Updated: Mar 14, 2021
By Palwasha A.
“Is it us? Or is it you?”
A few days ago, the survivors of the Christchurch massacre went to make their statements in court, as the person responsible for murdering their loved ones in their place of worship was given the heaviest sentence ever handed down in the history of New Zealand. The strength of their message as they looked directly into the face of the person who a year prior had stolen so much from them rings so strongly that it needs to be remembered.
One image in particular stood out. The son of Haji Daoud Nabi, the 71-year-old man who was murdered saying the words “Hello brother” to his killer, was wearing a pakol in court. Non-Afghans may have thought it a style choice, but the pakol is a hat originating in Chitral, traditionally worn by Afghan men, particularly Pashtuns. His father Daoud was also wearing a pakol in the image of him that was shared across the world after his death. This choice of headgear, combined with his long full beard and gigantic frame, I realised, seemed a conscious choice to make him look every inch the image of the word that has been used to demonise people who look like him in the Western conscience for so many years, as he looked upon the terrorist in the room.
“I urge you to take a look around this courtroom, and ask yourself who exactly is the other here right now. Is it us… or is it you?”
- Sara Qasem, daughter of Abdelfattah Qasem.
It’s said that everyone remembers where they were when they first heard the news of a horrific tragedy. When I read about the massacre as the updates were still rolling in, I was at work. I kept refreshing the page in horror, trying to keep my expression neutral, already understanding on a deeply-ingrained level that the outrage at this attack would fall short. I connected with the only other Muslim in the room, even though we barely knew each other, and we sat in silence over the news. When I went down to where everyone else was working, seeing them, I knew I had to leave, or risk someone making light of the attack.
“God says in the Qur’an, whoever kills one innocent soul, it is as if he has killed the entire mankind... And you have killed fifty-one. They left behind 34 spouses, 92 children and more than a hundred siblings who now have to endure the life sentence of being without their loved ones”
- Hamimah Tuyan, wife of Zekeriya Tuyan.
I don’t know if any of us remember ever hearing any shame, any acknowledgement from the Australian community that this terrorist was homegrown. When an Arab kills innocent people, all Arabs must be made to account for it for the rest of their lives, constantly defending themselves against such abhorrent, vile ideology. An Australian man wrote a manifesto condemning all non-white people before going into another country where he was allowed to travel freely, and killed people in their safest and most sacred place of worship. We never took blame or looked deeply into the fabric of our country for what it was that had allowed anti-Muslim hatred to grow so steadily unchecked that it resulted in this.
“You thought you can break us… You failed miserably. Ata is gone but never forgotten. He will always be the light of our eyes. And we will live in his legacy” - Maysoon Salama, mother of Ata Elayan.
A week after the attack, I heard a conversation in my workplace. Some of the higher ups were talking about an ad they wanted to run on our platforms, that a woman in charge of PR was worried was “subtly racist”. The head honcho complained for twenty minutes about how inconvenient it was to have to cater to these things all the time. Then the head of digital marketing said to the woman, “listen, if you’re worried about how it’ll come off, we’ll just cut it down a bit. I think people are very sensitive right now because of what happened at Christchurch, so let’s wait a week before we post it”.
The solution was to wait a week before being racist again. It didn’t end. I got up, my legs shaking and ears blaring, and walked up to my bosses and squeaked, “excuse me.” It came out as a genuine squeak. When they turned around I told them the ad was definitely racist, and saying something wasn’t okay “because Christchurch just happened” should tell you that it's not okay, ever. They protested, but in the end they had to listen, I think because they smelled, as all big people do, a potential lawsuit from a minority coming. The head of digital marketing apologised. Not truly genuinely, but the seed had at least been planted.
The person who killed so many people at Masjid al-Noor was someone who walked among us not too long ago, from a town that’s not actually that far from where we live, who swallowed and perpetuated, revelled in and promoted white supremacist ideologies and realised them in the choices he made throughout his life, resulting in the ultimate act of hatred.
But would we have gotten to this place, I wonder, if we hadn’t had a government that normalised the lock up and torture of non-white people seeking refuge on our shores? If when John Howard was losing in the polls 20 years ago, he hadn’t gotten his marketing team to make Muslim refugees the enemy of that year, and then when it worked, every year after that, resulting in his re-election? And if our neighbours, our community members and in some instances, we ourselves, hadn’t voted for it? I wonder what would have happened if our country’s most esteemed university didn’t choose to honour such a man, awarding him an honorary doctorate as protests took place outside it’s walls, and all the other events that we take part in every day that normalise intolerance in the narrative of our country.
Sara Qasem, the daughter of Abdulfatteh Qasem, said to her father’s killer in court that he had made a choice. “A conscious, stupid, irresponsible, cold-blooded, selfish, disgusting, heinous, foul, uninformed and evil choice," she said. It was a choice.
“Because of you my faith is stronger, and I want to learn more about Islam. So thank you”
- Nathan Smith, Christchurch survivor.
One of the biggest barriers to addressing anti-Muslim racism is that we ourselves are unaware of how deeply rooted it is in our own psyches. While we send our prayers up for every single life lost that day, we need to start understanding and fighting against the white supremacy and widely accepted anti-Muslim racism that led to so many people losing their lives that day.
For us, the best way we could think of remembering the tragedy and honouring those who lost their lives is to commit to fighting what allowed that and so many other tragedies to happen, and committing to seeing these changes through in the community. We’d like to invite all of you, our readers, to the “One Act” initiative, where you will be able to hop on and tell us about one thing you did in your week, however large or small that sparked an important conversation, or changed an uneducated opinion or protected a more vulnerable person.
There should never be another Christchurch. Our words of “never forget” mean never forget what it cost us to stay silent. Never forget what happened when white supremacy and anti-Muslim racism was allowed to thrive in Australia.
“We respect New Zealand and the Muslim community and the non-Muslim community. We stood together against hate” - Gamal Fouda, Imam of Masjid al-Noor.
Thank you to Al Jazeera, who provided bios and short stories for each person killed in the Christchurch attack. Too often the numbers of such attacks overwhelm the real human stories behind the names and this article honours each of them:
Edited by Tahmina R.