There was anger and sadness and thousands of people from whom it radiated at Saturday afternoon’s Auckland vigil for the victims of Christchurch’s horrific mosque attacks. There were tears, and there were powerful messages from politicians and Muslim community leaders that New Zealand will learn and come together from the ashes of Friday’s horror. We all hope that’s true.
“This is not us,” New Zealand collectively says. But this did happen here. Something is rotten. There’s an amorphous evil stalking the world’s message boards, and Aotearoa—we have learned in the most awful way imaginable—is not immune to the message it delivers.
“We are in shock, we are hurt and we are scared,” Green MP Golriz Ghahraman, whose family fled repression in Iran before finding a home here in Aotearoa, told the crowd. “For some of us, that hate that led to the violence yesterday in Christchurch, we have felt it out there on the street for years.”
VICE asked her after the event, as the crowd thinned into the heat of the Auckland afternoon, how the migrant communities she’s been speaking with since the news broke were coping. “People are scared,” she said. “Like, we’re scared. People are sending their kids to school on Monday in diverse communities where they could be targeted. People are going to work, or their temple… There’s a real sense of terror, and that’s why it was important to call this terrorism and call this out as white supremacy.”
Ghahraman isn’t surprised this happened in Aotearoa, and in her speech she wanted to express that while this violence is shocking to many of us, many people in the community targeted aren’t surprised this could happen—that it has happened.
“I felt really acutely the sense of responsibility to have the pain and the fear of that community expressed. But also to make sure it’s on the record for us that this isn’t an isolated thing that just happened, an aberration. It has not happened in a vacuum. It was really really important for me to have someone say that… This is part of a fabric of othering and hate and xenophobia and it’s being deliberately perpetuated, so if we’re going to fix that we have to acknowledge it.”
An Australian man, 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant, appeared in Christchurch District Court on Saturday morning charged with murder. Police say further charges will follow.
VICE talked to people drawn to the heart of Auckland city to show solidarity in the aftermath of the massacre.
Sherif Hassan, 26, and his friend Hassan Raslan, 30, run a national camp for muslim youth and know people directly affected by the tragedy. “We’re flying down to Christchurch tomorrow to help with whatever it is they need,” said Sherif.
“I think this is something that will take generations to fade. The Muslim community is not massive in New Zealand. Everyone is maximum two degrees away from someone who has died. That’s something that you’re not be able to shake off. I’m never going to feel as comfortable with my mum going to buy groceries as I did before.”
Both Sherif and Hassan felt the vigil was the only place to be on this baking hot afternoon. New Zealanders standing alongside each other, in support of the victims and the Muslim community. Hassan wore a long white traditional garment specifically. “I don’t wear this every day but I wanted to wear it today as a statement to say to, ‘Hey this doesn’t scare me one bit. It doesn’t stop me from being a practicing Muslim.’”
It was time, said Hassan, for the country’s security services to rethink the definition of a terrorist threat. The fact that the shooter had so openly expressed his murderous intent and extreme ideology online showed a failing of the government to keep people safe.
“Everyone in mosques around New Zealand has had some type of interaction with the SIS,” said Sherif. “We work cooperatively with them but they always like to keep the finger on the pulse of what is happening and to watch out for extremism—potentially imposing on privacy which we’ve gone along with because we understand the threat level. But now this has gone completely amiss and we ended up the ones being targeted.”
Sheltering from the sun under a red and black umbrella, Sina Davis-Brown, 52, told VICE she was so devastated by the attack she hadn’t been able to sleep. “I think it’s really important to unite against white supremacy. I think it’s really important to show, as a Māori woman, that Muslim people are welcome here,” said Sina.
“I think it’s time to look at why the police have not had white supremacist groups in this country under surveillance. This is a huge failure of our intelligence services. These people had arms. These people were organised. These people were planning this and the police had no clue about it. Shocking.”
Mannan Bohra, 45, is a member of Dawoodi Bohra, a Muslim community with 1.2 million followers worldwide and only 80 families in New Zealand. The first thing he did when he heard the news was to contact two families in Christchurch and ensure they were safe. Since the killings Mannan had been contacted by his local MP and the local district police commander. His community cancelled their usual Saturday school for children but had taken no further security precautions. The massacre, said Mannan, would not change how they lived their lives.
“It was one rogue element. I don’t think we’ve changed [as a nation]. If you look around today, look at the amount love. Ever since we’ve come here today there have been so many people who have come an apologised and I said that is not necessary because it’s not you. It’s like the Prime Minister said, ‘We are all one.’”
Muna Arbon, 21, woke up this morning with an overwhelming feeling of sadness and grief. “I almost had a bit of guilt because I felt nothing had directly happened to myself but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like this had happened to these people but also to everyone in the country.
“I think it’s going to have to force a change. I think it’s going to happen within the next few days and weeks. Everyone is in a state of collective mourning now. We can choose ourselves to make a change as a community but politicians have got to bring in actual change.”
Muna wants to see more serious repercussions for hate speech and racist attacks.
“I always was under the impression that if you were making recurring threatening posts that you would start being watched,” said Muna. “You’re always told that everything you do on the internet is seen and yet supposedly this person had been ranting on social media and that makes me go, what is going on here? Why was this not picked up?”
Huma Shehzad and Zara Syed, both 19, walked from university to Aotea Square together suddenly very aware that their hijabs immediately singled them out as Muslim. “I feel relatively safe,” said Huma. “But the fact that someone knows I’m Muslim before they meet me is the most scary thing.”
Both born and raised in New Zealand, they never imagined an attack like this could happen in their home country. Today, among the messages of love over hate, and togetherness over division, there was a stark reminder of the rawness of this atrocity.
“In the Muslim community everyone knows everyone.” said Zara. “One of my friend’s uncles, no-one has heard from him yet.”