Christchurch mosque attacks: 'We were all impacted by the ripples'

10:22 am on 15 March 2020

By Saziah Bashir*

Opinion - A year on from the Christchurch terror attacks of 15 March 2019, if I try to articulate the impact of that day, I visualise a still body of water that has had a pebble dropped in the middle.

Mourners lay flowers and left artwork outside Al Noor mosque the days after the attack

Mourners lay flowers and left artwork outside Al Noor mosque the days after the attack Photo: Supplied

The ripples disrupt the surface, waning in strength the further they fan out.

All of us can place ourselves at some point of that formerly serene surface in terms of how deeply we felt the disruption.

Except that feels reductive of the enormity of what happened, and maybe the analogy I'm looking for is instead one of a giant sinkhole opening up in the ground.

Because 15 March cannot be viewed as a mere disruption, but a rupture in the very fabric of what I believe life in New Zealand is meant to be.

When the news broke, I abandoned the conference I was attending in Canberra and sat in the hotel lobby, teary and frantically trying to call my family. Once I knew they were safe, the panic turned into a sort of muted horror.

By the time we got to the airport that evening, I was already being contacted for comment by various media outlets. I started writing my first piece on the plane in a desperate attempt to get out of my own head and channel my feelings into something tangible.

When I landed back in Melbourne I went straight to a friend's house where several Kiwis had gathered. A home normally full of chatter and raucous laughter, it was quiet, the mood sombre.

I was due to fly to Bali the next morning. I was considering cancelling and going back to Auckland instead.

I didn't know what that would achieve but in that moment I just missed my family, and I missed home. My friends urged me not to change my plans because then "he" wins, "they" win.

The week I spent in Bali was surreal. My friend had expected a travel companion to share in her enthusiasm for Balinese food and massages.

Instead she got me - melancholy and prone to bursting into tears at random.

Still, she encouraged me to respond to the requests for articles or interviews. I felt I couldn't face it.

I just felt angry (at racism, bigotry), guilty (that it wasn't me, I survived, my family survived, we were lucky!), sad, devastated, raw, too much, all at once. I had never felt anything like this before.

Because this wasn't unavoidable destruction from a natural disaster, but a vicious act that should never have happened.

An unease I had always felt moving through life as a minority now bubbled to the surface.

My parents visited me in Melbourne over Easter and I was hypervigilant whenever they were on public transport, worried someone would rip off my mum's hijab.

It's never happened before, but anything could happen now, right? Even Nazis are a thing again. I went back to Auckland for the last week of Ramadan and Eid in May.

The 27th night of Ramadan is especially auspicious and there are special prayers at the mosque which we attend together as a family. I was shocked to find police patrolling our local mosque in Massey as added security. This was the new normal?

I found myself thinking that night that if a shooter was to show up in that packed mosque there would be no way out, but at least then I would die with my family.

This was not a possibility I had ever imagined grappling with in New Zealand, but here we were. We'd crossed a threshold and there was no going back.

When my parents travelled to the United States in August I was a worried wreck. I imagined losing them to some Trumpian black site for Muslims. I was the paranoid parent now, checking on them daily.

I look back and it makes sense that my normally well managed anxiety peaked, dissolving into frequent panic attacks by October. It's taken regular therapy and an obscene amount of yoga for me to get back to myself (somewhat) in the last few months.

And I wasn't even there, in Christchurch, on the day. I wasn't hurt, I haven't lost anyone personally. But New Zealand being as small as it is, we were all impacted by the ripples.

My brother, Mukseet, felt a heightened sense of responsibility to speak on his previous experiences of racism and Islamophobia, but also fatigued at being approached about this repeatedly when all he wanted to do was process and grieve in solidarity.

For him, the aftermath of 15 March really highlighted the dearth of diverse voices and representation in local mainstream media. I second this, given the number of requests I received myself.

My friend Zainab Al-Alawi grew up in the Muslim community in Christchurch where she attended Quran lessons as a child at the Al Noor Mosque most weekends.

Her stepfather still attends Friday prayers there. On 15 March he was still parking when the attack started, thus managed to escape.

She lost a number of family friends. Her sister died in December from unrelated causes and is buried with the victims of the attacks. That grave site in Christchurch will now forever be a part of Zainab's life.

Previously Zainab disregarded the "but where are you really from?" question all too familiar to anyone who claims to be a New Zealander but does not look a certain way as stemming from a sort of benign ignorance about the distinction between ethnicity and nationality.

She now worries the same train of thought that leads to that question can also lead to far more dangerous places.

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Photo: RNZ / Eden Fusitu'a

My friend Kershia Singh was on a bus in Auckland when she heard the news, and describes herself feeling "more brown and exposed" than she had in a long time. She identifies as a migrant Kiwi of South African-Indian heritage.

In the immediate aftermath a rift developed between herself and her European partner when she realized he could choose to disengage from the events of that day when she, with her lifetime's collection of racist encounters, microaggressions, fears and fraught South African history, could not.

It was as if the burden of that collection weighed her down further in grief, and the attack was not only on Muslims but on migrants, brown people and minorities in general.

This comment reminded me that the first victim of an Islamophobic hate crime in the United States post 9/11 was a bearded Sikh man who wore a turban.

Kershia also described feeling shame, questioning if she'd done enough to challenge Islamophobia in her own life from her position of relative privilege, not being Muslim herself. Many of my Pakeha friends echoed this concern.

Over the past year Kershia and her partner have had to do the work of interrogating the role race plays in how they navigate the world.

For her personally, it's highlighted a need to explore the South African-Indian aspects of her heritage in a way she never felt so keenly while growing up on the North Shore, busy assimilating into her new home.

Though I've had many conversations like this with other friends demonstrating the various complexities of reactions to 15 March, there was one sentiment we all shared - we were not surprised.

If you were surprised that this could have happened, you have not been paying attention to the world around you.

However, in relation to this attack, I feel compelled to distinguish the particular flavour of Islamophobia from your bog standard racism and xenophobia, though they are all rotten fruit of the same tree.

The genocide of the Rohingya in Burma, the recent violence in India and the detention of the Uighur in China, are all specifically targeted at Muslim minorities.

I've had Indian-Kiwi friends explain the battles on social media with their non-Muslim Indian relatives propagating Islamophobic rhetoric due to their support of the Hindu nationalist BJP.

I am told many unfriendings happened post 15 March because of opposition to the call to prayer playing over the radio or the absurd fears of the infiltration of "Sharia law" in New Zealand.

I would not want the particular politics associated with Islamophobia to be erased or subsumed into a generic conversation about race because that would be unproductive and ineffective.

But I believe talking about this, in real terms, of how it felt and the way it's changed us, is vital. The government must respond at a macro level, but we feel this in our chests, in our guts.

How else do we make sense of this? An act of violence so monstrous it took away 51 people, full and complex human beings, with their own hurts and hopes and dreams, at a time when they were gathering to submit themselves in peaceful worship, one Friday afternoon that shouldn't have ended the way it did.

I don't know what role I have to play in the aftermath of 15 March except to continue doing what I have always done, which is speak my truth and tell my story, and the stories of those I love.

This is why I have not attempted to speak for the survivors and victims, though my heart is with them. Instead I hope true allies and the media will offer their platforms to amplify the voices of the survivors and the loved ones of those who were lost.

For the first anniversary of the attacks I've opted to commiserate in the only way I know how - with community and kai.

We need to look back together; listen, reflect, and learn, in order to move forwards again.

*Saziah Bashir is a freelance journalist commenting on issues of social justice, race and gender.

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