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Image: Getty Images / Tina Tiller

SocietyMay 7, 2022

Remembering March 15 during the month of Ramadan

hands holding Muslim prayer beads in front of a red and yellow background
Image: Getty Images / Tina Tiller

The Muslim faith’s holy month, which ended on Sunday, is traditionally a time for reflection. For teenager Zeba Bahadur, it was an opportunity to consider how her religion is seen by her fellow New Zealanders.

I write this while observing the holy month of Ramadan, three years after a terror attack that shook Aotearoa’s Muslim community as well as the Muslim community worldwide. As I reflect on the time since the March 15 terror attack, I can’t help feeling that not a lot has drastically changed. I continue to see a rise in Islamophobia, in New Zealand and globally, reflecting the hatred on full display on March 15: a belief that Islam is inherrently violent and that our community somehow deserved the violence of that day in Christchurch.

Despite Islam having long existed in New Zealand (two centuries to be precise, since the early 19th century), Muslims are still perceived as immigrants and refugees. In other words, as “foreign”. We are either “welcomed” or warned to “go back” to where we came from. We are not truly recognised as a longstanding part of New Zealand society. Our political, educational, cultural and social contributions to present-day Aotearoa is erased through the cementing of our identity as an Other. “They are us,” intended to express solidarity with the victims of the Christchurch terrorist attack, points obviously to the widespread acceptance that Muslims have lived as perpetual outcasts. This back-and-forth between “they” and “us” exposes the tenuous nature of a Muslim’s life and place in society.

The Muslim community has been the ongoing target of our nation’s mass surveillance and security measures, and yet it is Muslims who endure daily attacks and Islamophobic abuse. New Zealand’s legacy of racism and discrimination has helped normalised the marginalisation of Māori and Muslim peoples alike, and so it’s hard to accept the “This is not who we are” narrative that lays full blame on an individual Australian white supremacist terrorist. I sincerely ask, is the terrorist alone or is he part of a wider problem?

Thinking about New Zealand’s history of Islamophobia, I look back to 2002, two years before I was born, and the arrival in this country of Ahmed Zaoui. He was held without trial for two years, much of it in solitary confinement, and declared a a threat to national security despite no substantiated evidence. I look back to 2017, when I was 13, when then deputy prime minister Winston Peters called for Muslims to help monitor terrorist activity by acting as informants within the Islamic community. Prompted by a series of terror attacks in the UK that year, Peters declared that the Islamic community must “clean house” and “turn these monsters in”, in order, presumably, to prove that we are one of the good ones.

A tribute near Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, March 17 2019. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Still I continue to pray that my community will one day come to know and enjoy peace.

I pray that we together acknowledge that the distorted portrayal of Islam as aggressive, dangerous and threatening has shaped society’s attitudes towards Muslim people, and ultimately led to the attack we witnessed three years ago. It is critical that we together call on the media and government to honour their obligation to report on the Muslim community accurately, and to prioritise taking preventative measures to address and eliminate all forms of violence. I pray for those in power to shape public discourse in good faith.

Islamophobia is not a phobia. For far too long, Islamophobia has denoted a supposed “fear of” or “prejudice towards” Muslims, but it is important that we understand Islamophobia as something far more complex. In addition to being based on prejudice, Islamophobia is also a governing technique that uses the dehumanisation and othering of Muslims to justify state violence. This tactic is used to further state interests, be it by political leaders to gain votes or by the media to increase engagement. Muslims are seen as pawns in political games, and as a result we become hypervigilant. We feel no peace.

Yesterday evening after school, I was praying Taraweeh salah at my local mosque. Taraweeh is an auspicious prayer performed at night during our holy month of Ramadan. Muslims opt into performing Taraweeh. I attend Taraweeh prayers every night of Ramadan, as I enjoy the peace I feel when listening to and reflecting upon the verses of the Quran. I feel a sense of accomplishment in doing this, too. Last night, during prayer at my masjid, I was startled by the loud sound of a man’s voice. My stomach dropped and fear spread throughout my body. I held my breath; I trembled as I continued to pray. For a few moments I was overcome by the thought of something happening to my fellow worshippers and me. When we finished praying, my cousin turned towards me and asked, “Did you hear it too?”. Fear isn’t something that we should be living with, especially not at our place of worship while observing our blessed and holy month – a time that all Muslims look forward to and give thanks for. In the three years since March 15, this hypervigilance and fear has become ingrained; it’s part of our collective identity that so many Muslims recognise intimately in each other.

Masjid An-Nur mosque in Christchurch on the first anniversary of the terrorist attack, in 2020. (Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

I write this in the face of our misrepresentation by those in power. I write this to communicate that now more than ever, it is of critical importance to always seek both sides of a story when faced with narratives that inevitably harm Muslims. With an ache in my heart, I see Islamophobia is still on the rise and that Muslim communities face vitriol and humiliation on a daily basis. I don’t just mean the violent attacks we as Muslims face, but also the racism, discrimination and verbal abuse we encounter as we go about our everyday lives. One may argue that March 15 was three years ago and that we should leave the past in the past. But how is it possible to reconcile this sentiment with the most recent Islamophobic attack on an Otago Girls’ High School student, in which a Muslim girl’s hijab was ripped off along with further violence?

Islamophobia takes life. Islamophobia is not a new phenomenon; Muslims have long existed as a collective other. When presidents refer to Syrian refugees as serpents, or when prominent right-wing pundits refer to Iraqis as illiterate monkeys, when there is ongoing demonisation and when there are tireless attempts to prove that an entire religion poses a threat to you, or that an entire race of people must be banned due to our faith, we will continue to see attacks like those on March 15. We must recognise how words like “extremism” and “terrorist” are used as political instruments. In the face of this I pray that we stand united together as people of all different races and faiths. In the words of Angela Davis, it is not enough to be non-racist; you must alsobe anti-racist.

In all this I also see an overfocus by non-Muslims and Muslims alike on the violent vs peaceful binary of Islam. Emphasing this binary, I feel, prevents us from than seeking to comprehend the nature of Islam and Muslim beliefs. The reality of peace and violence in Islam is complex, as it is in any religion, and requires nuanced and contextual understanding. Is Islam, then, a peaceful religion? Yes. There are peaceful Muslims who understand the Quran and Islam in a peaceful manner. Is it true that Islam could potentially be a violent religion? Yes, since there are aggressive Muslims who use the Quran and Islamic tradition as justifications for their aggression.

Most of the world’s big religions have the same kind of debates over the interpretation of religious texts as Islam does. Does that mean every person of faith should be viewed as a potential terrorist or extremist? I don’t use my religion as a reason to justify biases I may hold as a natural condition of my being human, yet I still feel the need to articulate the absurdity of being characterised as a terrorist simply due to my faith. When my faith sees me characterised as a “terrorist”, why do I simultaneously feel silenced?

Such a dehumanising characterisation undermines our equal rights. The terrorist who killed 51 people with an automatic weapon was captured alive and given a fair trial, and rightfully so. Conversely, just last year in New Zealand, Aathill Samsudeen, who stabbed and wounded eight people in what was also deemed a terrorist attack, never got that right. He was gunned down and killed by the police on the spot. A number of media articles questioned the Christchurch terrorist, once a “good boy”, could have “gone bad”. I genuinely believe that if it had been a Muslim who had committed such acts of violence, the media would have portrayed him very differently.

Samsudeen was a Tamil Muslim asylum seeker, traumatised in Sri Lanka’s anti-Tamil genocide. He was doubly oppressed by the inescapable normalisation of Islamophobia worldwide. Sansudeen had no respite in this world. He was born into a world with nowhere to go, never knowing a concept of home. Samsudeen was classified as a threat to New Zealand, yet can we absolve our nation state of exacerbating the very attitudes of extremism in him that our state claims it tried to suppress? He was surveilled, he was denied recognition of his pain, and in doing so he was dehumanised. Did our justice system lead a traumatised, isolated young man even further down the road to becoming characterised a terrorist? Was Sansudeen uncritically deemed a terrorist because of his religion, Islam? The problem with the direct label “terrorist” is that it overrides everything else that was going on for Samsudeen. It makes irrelevant the longstanding mental health issues that were flagged not long after his arrival in New Zealand. It also overrides his human right to seeking assylum and further supercedes his own experience of terror. As the saying goes, “hurt people, hurt people”. Aathil Samsudeen is responsible for the hurt he caused, but as a country, are we brave enough to accept some of the responsibility for who he became? 

For my Muslim community, the portrayal of Islam as a faith that incites violence is both frightening and heartbreaking. The Christchurch attack on Muslim worshippers was a tragic outcome of one person’s irrational fear and hatred born from one-dimensional misconceptions about our faith.

I can’t find the words to describe my heartache and unease when, a while ago, I entered the Al-Noor masjid in Christchurch. It was very quiet, almost as if the place had forgotten that it ever saw life. My family members said they could hear the cries of the worshippers who had lost their lives. I felt a weight of grief on my chest. It was the most inexplicable sadness, and I felt more deeply than ever for those who had lost their loved ones on that day. To this day, I feel deep sorrow when I think about New Zealand’s “darkest day”; I feel empty. There’s a void in my heart and I’m afraid it may never be filled.

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