One Hand on the Past, But Our Eyes on the Fu­ture /

Latitude Magazine - - CONTENTS - WORDS & IMAGES Isaac McCarthy

A year on from the Christchur­ch mosque at­tacks

Mov­ing for­ward from the tragic and tor­tur­ous in­ci­dent in­flicted upon the Mus­lim com­mu­nity in March 2019 is never go­ing to be a seam­less nor painless task. Such an un­der­tak­ing be­gins with recog­ni­tion and ac­cep­tance of trauma, from the en­tire New Zealand com­mu­nity. In the name of progress, two com­mu­nity lead­ers in Christchur­ch have made it their mis­sion to en­sure that their con­gre­ga­tions are de­fined by faith, re­silience and peace.

It­does 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 ‘left­wing 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

Some­thing that both Imams Fouda and La­teef unan­i­mously agreed upon was the love they have

for their home coun­try, New Zealand.

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.

FEA­TURE Alabi La­teef, Imam of the Lin­wood Is­lamic Cen­tre, urges his con­gre­ga­tion to not linger in ill thought and ha­tred sur­round­ing the events of March 2019, in be­lief that it will help the com­mu­nity move for­ward in peace.

Ga­mal Fouda, Imam of Christchur­ch’s Al Noor Mosque, drapes a prayer shawl ‘knit­ted in sol­i­dar­ity’ by mem­bers of a com­mu­nity in Seat­tle, USA.

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