It does not do well for anyone to linger in memories of trauma or indignation; such an existence will see a soul slide into a chasm of resentment and, ultimately, severe depression. However, to move away from such a state, particularly after the horror of a mass-shooting, and into a world of psychological and spiritual healing is a journey marred with adversity. Therefore, it is predicated upon absolute support from everyone, intimately affected or otherwise. The Islamic community in Christchurch, just like every other minority group in New Zealand, is very much a part of the wider community, and should not be separated, or worse, defined, by the infamous incident that unjustly struck them on 15 March 2019. The outpouring of support from the majority of New Zealand, and the rest of the world, is as inspiring as it is reassuring; a confirmation that, ultimately, hate does not prevail. However, festering in pockets of our country are individuals and radical groups who would otherwise seek to capitalise on such an event and sow the seeds of fear and racism. Such intolerance, which is defined as Islamophobia, manifests itself in many forms, and it is the duty of all Kiwis to stamp it out like one would stamp out a smouldering ember in a tinder-dry landscape, because if we do not, such infectious bigotry will only spread to the unsuspecting minds of those less aware of its ramifications.
Let us take our example from two exceptionally motivated leaders in our community: Imam Gamal Fouda of Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque, and Imam Alabi Lateef of the Linwood Islamic Centre. Both were present during the attack, and are now both tirelessly leading their congregations on the path to forgiveness and peace. Let us remember that a true definition of forgiveness does not demand that one simply forgets or excuses the actions of, in this case, murderous ideology. Nor is it a conditional expression that ought to be divulged only if a perpetrator demonstrates remorse, as this further binds a victim to the feelings and whims of said perpetrator. Rather, it is a conscious decision that one will not allow hateful events of the past to dictate their decisions in the future. It is a true, but difficult freedom; one that, when actualised, releases the victim from the grip of vengeance and a mindset of hostility and loathing. To reference Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to forgive is also an acknowledgement of our shared humanity, and inner peace is discovered in this manner. Recognition of this concept was evident in the attendance of thousands to mourn with our wider Islamic family at memorial services following the incident, as well as the countless offerings of goodwill from all around the world.
It is a Thursday evening, and I am sitting in the Linwood Islamic Centre with Imam Alabi Lateef. Although large in stature, he is quiet and patient in demeanour. One thing I notice about him is his gaze; he considers me carefully with each question I ask him, but I cannot help but observe, at times, a thousand-yard stare that is brought to bear by his account of the events proceeding the March 2019 incident. It is no secret that this peaceful man has endured a great deal. ‘We are doing fine, generally,’ he responds to my question concerning the welfare of his congregation. ‘But, it is going to take a long time for our community to feel secure again; people are missing their loved ones every day. Some are hesitant to trust situations now; sometimes we call people just to make sure they are safe, and our children are frightened and very confused.’ This general impression of insecurity is reverberated by Imam Gamal Fouda when I speak with him in his office at Al Noor Mosque. At the time of the interview he had recently been nominated to the local community board, with every intention to build tolerance and understanding between the citizens of Christchurch. ‘It is going to take many years for the healing process [to be complete]. People still have a fear that something negative could happen. I am trying to build confident relationships between people inside and outside of our community.’ In response to my question concerning how he is leading his congregation forward, Imam Lateef is very much focused on matters of a philosophical nature. ‘Physical and mental wounds are still lingering; to reach the status of forgiveness is going to take some time,’ he tells me. ‘But,’ he continues, ‘my message to our brothers and sisters is that we have to move on. If we keep thinking about this incident, if we keep yelling about it, we will find ourselves in the same place.’
Islamophobia, as previously stated, comes in many forms, some that many may not expect. Offhand, vulgar utterances or statements certainly constitute bigotry, and it is not ‘left-wing idealism’ to suggest so; they are simply unacceptable. One particular manifestation of intolerance, often not acknowledged as such, that has rankled itself throughout our country is the declaration of the March 2019 attack as a ‘false flag’, otherwise known as a conspiracy theory. I have had these beliefs expressed to me by several individuals; but, typically, such lunacy is being spread online via social media groups bathing in their own confirmation bias. The reasoning behind the development of conspiracy theories is not so clear, but generally, they are fashioned by people who already have an unhealthy and often unjustified distrust and resentment for governing authority. Regardless of how, why or with whom they emerge, the important thing to note is that they are not simply brandished without resultant harm.
To irrefutably exclaim that this attack was somehow orchestrated by the Central Government or some other authority as a means of achieving political will is nothing more than paranoid nonsense. To utter anything of the sort is to suggest a lack of humane value for our Islamic brethren; and, in this manner, is a total and unequivocal deprivation of belonging. It is also an illegitimate acknowledgement of trauma; in summary, it is just damaging.
‘This kind of commentary is expressed by a minority, but they are a loud minority,’ Imam Fouda tells me. ‘As a result [of the attack], this minority has become braver in their hatred, causing further racist comments and even assaults,’ he continues. One particular incident, he explains, saw a local woman physically accosted as someone attempted to forcefully remove her hijab in a public place. A common theme amongst all acts of intolerance, whether they be utterances online or public actions, is that they are unprovoked and without sound reason; in other words, they are born of cowardice. Sometimes this state of mind is not born of sheer malevolence, but simple disbelief that a state of danger could exist. As reported by RNZ in April 2019, one woman simply expressed that the attack did not make any kind of sense because no apparent animosity against the Islamic community in New Zealand was evident to her. Whilst misguided, it is a position like this which can be reeducated in a critical, but cordial manner. In order to quell this ideology and diminish these occurrences, one cannot simply remain silent when overhearing bigoted comments or witnessing intolerant acts, no matter how seemingly insignificant. It may just be a small, but unchallenged expression of racism that emboldens a less radical mind to adopt similar behaviour. Conversely, an act of opposition may also be enough to confirm that such expression itself is untrue and most unwelcome in our society. If someone is truly firm in their hateful position, and threatens to commit, or has already committed an act of atrocity, apart from reporting it to the authorities I am of the belief that such a coward ought not to be dignified, or their ideas given any credit. One who seeks to divide with hate ought not to be even recognised by name in speech, as it is this recognition and attention that they truly believe authenticates their weak ideology.
Something that both Imams Fouda and Lateef unanimously agreed upon was the love they have for their home country, New Zealand. ‘The whole country showed sympathy for us,’ says Imam Fouda. ‘I feel the majority of people in New Zealand support us, and demonstrated such a positive example for the rest of the world with their reaction [to the March 2019 incident]. Other religious organisations, such as New Zealand’s synagogues and Catholic churches, have assured us of their support in person, and there has been a greater interest in Islam since the attack. I believe that New Zealand should be celebrated for its strength of diversity.’ Such belief is understandable if one takes a trip to Al Noor Mosque. Signs, floral arrangements and artwork with a joint message of love and harmony embellish the Mosque’s perimeter, whilst cards and letters of sympathy, sent from all around the world, adorn the interior walls. As we spoke together, Imam Fouda unpacked a prayer shawl encased in a package sent from Seattle, USA. Its accompanying letter stated that over 100 people across the world had contributed to the patchwork; stitched along its edge is a message loud and clear: ‘We see you and we love you’. Imam Lateef echoes the sentiments of Imam Fouda. ‘I love Christchurch, I love New Zealand, and I love the people here very much. How they live their lives is amazing.’
It is not just our Islamic brothers and sisters that will be undertaking a journey of amelioration; the wider community must undergo that endeavour with them. Although people who do not pertain to the Islamic faith may not have been affected by this incident, we all have the capacity to help shoulder their burdens, and it can begin with a simple expression of welcome or inclusion should you know someone who has been affected in any way. Should we do this, we will recognise and remember the Islamic community by the brave recovery they are making, the resilience that they display and the love they have for their fellow citizens. ‘I finally met my new neighbour the other day,’ Imam Lateef tells me. ‘She is a kind, older lady, and she warmly greeted me as I was returning to my home, and said that she would very much like to meet my family.’ The whole encounter was overwhelmingly positive, he tells me, with a warm smile of his own forming as he recounts the experience. I ask him if misunderstandings of the Islamic faith may contribute to people’s reluctance to engage with Muslims in their neighbourhood. ‘The real issue is not the misunderstandings themselves,’ he tells me, ‘it is people’s tendency to focus on somebody else’s lane, trying to find their shortcomings, without concentrating on their own path. If you are driving on the highway, and looking at the lane of someone else, of course you are going to swerve and cause trouble for yourself,’ he analogises. ‘Whoever your neighbour is, we all must recognise that we are human first: we breathe the same air, and we eat in the same manner. If we show love to all people, then we will live in paradise on earth.’
It is duly noted that exploring such a topic and publishing this story required those who contributed to relive, in memory, the events of March 2019. I sincerely thank all who gave me their time to share thoughts and experiences, and it is the wishes of everyone at latitude that you and your wider family continue to find health and peace in the future.
Words and Images Isaac McCarthy