Term 1, 2020: Twirling her hair between her fingers, she sits nervously in her social studies class. The topic of the day is 9/11. The teacher allows students to ask questions anonymously, and the questions (more like statements) are bad. A few of her classmates share stereotypes of Muslims, equating her faith to terrorism. It’s her first term in her very first year of high school. She does not want to make a bad impression, especially one she can’t shake for the remaining four years. High school sucks when you are different. She tries to point out the inconsistencies, passively so as not to seem too invested, but no one’s listening. It’s clear that she will always be wrong. She sinks into her chair, praying to be invisible till the lesson is over. Her teacher thinks the lesson was a success and carries on with their day. When her parents eventually complain, he apologises profusely – “I had NO idea. It won’t happen again” – and moves on. She doesn’t forget.
“They are us”, we were told.
If we truly were, we would not be having this conversation again.
A year ago, I shared stories, experiences, fears, openly, hesitantly. Marking me as alien, othered as neither here, nor there, these moments were my own arsenal for change. I justified the emotional labour, thinking that these traumas culminated over my lifetime could help paint a picture of what racism and Islamophobia look like in practice. These words, which often elicit defensiveness or denial, could be understood beyond slogans.
I cannot begin to compare these traumas from everyday life to the suffering and loss that the Muslims in Ōtautahi have experienced. The resilience and bravery of those who remain in the wake of the white supremacist terrorist attack (whether that is public advocacy or continuing to get out of bed every day) is a heartbreaking expression of our Islamic faith in practice.
Our relationship with death is a healthy one. We spend our entire lives spiritually preparing for it through good deeds and the service of others. It is not an exaggeration when I say that my father Abdalla Nasr, who passed away from pancreatic cancer last year (God rest his soul), discussed death with my sister Eman and I our entire lives. It is the only certainty we know.
As such, we are humble in death. No matter how we go, there are no grand headstones or wakes. We honour those who have left us, not with material things, but by making changes that reflect their values: with prayer, charity and sharing of the knowledge they imparted to us. I understand these three acts to be affirmations of a love big enough to affect change. Honouring those who have left us is not about well-wishing, apologising or celebration of life, but of positive action.
I understood my role was then, as a Muslim woman born and raised in the place where my soul most sings, Tāmaki Makaurau, to play my part in affecting change.
I packaged the daily traumas as examples, starting points for attitudinal and behavioural change, at the very least a laundry list of things not to do. But these offerings of mine in a time of grief and rage, and of the many other Muslim kiwis who did the same, feel hollow in hindsight. Even talking about the white supremacist terrorist attack feels awkward, almost impolite, now. The daily traumas, also, continue to amass. My fears for my hijabi mother, my (best and only) sister, and Muslim cats have only increased.
Islamophobia and racism are still a part of Muslim kiwis’ daily existence. I am disappointed, but not surprised.
The other day I tweeted about Inclusive Aotearoa Collective’s efforts to build a community-led strategy to end racial and Islamophobic discrimination, in the face of government complacency. In response, I was asked by an atheist to define Islamophobia. The concern over the right to “critique, challenge or ridicule” Islam enraged me. 51 Muslim kiwis were slaughtered, and many injured, while worshipping in Ōtautahi, and many of their loved ones and community still suffer from invisible wounds, and this is the priority. Even in death, Muslims matter so little.
This seemingly innocuous request, the teacher’s seemingly innocuous choice to focus on 9/11 and not March 15th, reveal that the dehumanisation and oriental stereotyping of Muslims have not been extinguished. They also reveal the work that remains to be done.
We never asked for vigils, flowers on our mosque steps, or even a memorial. Those were Pākehā priorities. An uncomfortable truth that many Muslim kiwis like me sit with every single day is that these gestures were never about us, or for us. After all, what is the point of these gestures if Islamophobia and racism continue to exist, silently or overtly, in Aotearoa New Zealand? Whose interests do they serve, if not simply to dull the terrible ache of white guilt?
It is uncomfortable to feel like your gestures of good faith are unwanted, I am sure. But the white supremacist ideology behind the terrorist attack did not happen in a vacuum. If it is not already self-evident: everyday racism/Islamophobia and white supremacist terrorism are connected. The Pyramid of White Supremacy is a useful way for understanding this connection without making the mistake of putting all Pākehā in the same boat as white supremacists. The normalisation of racist attitudes and behaviours such as indifference, minimisation and veiled racism empower extreme expressions of racism and Islamophobia, such as mass murder and violence.
Recognising the connection between everyday racism/Islamophobia and white supremacist terrorism is a powerful window into what meaningful solidarity with Muslim (as well as Māori and non-white migrant) communities is in action.
Tackling indifference can mean exploring the diversity with Muslim (and non-white migrant) communities in Aotearoa New Zealand, whether it is reading articles, books or documentaries produced by non-white migrants, or attending public community events or celebrations. It could mean confronting the racist banter you overhear at the table across from you or challenging the racist family member you feel you must put up with.
Tackling minimisation can mean believing the racialised experiences of Māori and non-white migrant communities. It can mean seeing confrontations for mistakes or ignorance as opportunities for (un)learning and growth. It can mean donating money to support the work of anti-racist campaigners and charities who work to dispel racist and Islamophobic myths with a vision of an Aotearoa free of discrimination and prejudice.
Tackling veiled racism could mean talking to your children about structural and everyday racism, negative portrayals of non-migrants in the media and what they can do to be better allies at school. It means stopping with the racialised ‘jokes’ you don’t mean.
These examples require you to develop your arsenal of language and skills, as well as the confidence, to unpack your own everyday encounters.
Holding yourself accountable and focusing on action that ‘gives nothing to racism’ and Islamophobia more meaningfully honours the memories of the Muslim kiwis who were taken from us one year ago than any memorial ever could.
Hala Nasr is an Egyptian kiwi, born and raised on the North Shore in Tāmaki Makaurau. She is a gender-based violence specialist working on her PhD at the University of Melbourne, looking at women-only safe spaces as a response to gendered violence, and the experiences of refugee women accessing them.
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