sympathy and love for all Muslim communities. And at the same time as she disowned the suspected attacker, she also attempted to reverse the narrative that it was immigrants, or outsiders, who agitate white natives into restiveness. She seemed to cover all the issues that many Muslims privately and publicly cautioned against, the complacency about hate speech online, the lassitude when it came to confronting Islamophobia head on, and the marriage between Muslim-bashing, racism and anti-immigration.

Again, this is a welcome approach and a sad indication that it is only when others advocate on behalf of Muslims, that their concerns are heard or adopted. Filtered through the image of Ardern, Muslims humanity was given focus.

The overall show of respect in New Zealand also bucked a trend of not treating attacks against Muslims with the same sense of panic and urgency as other terrorist incidents. As attacks on British mosques increased in the last decade, few were met with the same mobilisation that would be expected if the assailants were Muslim.

Even in the week since the Christchurch attacks, hate crimes against Muslims have increased by almost 600% in the UK. They included attacks on mosques and one alleged stabbing, and yet there has been no comforting address from the Home Office or No 10. It was only after pressure from British Muslim community leaders at a memorial event for Christchurch victims, that security funding for mosques in the UK was increased to bring it in line with that provided for Jewish places of worship.

What sets Ardern apart is that she is a moral politician in a small country that allows for no-frills leadership. Her no-nonsense election slogan was Lets do this. But she still presides over a country where anti-Muslim sentiment is rising, and, according to the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, reported instances of racism are also on the rise, with a third of all complaints to the commission regarding racist discrimination.

Ardern, who leads the Labour party, has clearly made a choice to stand against this.There is a similar effort in Canada and Ireland.

Justin Trudeau comments in parliament after the Quebec mosque shootings. Photograph: Canadian Press/Rex/Shutterstock

At the one-year anniversary of the Quebec mosque shootings in which six worshippers died, Justin Trudeau made the important link between the ubiquity and danger of small hatreds. In his speech, he observed that discrimination was becoming commonplace or even tolerated. In parliament, he pointed out that the Quebec tragedy was preventable. It should never have come to this point. We cannot bring back those who perished, but we owe it to them to fight the very sentiment that caused their loss. We owe it to them to speak up and stand tall and explicitly against Islamophobia and discrimination in all its forms, he said.

The Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, regularly sends supportive welcome messages to a new wave of migrants and refugees that has arrived in Ireland, particularly from the Middle East. When Brian Murphy, a member of Varadkars party, Fine Gael, tweeted anti-immigration statements and dog whistle references to sharia law, there was little foot-dragging. Murphy tweeted: The Irish military should not be being forced to act as a ferry service for smugglers and illegal economic migrants in the Mediterranean. And: Sharia law is operating in Ireland and most of the political class either do not know or do not care. It is a subversion of our legal system. Varadkar responded by saying: I want to disassociate myself and the party from those messages from Cllr Brian Murphy. They do not represent the policies, views or values of the Fine Gael party. The whip has since been removed from Murphy.

None of these individual politicians efforts alone will vanquish racism or Islamophobia, but it is a start of a counternarrative that has been missing for far too long.

Consider again, the unfortunate contrast with Mays Conservative party, dogged by accusations of institutional Islamophobia and not only refusing to do much that is decisive, but retrenching in its denial that there is a problem. It is hard not to conclude, after years of Tory party members blowing the whistle, that this is a deliberate obstruction. Under Mays premiership, the Conservative party has reaped the electoral benefits of the hostile environment and Brexits xenophobic tailwind. Taking a strong stand against Islamophobia within its ranks would not be very on-brand.

In contrast, instead of following the public mood or hedging against it, Ardern led it. Female reporters, presenters and police officers followed her lead in wearing the hijab, and many spontaneous public shows of support took place, in schools and on the streets.

In the most poignant gesture, at the first Friday prayers after the attack, non-Muslims, including a notorious biker mob, stood guard to ensure the safety of worshippers, proving that the public and the media can take their cue from powerful politicians and not succumb inexorably to anti-immigrant racist sentiment. This is a mistake that many centre and left-of-centre politicians make: the assumption that popular antipathy towards immigrants came first, and agitating populist parties came second. Populist parties merely did the work, with little challenge from mainstream politicians, who were either too afraid to come out in support of immigrants in case it was a vote loser, or tried to beat populists at their own game. Ardern is doing the work.

Her success, however, is not to be measured in how she has handled and emerged from this crisis, but in the consistency of her work to combat racism and Islamophobia, in all its complicated slippery ways, from the trenches of social media to the corridors of the White House. Her success will be to no longer be exceptional.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/28/with-respect-how-jacinda-ardern-showed-the-world-what-a-leader-should-be