AUCKLAND, New Zealand—The world closed in on us on Friday.
All the hate and violence we had long watched happening hundreds of thousands of kilometers away finally landed in New Zealand. It arrived with semi-automatic weapons, a white supremacist ideology, and a video-game style of terror that aimed to dehumanize victims and glorify a terrorist.
It left at least 50 men, women, and children dead after two mosques were attacked during Friday prayers in the city of Christchurch.Terrorism came, it devastated, and now we’re left questioning who we are as a nation. How this could happen here. What we do next.
Friends changed profile photos to a “this is not us” filter, people talked about their shock, their grief. As a New Zealand Muslim, messages started to flood my phone from people who wanted me to know they cared about me, remind me that this was not a reflection of our nation.
But in many ways, it is.
Racism is a small but real part of our society, a palpable undercurrent that we live with, as strong as the love and inclusion that the world knows us for. There is a cultural environment in New Zealand where a crime like this was possible. New Zealand is a double-edged blade of cruelty and kindness, and that is why this hurts so much.
This attack was a wake-up call for much of the country, but for many in the Muslim community, it was an escalation of what we have experienced for some time.
Almost every visibly Muslim person I know has experienced some form of abuse in New Zealand. I have been attacked in broad daylight. Friends, colleagues, strangers—almost everyone has a story.
Even in the immediate aftermath of the deadliest act of terror in our nation’s history, ignorance and hate reared their heads. Two visibly Muslim women were verbally abused by a man at a train station in Auckland just 48 hours after the attack. The women had convinced their parents it would be safe to leave their homes during the day and it wasn’t. The incident left the women scared. So many in the Muslim community are scared. For five years, the Islamic Women’s Council had been asking the government to do something to protect our communities from a very real threat posed by the rising tide of alt-right hate groups and white supremacy. For five years, it met with government representatives, but no action was taken.
In New Zealand there is no hate crime legislation, no official record kept of hate-fueled crimes—big or small—committed against individuals. We have no way to measure the extent of this problem. Proactively or reactively—there are gaping holes in the protection of our minority communities.
For the first time in my life, my mosque is closed because it may not be safe for us to congregate. The heart of our community is closed until further notice.
When I try to verbalize how I feel, the words are simple: I am angry. I am sad. I am skeptical. But I am trying to be hopeful.
Our nation is grieving, but it is not inactive. The mass turnout to vigils across the country last weekend demonstrates to me that we, as a larger society, will not accept violence like this.
We grieve together, surrounded by people, from all walks of life, who like me have no words to describe how broken our hearts are. There is power and comfort in that unity.
None of us want to be defined by this act of terror. We refuse to be sucked into a cycle of repeat events where nothing changes, like many other countries. We have witnessed what has happened elsewhere, and I hope we know better.
Already our prime minister and attorney general have gun legislation reform underway. Meanwhile, people have begun voluntarily handing in their guns. New Zealanders and parliamentarians alike are calling for an inquiry into our intelligence services to make sure these agencies are focused on the protection of all our communities. Many people have demanded better moderation of Facebook and comment sections on our top news sites—a cesspool of xenophobic and racist rhetoric—and some now realize they need to take a zero-tolerance approach to racism and hate in all its forms.
This is already so much stronger than “thoughts and prayers.” And it is also a much truer picture of who most of us are—kind, compassionate, and willing to stand up and speak out when we see something wrong. This is my New Zealand, and my New Zealand wants action.