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Christchurch shooting

New Zealand Muslims Say Islamophobia Was a Problem Long Before the Christchurch Massacre

Still, survivor Aymen Jaballah couldn't believe real gunshots were ringing out around him - until he saw bullet wounds.

by James Borrowdale
20 March 2019, 5:10am

When the first gunshot punctured the peace of the mosque, Aymen Jaballah thought it was just some electrical mundanity — a blown light bulb, perhaps. Jaballah is Masjid Al Noor’s facilities manager, and he thought to himself, as he prayed, that this would just be another quick fix.

Then the second gunshot rang out, accompanied by shouts of “Allahu Akbar, la ilaha illa Allah ” — God is great, there is no God but Allah. Jaballah, his voice hoarse, said he later realised people were “basically saying, ‘I’m going to die.’”

He fled the mosque and flung himself over a wall into a neighbouring suburban garden, where he and several others hid as a gunman massacred 42 members of his mosque before driving to a second mosque about 5km away, where he killed more.

Even as Friday’s attack unfolded, Jaballah, 25, said he couldn’t believe there was a gunman on the loose. This is New Zealand, after all; most years the country sees fewer than 10 people killed by guns. The carnage only registered when Jaballah used his scarf to dress a friend’s wound. When the police arrived, he walked out onto the street and saw the body of a woman on the ground under a blanket, and a man he knew carrying his dead 4-year-old son. The friend he had driven to the mosque with had also been killed.

“I thought, there’s no way. There’s no way in New Zealand he would get ahold of a gun and he would be killing people. That stuff happens in America — it doesn’t happen here,” the Yemen-born mechanical engineer said on Sunday, sitting on the grass near a crisis centre set up at Hagley Community College.

“To have our two mosques go from mosques to morgues; the depth and intensity of the feeling that people are having is profound.”

Now, Jaballah is among the millions of New Zealanders reeling in the aftermath of the nation's deadliest terror attack, and questioning what this means for their country. New Zealand has long been seen as a progressive safe haven, but some Muslim leaders say the attack, allegedly carried about by an Australian, came amid increasing anti-Muslim sentiment. Masjid Al Noor itself was threatened by white supremacists in 2016.

The Muslim community of Canterbury, the province home to Christchurch, is tiny and close-knit. They number just 3,000, according to Toshi Hodliffe, of the Canterbury Muslim Community Trust, in a country of about 50,000 Muslims. When the gunman stormed Al Noor and the Linwood Islamic Centre, killing 50 people, he massacred about 1.7 percent of Canterbury’s Muslims.

“No one in the community is untouched by this,” said Hodliffe. “Not a single soul. I mean, to have our two mosques go from mosques to morgues; the depth and intensity of the feeling that people are having is profound.”

The first Muslims to settle in New Zealand were an Indian family that came to Christchurch in the 1850s. Masjid Al Noor opened its doors in 1985. Many waiting outside the crisis centre for information on their slain family and friends described it as “the heart” of the city’s Islamic community.

“It’s where we take people, children when they are born, where we get married, where we have our funerals — it’s the centre of our community. It’s sacred ground to us,” said Hodliffe. She described Christchurch’s community as “hyper-diverse.” According to the 2013 census, half of the New Zealand Muslim population was born in the country or elsewhere in the Pacific, while 27 percent were immigrants from Asia and 23 percent from the Middle East and Africa. Victims included New Zealanders, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Syrians, Indians, Fijians, Iraqis, and others.

“I have received racist comments. My mother who wears a headscarf has received racist comments.”

In the days since the shooting, many of New Zealand’s Muslim leaders have expressed anger. Anjum Rahman, in an article for Radio New Zealand, wrote that her organisation, the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand, had in recent years repeatedly and fruitlessly lobbied the country’s intelligence services and government agencies to act on what she said is a rising tide of vitriol aimed at Muslims, both online and in person. Some government ministers have come under scrutiny for anti-immigrant messaging.

The alleged shooter, 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant, is from Australia. He wasn’t a Christchurch resident; Tarrant, who has been charged with murder, allegedly drove 360km to carry out the attacks. Hodliffe said that non-Muslim Christchurch residents have generally been “open-hearted and usually curious.” But she added that the city’s Muslims had experienced threats from white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

In 2016, a local white supremacist delivered pig heads to Masjid Al Noor, saying, “Bring on the cull.” Hodliffe said she has been the target of anti-Muslim taunts on the streets. “It’s one of those things that’s hard to talk about, and just becomes normalised, so people don’t talk about it any more,” she said. “But it is really weird and challenging for people to be told to go home to their own country, to not be included, to not feel part of the community.”

Green Party member of Parliament Golriz Gharhraman, who herself has been the target of racial abuse and death threats, told VICE News that quantifying this rise in hate speech was very difficult, given the vagueness of New Zealand’s legislation. “We don’t really have hate-speech laws. We don’t really have protections for most minorities, and even when we do, it’s a vague term, ‘racial disharmony’.”

On the ground in Christchurch, in these early days, there’s more shock that this could happen here than belief that the attack was the result of an increasingly dangerous environment for Muslims. “When you’re living in New Zealand,” Jaballah says, “you always feel safe. The flat I moved into, I had to install a deadbolt for them — they’d never locked their house for the past six years.”

Hassan Raslan, 30, said he and his family, who are Egyptian and immigrated to New Zealand 23 years ago, have also been the target of racist comments. Raslan, who is from Auckland, flew to Christchurch on Saturday to volunteer at the crisis centre, transporting resources and people around the city.

“It really has shocked us a lot,” Raslan said, sitting on a park bench outside on the community college grounds. “But the surprise isn’t as much given that you could see this kind of racism or hate kind of brewing. You could see it all over the world.”

He loves New Zealand, but his personal experience with the country haven’t always been positive. “I have received racist comments. My mother, who wears a headscarf, has received racist comments. Anyone who has a sister who wears a headscarf would know that they experience this as well; it’s all part of living here.”

“The ‘where to now?’ — we’re not ready to think about it. You know, we’ve got 50 people to bury.”

And dread, he said, has now overtaken the local Muslim community. “There’s an increased fear for our sisters and for our mothers and everybody who is identifiable as a Muslim,” Raslan said. “There’s another fear that this has given a kind of license to the more undercover racists or extremists to do what they wanted to do. Unfortunately, this person’s views are shared by some other sick individuals.”


For both Jaballah and Hodliffe, imagining how Christchurch’s Muslim community will heal is still impossible. Both are helping to lead the response, which has been especially painful because the scale of the tragedy is so large, and the community is so small.

“It’s so difficult, especially the people who have, like, nine friends of theirs wiped out. Just like that,” said Jaballah, snapping his fingers. “They can’t think straight.”

Hodliffe said that right now, community members are focused on getting through each day and supporting each other, with little thought to the future. That will come later.

“The ‘where to now?’ — we’re not ready to think about it. You know, we’ve got 50 people to bury.”

Image: People pray next to flowers and tributes near Al Noor mosque on March 19, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on VICE US.