There was a row of one, two, three, four coffins laid out on the grass in front of him. One large, three small. The man stood at the end of the row, holding his face in his hands. Each of the coffins contained a member of his family.
His name was Dr Taufiq al-Sattar. It was a Saturday morning in October 2013, in Blanchardstown, Co Dublin. His entire family, his wife and three children, had been wiped out in a house fire in Leicester, England, the previous month.
The funeral was taking place on a site the Dublin-based neurosurgeon had bought in full for the use of the local community. There were thousands at it. They were a popular and well-liked family and Dr al-Sattar was a highly-regarded surgeon. The emails and letters of support from the community, and from former patients, flooded in — in their hundreds. It was later found out that the family had died in a botched arson attack. They had not been the intended targets of the crime.
Even the worst of situations can bring the best outcomes. We saw a community and country standing with a man of remarkable strength, facing unfathomable personal tragedy. In moments of unimaginable grief, everything gets stripped away, and we are able to recognise only one thing — each other’s shared humanity.
Last week’s terrorist attack in New Zealand showed the worst of humanity. Mindless hate. Yet the response to it once again showed humanity at its best. New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, wore a hijab while visiting the two mosques that were attacked. Her empathy was on display for all the world to see as she hugged and was embraced by mourners. She swore to only focus on the victims, their names, their lives, and the stories of heroism on the day of the attack. Nothing else. No one else’s name would get mentioned.
This awful crime in New Zealand has shown the world what political leadership can look like, how magnificently powerful vulnerability and sensitivity can be. Ardern has redefined leadership in an age of hate.
Leadership used to need only a suit. Nothing else. You just needed to wear a suit, look serious, talk serious, be serious and you were granted leadership status. Don’t smile. Don’t laugh. Appear hard. Appear tough. Do not negotiate. Do not show weakness. All this and you were a bona fide leader of men, in any office, public or private. Times have changed.
Now we know that anyone, even six-time bankruptees with careers in reality TV, can get elected to office, wear a suit and call themselves a leader. These are the kind of leaders who use words like “tough” and “hard” that get us absolutely nowhere except closer to hate and stuck in a stalemate.
This week, Ardern spoke of currency — of what was important. “Compassion” was of utmost importance, she declared. She is not the kind of leader we are used to seeing. These are not the kind of words we are used to hearing from leaders. This is the same woman who gave birth while in public office, not as a back bencher, but as prime minister.
She was not the first leader of a government to give birth while in office. She was the second, after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto in 1990. Bhutto did so in almost total secrecy, reading policy papers a day after her caesarean section. Ardern announced her news on Instagram, and took six weeks’ maternity leave. She also made history last September by being the first world leader to attend a United Nations general assembly meeting with her baby. Ardern was giving a speech at this summit meeting too.
She has always refused praise for the trail she is paving. On announcing her pregnancy, she said she and her part-ner will simply “be joining the many parents out there who wear two hats”. She would be a prime minister and a mum.
In the age of hate and constant displays of aggression, compassion is indeed of utmost importance. So, too, are visible signs of humanity in leadership, and in our communities. If we are to change the way we are living on this planet, move towards sustainability, and embrace diversity, we are going to need more humanity and fewer suits. As the climate affects people’s homes and livelihoods, migration is going to need to be planned for, not ignored and condemned.
If we are going to need two paying jobs in one household, we are going to need to recognise that women do indeed give birth, and maternity leave is a necessity, not a luxury. If we are going to need two paying jobs in one household, we are going to need to recognise that maternity and paternity leave could be split equally, should the couple so choose.
It is now widely known and accepted that we have about 12 years to address climate change, before it becomes a catch-up game. Talk about recycling and the environment no longer elicit statements of dismissal and denial. We are going to need to change how we do things around here. We need to make room for humanity in public life.
Two years after the death of Dr al-Sattar’s family, he was speaking publicly around the time of Ramadan. He had every reason to be crippled by hate. You’d have forgiven him for it. These were his words in 2015: “You respect your neighbours and you respect everybody, you do not harm anybody.”
The likes of Dr al-Sattar and Jacinda Ardern are people displaying humanity at its best. If Jacinda Ardern is redefining leadership in the age of rage, then we need to redefine who we elect to office, both at a local and a national level. On May 24, you will get to elect human beings to the European Parliament and to local councils all around the country. Who gets elected matters. It’s up to you, if you have a vote.