New Zealand has never experienced the kind of attack that took place last week, when mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch left 50 dead. The tragedy has shaken the country.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, for one, has garnered much praise for her response to the attacks. She swiftly labeled the attacks “terrorism” and bluntly called an Australian lawmaker’s suggestion of a link between Muslim immigration and violence “a disgrace.”
“Ardern’s performance has been extraordinary — and I believe she will be strongly lauded for it both domestically and internationally,” political commentator Bryce Edwards told Reuters.
Ardern didn’t need more reason to be celebrated by the world: The 37-year-old has been seen as an antidote to Donald Trump; Vogue magazine ran a glamorous photo spread of her; and Sheryl Sandberg has described her as a “political prodigy." The sentiment only grew when she announced she was pregnant, became the second world leader to have a baby in office, and the world cooed when she took her 3-month-old daughter to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. A term was coined to describe the phenomenon: “Jacindamania.”
But last week’s tragedy has led Ardern to prove her leadership skills in a different way.
When she went to Christchurch on Saturday, a day after the attacks, Ardern visited members of the refugee and Muslim community. Dressed in black and wearing a Muslim-style headscarf known as a hijab, she tearfully told them that the whole country was “united in grief.”
Wearing hijab was “a sign of respect,” wrote Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian American journalist and commentator.
It was not just her dress that won her more fans abroad. Many people also praised her pledge to cover the funeral costs of all 50 victims and offer financial assistance to the families, as well as her swift action on gun control. Her government will introduce gun measures in Parliament next week.
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, tweeted a photo of Ardern hugging a Muslim woman and noted that, when in London last year, she had talked about “the importance of inclusivity and equality in society.”
Adil Ray, a British actor and TV presenter, said he was “really impressed” with Ardern for her “swift, strong leadership.”
Cihangir Islam, a Turkish lawmaker from an opposition Islamist party, also praised Ardern. She “says to Muslims in pain, ‘You, you’re us!’ She symbolically covers her head when she goes to a home for condolences; she boldly underlines her respect and solidarity. How thirsty we have become for justice and mercy in state administration,” Islam wrote.
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science in Dubai, said she was “stoic and firm.”
A video showing Ardern hugging a Muslim woman and consoling her caused a similar reaction.
“Can you imagine having a leader of a country showing this kind of empathy? Thank you, Jacinda Ardern, for reminding the world what a Leader is and could be,” London literary agent Jonny Geller wrote in a post that has garnered 58,000 likes.
The fact that a world leader covered her hair to meet Muslims quickly became a symbol of Ardern’s approach.
One particular photo captured the public imagination. It is a photo of Ardern, listening intently with an agonized look on her face and her hands clasped together. It has been shared widely on social networks, lauded as a portrait of a compassionate leader.
The photo was taken by Kirk Hargreaves, who used to be a photographer for the Christchurch newspaper the Press but now works for the Christchurch City Council. It was shared on the council’s Twitter page.
“The moment I saw her face pop up, and what was happening with the flowers, I fully knew [it was important]. It's a religious photo in a way, a photo of a mix of religious symbolism. It looks like stain glass, there's the Muslim hijab, and colours of Hindu religion. It's a universal picture,” Hargreaves told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Faiza Ali, a community organizer in New York, tweeted the photo, calling Ardern a “remarkable leader.”
The Crisis Magazine, the official publication of the NAACP, also tweeted the photo, saying Ardern showed “Dignity. Grace. Courage.”
Kareem Fahim and Zeynep Karatas in Istanbul contributed to this report.