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The Guest House: How Muslims grieved the Christchurch attacks

In MEE's first podcast series, Mohamed Hassan uses the five stages of grief to examine the aftermath of the March 2019 Christchurch terror attacks
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New Zealand

The March 2019 mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand left for some in the Muslim community a trauma that was hard to deal with, and questions about where they see themselves in the national identity of the country. It is a home they loved dearly but one where they didn't always feel they were welcomed or belonged.

Over five episodes, and five intimate conversations, MEE senior producer Mohamed Hassan - and producer of the award winning podcast Public Enemy - looks at the fractures left after the 15 March attacks on the Al Noor mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre - the unspoken truths, the ripples sent throughout the world, and ultimately the path towards healing.

Stage One: Denial

Hassan Raslan had just finished taking part in Friday prayers at Auckland University where he worked, when he received a message on WhatsApp that made him stop in his tracks. There had been an incident. A shooting at a mosque. Many people had been killed.

Within hours, the gravity of what had happened in Christchurch had sunk in. A far-right gunman had successively entered two mosques, 5km apart, and opened fire, killing 51 people and injuring dozens more. Raslan had visited one of the mosques, Al Noor Masjid, many times, and knew people who attended it.

"The more I realised how serious it actually was, it just made me sick to stomach," he said.

"Everyone would have somehow been affected by this. Even if you didn't know anyone personally, you knew someone who knew someone personally. It's such a tight community. It's such a small community."

Hassan Raslan
Hassan Raslan flew to Christchurch to help the community after the attack (MEE/Mohamed Hassan)

Within days, he decided to fly down and lend a hand to the community. Hundreds of other Muslims from around the country had done the same. A small volunteer centre was set up in a nearby high school, and people began distributing tasks. The most pressing was the matter of burials. There were 51 bodies.

While Islamic tradition calls for bodies to be buried as soon as possible, the scale of the identification process had led to delays.

"It hit me really hard on that first day, when there were only three or four people being buried. My friend was there, burying his father, and it was so difficult seeing him in that state. It was just a wrecking ball."

A few more were buried the following day, leaving the remaining 40 victims to be buried the following Friday - all within a span of three hours.

The first dozen bodies were buried over three days, in a large cordoned-off section of land at the Memorial Park Cemetery, where 51 empty graves lay side by side. Volunteers wore yellow vests and ushered each body, and its family, to the allocated grave. Then they led hundreds of people from the Muslim community to walk past one by one, pray, pay their respects, and empty a fistful of dirt into the grave.

new zealand mourning
A man carries a New Zealand flag at a funeral after the attack (Reuters)

On the first Friday after, the remaining 40 victims were buried, one after another, across three hours. 

"It was just automatic. We shout the number of the coffin, then lead it to another hole. These people who had families and children and parents were becoming just numbers - numbers leading to a numbered grave."

As soon as that was over, the gravity of what they had just undertaken suddenly came crashing down. They had all just buried 40 members of their own community in a single day. Brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, friends.

"One of our seniors in the community was in charge of the burials, and he almost single-handedly buried each and every one of them. He told the families exactly where to stand, and how to perform the Islamic burial prayer.

"I saw him composed entirely for the three days, and as soon as the last body was buried he just broke down. He went to the side and he just broke down. We all did. All the volunteers... hugging each other and started crying."

Stage Two: Anger

In the days and weeks following the attack, many in the Muslim community felt a deep sense of anger at what had happened. Anger at the immeasurable loss of life. Anger that warnings from the community about rising levels of hate and Islamophobia had been ignored for years. 

But in the public sphere, everyone was talking about forgiveness, gratitude and unity - and those who tried to speak out felt an intense backlash.

Guled Mire, a community advocate and former refugee, suddenly became a voice for Muslims in the media. He was approached to comment on the attacks, the response, and the failings of security services. 

Initially, he started speaking his mind, speaking to the anger he and others were feeling. But he quickly realised his messages weren't being well received.

"Most negative feedback I've received is when I've been the most angry, speaking my mind and saying how it is."

Guled Mire
Former refugee Guled Mire received threats after speaking out in the attack aftermath (MEE/Mohamed Hassan)

Soon he began receiving angry messages on social media, in comments sections under his interviews and to his email. Several columns were printed attacking him, and calling him "ungrateful" to New Zealand. The messages got increasingly personal, with some escalating to threats.

"There have been instances where I've had to report things to keep my own safety in check, people talking about 'this is just the beginning'," he said.

"You can't take your safety for granted especially after Christchurch."

Eventually, it all became too much, and Mire started backing away from media requests, staying at home and trying to wait for the storm to calm.

"I remember I stopped picking up calls. If there was any number I didn't recognise, I wouldn't pick up. There were times where I thought about just shutting up."

Haka
Schoolboys perform the Maori haka in solidarity with the Christchurch victims (AFP)

He also realised he hadn't been taking care of his own mental health and had barely had time to process what had happened on 15 March. His small Somali community was particularly hit hard, with three of its members being killed, including three-year-old Mucad Ibrahim.

"I basically had calls from the Muslim community asking me: What was going on? Why aren't you speaking? It was wearing me out."

Ultimately, he would gather his strength and start speaking again. There were too many issues left unaddressed, and he realised people needed to be talking, despite the consequences.

"While anger can be a deterrent and can distort things, anger gets things done. So I was able to channel all my anger into advocacy, calling out things, identifying things that needed to change," he said.

"I used my anger as a catalyst to mobilise other people."

Stage Three: Bargaining

Rewa Worley is not Muslim, but on 15 March last year he felt deeply shaken by what had happened in his country.

"The idea of [New Zealand] being a safe place being fractured or broken like a mirror... people were trying to find a way to release that pain."

Some of the most remarkable responses to the Christchurch attacks stemmed from Māori culture. In the week following 15 March, not a day would pass without a high school, a community group or even a chapter of a local gang showing up outside the mosques and singing, crying or performing the ceremonial Maori haka.

Worley, who is of Māori descent and teaches the indigenous language in high school, said there was a sense of responsibility that many Māori felt after the attacks, feeling keenly that a small community had been deeply hurt on their land. 

 "It was important for Māori to come alongside the Muslim community, but also figure out, what do we do in this situation?"

Rewa Morley
Rewa Morley says the violence reminded him of the attacks New Zealand's indigenous Maori communities have faced (MEE/Mohamed Hassan)

There was also another reason many Māori felt so connected to Muslims after the Christchurch attacks. They saw a community being targeted, misrepresented and attacked, and they reflected on their own experiences with racism and white supremacy in New Zealand.

"The two-sided or the two-faced nature of New Zealand and its interaction with Māori people has always been one of ostracism and colonisation and exclusion or limited and convenient inclusion."

He remembers the stories his grandfather told him about his own upbringing when he was forced to attend a "native school". There, students were taught only trade skills and carpentry because of a belief that Māori were only suited for using their hands.

"All of these crazy ideas that have required overtime Māori to rebut and overcome and rebuke. It's strange where they come from, but it's not a surprise."

Stage Four: Depression

The shockwaves from the 15 March attacks were felt beyond the borders of New Zealand. Muslims across the world watched the events unfold helplessly. Many of them felt the pain in a very personal way as if they themselves had been the targets.

This year a study out of Sussex University referenced the term "vicarious trauma" to describe how Muslims react to events that happen in different parts of the world. 

Because of a shared sense of community, a brotherhood, Muslims often feel a deep sense of sadness, even personal grief, when they hear or read about the suffering of others.

British poet and activist Suhaiymah Manzoor Khan remembered the day very well, and how she felt attending Friday prayers in London only hours after hearing the news.

Suhaiymah Manzoor Khan
British poet Suhaiymah Manzoor Khan says it made her more aware of dangers to Muslims in Britain too (MEE/Mohamed Hassan)

"In the women’s section of my mosque, there's a very narrow set of stairs. I've always thought "oh God, this badly needs renovating" because it takes so long for everyone to get out," she said.

"It took on a more sinister meaning on that day, and I kind of thought 'wow, there are no escape routes in here'. Then you suddenly start thinking of fears you used to brush off before and think 'gosh, I'm so paranoid'."

Those fears included imagining scenarios where her local mosque would be attacked, or if members of her community and family were targeted on their way back home from prayers.

"It was this sudden realisation that it's not absurd, it's not crazy, it doesn't make us insane to imagine an incident like what happened [in Christchurch] happening."

Khan said she felt an easy and sinister sense of validation about how she often felt as a visibly Muslim woman in British society. The Christchurch attacks proved that her concerns about growing anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments she was seeing all around her could lead to a horrendous act of violence and that her safety and that of her family weren't guaranteed.

"So we are right to be hyper-vigilant, we are right to be paranoid, we are right to look over our shoulders, we are right to feel afraid to walk to the mosque at night."

Stage Five: Acceptance

It wasn't until November that Sheikh Gamal Fouda really came to terms with what had happened to his small community.

The imam of Al Noor Mosque spent the weeks and months after the attack travelling around the country and the world, at the invitation of governments, kings and religious institutions wanting to give a platform for the victims of Christchurch.

He was speaking at the United Nations, at Islamophobia forums in the US, at the royal court of Saudi Arabia. What he wasn't doing was dealing with his own trauma.

When he finally got a chance to return home to his wife and daughters, away from the politicians and media, the emotions came flooding to the surface.

"I woke up one day and I started to process what happened and realised that yes, there was a terror attack in our mosque, and lots of people were killed. I couldn't comprehend it."

Sheikh Gamal Fouda
Sheikh Gamal Fouda tried to spread the message from Christchurch but neglected his own trauma (MEE/Mohamed Hassan)

Sheikh Gamal was in the middle of giving his weekly sermon on the day of the attack, when a stranger entered his mosque and started shooting.

He watched as the people he had intimately known and served for 17 years were killed.

"We used to think that New Zealand is one of the safest places in the world, and, for a while, I thought that this is no longer a safe place."

Just one week later, he stood defiantly on a podium in the middle of Hagley Park, across the road from his cordoned-off mosque where forensic examinations were still underway, and gave a sermon to the world.

"We are determined to love one another and to support each other. This evil ideology of white supremacy did not strike us first, yet it has struck us hardest," he said in the sermon on 22 March.

"The terrorist tried to tear the nation apart with evil ideology. Instead, we have shown that New Zealand is unbreakable. And that the world can see in us an example of love and unity. We are brokenhearted, but we are not broken."

His sermon was broadcast live on RNZ, TVNZ and Newshub. As he looked out onto the wide-open landscape that was now his makeshift mosque, he saw thousands of people from across Canterbury - Christchurch is the region's largest city - gathered around his Muslim community. Many wore the hijab in solidarity. Many held candles and flowers. Many were crying. 

He saw a side to New Zealand he hadn't seen before.

"After the whole country supported us, from the prime minister to the layperson in the street, I became stronger and I was able to get back on my feet very quickly."

One year on from the horrific attack that tore his community apart, Sheikh Gamal Fouda continues to lead his mosque every Friday. Its doors have remained open, and its congregation full. 

He said that despite recent threats that have surfaced online and led to the arrest of one man, his community will not be intimidated.

"The whole country is supporting us. We are not going to give up because of hate speech or hate crime. We're not going to be isolated because of terrorists. They are the ones who should feel shame, not us."

The Guest House is a series produced for Middle East Eye in partnership with Radio New Zealand.