On a special episode of VICE News Tonight, we returned to New Zealand to find out how the country was able to ban almost all military-style semi-automatic guns in the wake of the Christchurch massacre.
CHRISTCHURCH — The flowers heaped against the front wall of Masjid Al Noor are mostly dead now, sun-baked the color of dry hay and commingled with autumn’s first fallen leaves. A clutch of police officers, automatic weapons cradled in their arms, stand over them accepting takeaway coffee from the public and homemade cookies brought out by worshippers from inside. A stream of people — Muslim and non-Muslim alike — is welcomed through the door and past a desk covered in brochures about Islam to explore the mosque.
Exactly four weeks ago, a man walked through that same door — he was welcomed, too — and shot dead 43 worshippers under its golden dome, continuing his killing spree at Linwood Islamic Centre, across town, where he killed seven more Muslims as they prayed. Dozens more across both crime scenes were severely injured.
On Friday, a couple hundred worshippers walked through Masjid Al Noor's doors for the day’s prayers, escaping from the cold wind and filing down the hall and onto the tatty green carpet.
Inside, Farid Ahmed, a leader in Christchurch’s Muslim community, addressed the congregation as they awaited the main sermon. “They can kill us," he said, “but we will not lose. If they kill us, we will go to Jannah [heaven]. This is not a loss.”
“There’s something about Christchurch now. There’s this weird cloud over it.”
Despite these outward displays of resilience and the passage of landmark gun laws, New Zealand has struggled with how to respond to the deadliest mass shooting in its history and a hate crime in a nation that prides itself on progressivism.
Late Thursday evening, a day shy of four weeks since the attacks, the governor general signed into effect the Arms Amendment Act, the country’s historic new guns laws banning the private ownership of semi-automatic weapons of the kind used in the massacres. Only one of New Zealand’s 120 parliamentarians voted against the new legislation.
“We are ultimately here because 50 people died and they do not have a voice.,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told the House before the final vote on the new law. "We in this house are their voice. Today we can use that voice wisely.”
While the act of terror has sparked a national conversation about guns, racism, and how New Zealand ensures minority voices are heard, the Muslim community of Christchurch still deals with the tragedy every day, on a profoundly personal level.
Aymen Jaballah, 25, who in the days following the attack shared with VICE News his story of survival, still has no idea how to get over the events of March 15. “There’s something about Christchurch now,” the Yemen-born engineer said. “There’s this weird cloud over it.”
Many of his friends — including his best friend, Atta, with whom he had arrived at Masjid Al Noor that day — were slain where they prayed. “If I told you I had dealt with it, that means I’m lying. When you start a race, start to finish, only once you’ve finished it do you know what the whole race looks like. I’ve never, ever had something like this [happen]. I don’t know where the finish is. I don’t know when I’ll be like, ‘I’ve moved on.’”
Jaballah was Masjid Al Noor’s facilities manager, a position he has relinquished since the attack. He tries not to, but he still turns over the events of March 15 in his mind, thinking about ways he might’ve taken down the attacker — “if,” “could’ve,” “would’ve.” That day changed him in profound ways. “Death is going to be different in my head forever. I now have a bit more acceptance of death, in the sense that any day I could go away, any day my brother could go away, any day the best of people could be gone.”
“I’m really horrified and really extremely depressed. I’ve never had depression of this size and this level.”
He spoke with VICE News at a café on the University of Canterbury campus, where he currently spends his days plotting a course forward for his life and worshipping in the university’s prayer room. “I’m really horrified and really extremely depressed. I’ve never had depression of this size and this level,” he said. He hasn’t been back to work since the attack, although he says he may start again next week. He’s hoping the office routine will help assuage his grief.
Jaballah has stopped worshipping at Masjid Al Noor. He’s been back inside the mosque only twice since he fled the attack.
For Ahmed, 59, who spoke with VICE News several days before he spoke in front of the Friday congregation, being with his community in Masjid Al Noor is part of the healing process. In the cool, quiet room he'd been in when the shooting started, the religious teacher from Bangladesh shared his story of that day. He’s a wheelchair user, and as he made his way outside he was sure he would be shot in the back of the head. He pointed to the spot just below his white taqiyah where he believed the bullet would strike him.
Many of Christchurch’s Muslims, he said, had drawn closer and grown stronger in the aftermath of March 15. A week before we spoke, Ahmed had met with some 50 Bangladeshi Muslim families living in Christchurch. During his speech Friday, Ahmed asked the group whether they would be cowed by fear, or if, instead, they wanted more classes, to come to the mosque more often. Every member, he said, replied that they wanted come together more often in their place of worship—that if they were to die, what better place than at peaceful prayer? “People,” he said, “they are healing, but it has made them even stronger.”
And it’s not just the Muslim community that has given him strength during this time. In the national soul-search that has followed the attack, New Zealanders have responded with love for — and curiosity about — the country’s Muslim community. “We lost 50, but we gained 5 million,” Mazharuddin Syed Ahmed told VICE News inside Masjid Al Noor, making reference to New Zealand’s population.
Thousands have visited mosques across the country, and that support, Ahmed said, has been warmly received. “Now, as a dark person and as a person from another country, I am counted. I am somebody in this country. And I am sorry to say it has happened, but by the same token it has given us so much blessing.”
“We lost 50, but we gained 5 million.”
Anthony Jamaal Green, 71, who has been appointed to an interim council of the Muslim Association of Canterbury for a six-month period in the wake of March 15, joined the conversation. He was overseas at the time of the atrocity, but he still shares in the community's deep, vivid and visceral trauma. “You can’t unfeel, in a sense, the blood of someone else pouring on you. You can’t unsee things that are not talked about in the news, which are, you know, seeing parts of the skull of somebody who was a dear friend, someone you prayed beside.”
Green and Ahmed agree that New Zealand has a big problem — the rise of the alt-right, white-supremacist beliefs of the type that motivated the Christchurch terrorist. On Thursday evening, a 33-year-old man in a "Trump for New Zealand" T-shirt was arrested after allegedly shouting “All Muslims are terrorists” outside Masjid Al Noor while kicking at the tributes left to the victims. University students in Auckland have written an open letter claiming that since Christchurch the far right has been on the rise on campus. “We have a teaching in Islam,” Green said, “that says when there is an organ in the body which if it is sick then the whole body is sick, and that is the heart. And that applies on the micro level of the individual, it applies within a community, it applies within the wider community, and it applies within the world.”
“You can’t unfeel, in a sense, the blood of someone else pouring on you. ”
The first stage gun law reform is now signed into law — a second round of reform is scheduled for later in the year — but victims said such legislative actions can only do so much for the recovery ahead.
“You can’t legislate for the heart,” Green said.
“The whole world has a problem now — racism, terrorism,” Ahmed elaborated. “We human beings, we need to learn this, that as each of us we have some responsibility. First of all we have to start it from our how hearts. We have to ask ourselves, is my heart peaceful?”
Cover: In this March 23, 2019, file photo, a young Muslim woman wipes tears from her face during a gathering for the "March for Love" at Hagley Park following a week after the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)