Candles left near Al Noor mosque, Christchurch, on March 18. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

In the face of ugliness and hate, these are the moments of touching beauty

In the weeks after the Christchurch we’ve seen those who continue to seek profit from hate. But we’ve also seen an awakening of sorts, and that is where the hope is, writes Anjum Rahman

We barely had time to take a breath from the tragedy in our own country, when another happened in Sri Lanka. In a seemingly endless round of global violence, strike and counter-strike, we seem to be in a state of perpetual grief.

Yesterday I read someone’s personal account of the friends he lost, the families who have disappeared in a devastating series of attacks, and my heart bled for him, and for all those others who have suffered on another island country. Just last week, I was sitting in my car, silently weeping as I heard a Christchurch father recount the story of his little girl being shot as he lifted her off the ground. Sometimes it feels like I don’t have enough tears.

In the face of tragedy, there is also the kindness of friends, acquaintances, strangers. People who ask, “how can I help?” or “what can we do?” I was visited by one such person yesterday, offering my community and the victims of Christchurch the one asset he had at his disposal: one of the theatres in town. I met with another woman for the first time, arranged by a mutual connection. As we talked for an hour, she found a way she could help me.

Earlier in the week I spent another hour on the phone with someone I have yet to meet in person, and we talked through an idea that has been in my mind in the last few weeks. She sent me a three-page document, with concepts and diagrams, that captured a way to make the idea work.

In the face of ugliness, there are these moments of touching beauty, too many to count. They keep whispering to me: don’t give up, don’t give in. They are the motivation to keep dreaming big and working towards something that might bring the change we need.

One thing we’ve seen as a result of the attacks in Christchurch is an awakening of sorts. While others have moved on, and have had enough of the coverage, enough Muslim-ness in their lives, there are still plenty of people who want to act. That is where the hope is.

In the face of hostile chat rooms, online forums cheering violence, and the dark web being used by terrorists to organise, it’s easy to fall into the trap that the problem is too big. It is big, but it’s not impossible. Governments around the world are recognising this and have started legislating. The up-coming forum in France to tackle online extremism is another step.

There’s a lot of money to be made from hate. Both politicians and professional provocateurs have learnt the skills needed to garner widespread attention through mainstream and social media. It’s a tried and tested formula. Say something as outrageous and offensive as possible, but in language that can still be quoted on the 6 o’clock news.

The free publicity rolls in, and directs sympathetic eyes to websites, paid lectures, campaign donation sites, books for sale, merchandise. It doesn’t matter how many people rail against the offensiveness, how many comedians and talk show hosts ridicule the speaker. The fact is that shining a light on ugliness doesn’t make it disappear, it just helps sympathisers to find it and gravitate towards it.

The paradox is that staying silent doesn’t work either. Ignoring the trolls only emboldens them, makes them want to push harder, be more threatening and extremist. Because their endgame is to get attention, and they will keep on going and going until they get it. Eventually they get it, because they are prolific enough and dedicated enough to their task to never give up. It earns them a lot of money, after all.

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In the face of this dedication to hate, there are still a lot of people in this country and in this world who are dedicated to much better things. In their own way, these ordinary champions carry on with the task of spreading kindness, generosity and love. It doesn’t always take grand gestures, though those are definitely useful. Sometimes it’s just a simple conversation, a helping hand.

I have a handwritten letter from a super-annuitant in Wellington, to which she stapled a $5 note for me to put towards “education against Islamophobia”. She’s not rich, she says. But she is rich: that $5 note is equal in value to a mountain of gold. Sometimes it feels like I don’t have enough tears.

In the face of resistance to change, of protection of the current power structures by those who benefit from it, there is a movement happening. I see so much quiet determination as well as a lot of enthusiasm and excitement. People are starting to make connections and reach out in ways I haven’t seen before. The act of visiting a mosque was a new experience for tens of thousands of New Zealanders, but in that simple act and the placing of flowers, the giving and receiving of embraces, hearts were opened.

And that is where the hope is.


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