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

SocietyMarch 21, 2019

I cannot forgive the rhetoric that got us here

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

I want to forgive, but right now all I feel is anger, writes Lamia Imam.

إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ – inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un – we belong to Allah and to Allah we shall return. This is what Muslims say to one another when they hear news about someone who has died.

I’ve been seeing this all over social media for the past five days. There is a certain level of comfort in saying this, but it is not enough to keep my anger at bay. I want to be like Farid Ahmed, the Bangladeshi immigrant who has already forgiven the shooter who killed his wife.

“If someone does bad to you, make sure you do good to them,” Mr Ahmed said.

But I am not as compassionate as him and I cannot find it in me to forgive the rhetoric that got us here. Muslim. What does it mean when you see that word? Because I can assure you whatever you imagine in your head, it doesn’t encapsulate this community.

Muslims come from many countries and speak many languages. Being a Muslim is a religious identity as much as a cultural one. Muslims are born into the community and convert into it.

I have met white Muslims and Māori Muslims, South Asian Muslims, Arab Muslims, Muslims who never miss a prayer and Muslims who only show up to the mosque on Eid days. I have known Muslims who have sex before marriage, drink alcohol, listen to heavy metal; Muslims who serve their country and community; Muslims who question their faith; and Muslims who have memorised the entire Quran by heart.

The masjid in Deans Ave in Christchurch was the place you would see all those Muslims. That was the first mosque I ever went to as a baby and it was the mosque I went to as an adult student at Canterbury.

Am I someone you can imagine when you see the word Muslim? I was born in Christchurch to South Asian immigrants. By the time I was four years old, my parents had already moved back to their home country and then immigrated to the United States. I returned to New Zealand to go to uni, having heard from my parents that they faced a lot of racism in the ’80s living in Lincoln. I remember reporting back to them “things have changed, everyone in New Zealand eats rice and curry now”. But even so I was not immune from the racism in Christchurch.

I learned to stomach it because it was not serious.

When a group of white boys called me “butter chicken” on the streets of Christchurch I learned to laugh about it with my friends, because “it was a clever insult”.

When the lady at the Canterbury Enrolment office yelled at me and told me to stand in the International Students line in my fourth or fifth year, I did as I was told and proved her wrong later.

I was embarrassed that everyone thought I was a ‘stupid foreigner’, even though I was born in that city.

I let it go. It wasn’t a big deal.

When white nationalists were congregating in Christchurch, I was alarmed but let it go because ‘it is their country and they can choose to hate people’. I told myself ‘at least we are not America where people walk around with guns and shoot people’. I looked at my New Zealand passport with pride and told myself I came from a country that was more compassionate and kind, a country that was slightly better.

Today we are no better. We as a country failed to stop something horrific, because we like to believe we are better. We like to believe that for example Duncan Garner’s words that compared immigrants shopping at K-mart to a human snake are not racist. The media published a New Zealand First member’s words that Indians and Pakistanis are arrogant and force their ways and means on New Zealanders without thinking about their impact.

We don’t believe these words can ever have a violent impact, because we are New Zealand and we are better. When MPs talk about immigrants in terms of net numbers, economic burdens, their inability to assimilate, we think that language is acceptable because it is not as bad as what white supremacists say.

Among the 50 people killed is my dad’s friend, Abdus Samad, who led prayers. I have been to their home. His kids and his wife won’t get to have him home because someone subscribed to racist beliefs. ‘Respectable racists’ like those in the media and politics might believe their beliefs are not as extreme as the shooter’s, but their words fuel hatred.

Why do we have to accept this?

Our country is built on violent colonisation by white Europeans. Indeed, the accused murderer was himself an immigrant to our country, and yet our public discourse continuously questions why brown immigrants are in New Zealand trying to live and make a life for themselves.

My first-generation Kiwi friends who are white are never asked “where they are really from” like I am.

Since 2006, even being born in New Zealand is not enough to be granted New Zealand citizenship. If I had been born after 2006, I would not be a New Zealander today. The public discourse and these policies in effect vilify immigrants who are non-white.

Today, we are united in our grief and everyone is saying all the right things. By next year we will forget, and small racist incidents will go unnoticed by the media and the police. It is an election year next year, and our politicians will go back to talking about immigrants like they always have, empowering the beliefs of white nationalists.

I am writing this to remind everyone to not forget.

I am writing this because in a year I would like to be told ‘you were wrong’.

السَّلَامُ عَلَيْكُمْ

As-salāmu ʿalaykum – peace be upon you.


This article first appeared on RNZ.

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