28 Aug 2020

Saziah Bashir: Christchurch terrorist is sentenced, but New Zealand still has a race problem

8:27 am on 28 August 2020

By Saziah Bashir *

Opinion - Everyone's lives changed this year as Covid-19 made its way through the borders of every nation, turning the world on its head as it spread. In these tumultuous times, perhaps we could be forgiven for forgetting that for the Muslim community in New Zealand everything already changed last year, on 15 March 2019. For many, and not just those who were killed, the world had ended. How else could we expect the family of a slain three year old to feel?

A member of the Muslim community uses his mobile phone out side the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15, 2020.

A member of the Muslim community outside the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch. Photo: AFP

The sentencing hearing this week of the terrorist I shall not (and have so far refused to) name served as a reminder of the pain the survivors and the families of victims have been carrying with them since that day. This pain is physical, as survivors who sustained serious injuries outlined their ongoing struggles, some presenting in Court in wheelchairs, some still having surgeries and receiving treatment to this day.

And then there's the other type of pain, the unseen, unquantifiable kind.

This pain, of suffering and loss, is a familiar one for many Muslims, though never felt more acutely here than since last year's terror attacks. You could feel it palpably from every individual as each victim impact statement was read.

I admire those that filled the seven courtrooms, to make statements on behalf of themselves or someone else, to support a loved one as they said their piece to the man who took from them a parent, sibling, partner or friend. He took away their physical and mental wellbeing when he subjected them to injuries and witnessing scenes of horror that cannot be unseen. From some he took the ability to walk, to earn a living and even to sleep. But remarkably, it appears he was not able to take away peoples' capacity for forgiveness and grace.

But I also admire those who could not forgive, who called him a coward and a loser, who condemned him to the most severe punishment available in this life, and the afterlife. I even admire those who chose not to provide statements and to not give this man any more time, thought or space in their lives.

I personally would not have known what to do. I swung like a hopeless pendulum all week between avoiding the news coverage of the hearings to gorging tearfully on article after article in the evenings when my resolve wavered. I could not imagine a choice as impossible as facing someone who killed a loved one to articulate my pain or denying him the satisfaction through my silence. I don't know that I could ever forgive him. Truly, there is no way to deal with this that I would prescribe to any Muslim because every feeling, every reaction is valid.

Many described a sense of closure or relief. "Verily, with every hardship, comes ease" the Quran tells us. In a way it almost doesn't matter what the killer was sentenced to.

Generally I support prison abolition for all but the most violent criminals, preferring state resources to be focused on prevention and rehabilitation. Though I query whether there is any rehabilitating a man such as this. Especially when he essentially represents a wider problem that continues to thrive, often unchecked, like a weed choking all that is good about this place. In that regard, prevention has failed, and is not yet getting enough of our attention.

I'm speaking, of course, about racism, and more specifically white supremacy - ideologies that the killer subscribed to and propagated. This man alone actually means nothing, he represents a greater ill. Condemning one man does nothing to address the intergenerational trauma inflicted on Māori by the history of colonialism, rooted in white supremacy, that founded this country in the first place.

A similar trauma propels migrants and refugees in search of safer, more prosperous shores (remember, we are here because you were there). It is in the soil, and in our bones. The very least we can do now is acknowledge the wider problem, then work through it together. It is too late, and far too little, to merely decry racism and deny that it exists here.

My 11-year-old self would have told you that it existed when four white girls refused to believe that I didn't wear shorts for religious reasons. Instead they pinned me to a bathroom stall and pulled my jeans up to inspect my legs to check if they were "just ugly." After 9/11, when I was in high school, I lost count of how many times I was asked if my family were "terrorists too". So-called friends would wave their ham and cheese sandwiches under my nose and dare me to take a bite because they couldn't abide this "no pork nonsense".

As a child I always carried a fear with me of being targeted for being different, and having my differences pointed out and ridiculed. Humiliation was always just an ignorant remark away. Of course microaggressions such as these, colourful in the special kind of cruelty children are capable of (utterly bland and banal if I was to recount to you the sort I regularly encounter now as an adult in the workplace), are just death by a thousand tiny cuts. It is harmful, but a minor form of violence.

What it does, unchecked in a meaningful way, is foster an environment of permissiveness. It implies that chipping away at someone's humanity because of their race (or in the bigotry subset of Islamophobia, their faith) is acceptable. It puts my dignity and right to be treated with decency and respect below that of someone who is "normal" ie. white. Extrapolated, this results in actual violence.

I find it incredibly insulting and disingenuous when someone tries to say New Zealand does not have a racism problem because you cannot presume to know more about my lived experiences than I do. It is equally flippant to dismiss the Christchurch terrorist as an Australian, as if we can only import racism from our rougher neighbours and there is no variety of it that is homegrown. He spent years here plotting his hateful act, but New Zealand is not so potently anti-racist that his time here dispelled his beliefs.

Many still bristle at any mention of the "R" word here, and I will no doubt receive my usual barrage of online abuse for saying New Zealand has a race problem. Of course I only criticise this country because I care. In so far as I invest in the construct of nationhood, this is the nation I choose, and love. Even individuals claiming not to be racist may benefit from a system that centres and values whiteness, and proximity to whiteness, and disadvantages everyone who is an Other.

But the braver, more useful thing to do here is rise above the white fragility that prioritises the reaction to being called racist rather than the pain of those who experience racism. Honesty is key. To sit in the discomfort that confronting reality brings and then working through it is the only way to grow.

Becoming serious about prevention, denying nourishment to the soil in which racist ideologies take root and grow strong, is to demand accountability from those in positions of power.

This is never more relevant than in an election year. We have a deputy prime minister and, ironically, minister of foreign affairs, who has as recently as April 2019 declined to apologise for Islamophobic views he's happily espoused in the past.

New Zealand rightfully banned the types of weapons the terrorist used, but is yet to do anything about hate speech laws that the minister of justice himself called "woefully inadequate". A toothless review took place, but no change. Hate speech laws already exist in many countries in Europe, are included in Article 20 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and are by no means radical, but the very mention of which elicit a war cry from 4Chan free speech bros.

We have a politician who thought it appropriate to obfuscate and divert attention from the issue of a lack of diversity in the opposition party's front bench by making it instead about how sick she is of being "demonised" for being white; this callous response jarring in the wake of enormous Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the world. She then gets rewarded by being made leader of said party.

Can we not, in 2020, do better? Be better?

Denying that racism is a problem here does nothing but allow it to grow in the forgotten, darkened corners of society where we'd rather not look. Until, of course, it violently emerges into the spotlight as it did last year. That is no solution. And we cannot afford another lesson so hard learned. I want action, not platitudes. The more productive way would be to examine how this racism permeates our institutions and dismantle that which no longer serves the changing face of New Zealand.

Because that is the undeniable truth (whether you like it or not) that you would have noticed had you observed those reading victim impact statements in the Christchurch High Court this past week. There were black, white, Asian and Arab Muslims, mixed race families, victims and survivors with heritages spanning continents, skin colours of every hue. There were hijabs and tattoos and taxi drivers and teachers and doctors.

And this Muslim community is also part of the Christchurch community, and they're also part of New Zealand. They demonstrated that this man alone is nothing, he is insignificant, he can be pitied and even forgiven. He could not break us. And he could not erase our complex, hard-fought identities. What prevails is unity, faith, and love.

I felt goose bumps on my arms when I heard Sara Qasem ask the killer to look around and tell her who the Other was now. I long for the day that it's truly no longer us.

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

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