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What do you want us to remember? On quarantining the memory of Christchurch

As I sought to catch moments throughout the weeks leading up to March 15 to hold vigil for victims of the Christchurch massacre, I’ve found myself drowning in constant coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to the unsettling feeling of defeat the anniversary brings with it, with white nationalist attacks seemingly permanent on the horizon, this submergence started to become troubling. The virus is in the way of a moment sacred for me as a Muslim who grew up in New Zealand but is disconnected from my Muslim community there: I need to hold vigil, be in my thoughts with them.

I soldiered through, reading every page of the One Year On website authored by The Muslim Association of Canterbury. When I paused for distraction from surfacing grief, I scrolled to the news about COVID-19. I pressed on the videos of Italians singing in the midst of lockdown that kind people brought into my feed and watched them all.

When I returned to the open tabs of Christchurch tributes and reporting, the deathliness I often encounter as a Muslim who came of age within a context of heightened global anti-Muslim violence struck me – from attacks by Neo-Nazis to mass annihilation in Syria, to pogroms in Delhi, drones in Afghanistan and extra-judicial killings in my homeland of Palestine.

Massacres of Muslims are so familiar – why don’t I get to find beauty in tragedy too? Or, if I let the thoughts run, more of, can you keep your semi-automatic weapons, tanks, sniper shots, knives away from me so I may have a death? With what right do you take my life away? Who are you, anyway? Thoughts that I push away because they seem to interrupt and disturb my intention to sit and do the commemoration in this moment of anniversary – even though these reflections constitute acts of remembering in themselves despite not being in accordance with official national mourning practices.

As this tension continues for days, I realise I am finding relief in an outage in the public consumption of Muslim suffering due to collective indulgence in pandemic politics. I start to be further sucked into the terror of coronavirus myself, it functioning to repress the pain of entering into a place of re-traumatisation by the attack. Way too deep into this whirlpool, I pause to catch myself – why am I begrudging the memorialising of Christchurch? How do I work to remember?

***

These burdens are common to the post 9/11 Muslim Generation attempting to defy the good/bad Muslim dichotomy to conjure their own politics. I want to honour the martyrs we lost that day but I struggle to arrive at a point of grief. What is remembrance when the violence that met them is very much alive?

The neo-Nazi who carried out the attack is my age, twenty-nine. That is what I remember of the afternoon I was scrolling on my phone as the news rolled in. I was online even before the second attack occurred; I followed every minute of coverage, saw his live-stream. Hospitals, schools in lockdown – he’s arrested. I went to get my kid from school with visions of militias on every block corner, drove back home and sat to read his manifesto.

I read every manifesto and I doubt I’m alone in this being a ritual we – 9/11 Muslims – participate in through our disdainful gaze at white male mass shooters. I remember the Isla Vista killings. The perpetrator mentioned in his ramblings that he cried when he watched The Land Before Time and I thought, hmm, that’s a pretty bizarre state of white male aggrievement.

Am I supposed to revisit the events of March 15? Read victim testimonies and reflections they have generously offered us in the press? How do I remember this anniversary? I did that – collected every Christchurch-dedicated news media and shared it on social media so the labour invested by survivors in providing them isn’t for nothing. I don’t know, maybe some people will read the testimonies. What do you want me to remember?

There’s a pedagogy of imposition at play in the official memorialising of Christchurch.

I read the Otago Daily Times article ‘Memorial service unwanted’ of 28 February, before Ardern cancelled the memorial due to coronavirus:

Members of the Muslim community are unhappy about a planned service to mark one year since the Christchurch terror attack. But it will go ahead with their reluctant blessing.’

‘We are OK with it, in the sense that this is what the rest of New Zealand wants. But personally, as Muslims, it’s not something we have.’

‘We remember every day what has happened, and pray for those who have lost their lives every day.

‘We do not need a fixed day to actually remember them.

I find this unreservedly undignifying. I don’t give a damn what the rest of New Zealand wants, I’m attempting to join my wounded community in their pain. The article helps me to take comfort in that it is not just me that is struggling to participate. Their articulated refusal has validated and granted me permission – I thank them for this counter-memory work. Our grief is ungovernable despite efforts to turn it into political currency.

I don’t know what the rest of New Zealand and Australia wants from us.

The memorialising of Christchurch is extractive. I’m relieved Muslim communities have not been put through it even if its halting has not risen from respectful, justice-centred political leadership from governments.

Reproducing a similar pedagogy of imposition intersecting with respectability politics, Australian Muslim community leaders were also planning to hold Mosque Open Day across Victorian mosques to commemorate the attack. The Islamic Council of Victoria stated:

The ICV along with its member societies encourage all Victorians to visit a participating mosque in their local area. They will be met with warm smiles and delicious food and will be provided with an insight into the important role mosques play for the Muslim community.

On no other day of the year but March 15 was I being called upon in this way; supposed to wake up, bake cupcakes and moisturise my cracked lips so I would keep up smiles for our mosque guests. I’m going to be pleasant, go to the women’s section and feed you, give you a warm hug, affirm all your curiosities. I may cry with you through your strategic tears and expressions of outrage at fascists and take an offer for a tissue from you – you’re kind. If you ask me a racist question, I’m going to consider it an ignorance and teach you lest I offend your liberal sensibilities, we both have beautiful children I know you don’t see race. When it’s 3 pm we would be done – thank you for coming, now I may ‘get out’ and rinse off … this colonial indignity? The Open Mosque Day events were cancelled not for any Muslim opposition to it, but due to coronavirus.

The ABC reports:

A year on the mosque is again ‘a place of solace’ for the father of two grown-up daughters, but the terror waged upon it is always on his mind.

‘It’s fresh, new coat of paint, new carpets. What’s hiding is the blood and the tears under the carpet … beneath it still lies that pain and anguish.’

***

If I am to remember, I do recall Jacinda Ardern’s ‘this is not us’ claim and the hashtag #theyareus that Aotearoa Muslim Dr. Sahar Ghumkhor interrogated immediately after the attacks:

Tarrant is not an aberration, he’s not an exception; he is an integral part of the collective ‘we’ in New Zealand, Australia, and the ‘West’ – just like the followers of Trumpism are part and parcel of modern-day America.

Reflecting back, I question why it is that Ardern asserted ‘this is not us’, instead of, possibly, this ‘should not be us’. Immediately, she constructed a narrative that terminated any kinship with the perpetrator and excluded him from any belonging. ‘We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of these things’. As though he was an external peril, a foreigner. As though he chose to attack a ‘we’ when he deliberately targeted the Othered Muslim. Why it is that she didn’t say: ‘You were chosen for the very fact that you [Muslim] are considered none of these things that we claim we are’. It would have been a more honest acknowledgement of the racism that fosters the colonial project, as well as a basic respect for our different locations within racial hierarchies. It’s Muslims who were under attack. It was a moment to grieve fifty-one Muslim lives. It was not an attack on the white nation.

Ardern’s construction of the perpetrator acutely contrasted with the first martyr’s relationality to him. Remember his words? They were represented in a tribute cartoon: ‘Hello brother’. An Afghan grandfather’s greeting. Brother. Hello brother, do you mind putting that down – Imam completes the sermon. All stand, shoulders aligned, for prayer. We don’t know, but if Christchurch didn’t occur, maybe the elderly uncles and aunties would die in sujud, head bowing in prostration to God, as they often tell us they desire to leave, and we would narrate to each other the memory of their beautiful, heavenly death – instead, we have the blood-stained murder scene that came to be.

Hello brother, do you need something? Sit here son, hear the recitation, run your fingers over the rugs. I know you feel entitled to it, the gun you carry was licenced to white settlers protecting the colony on their arrival. You’re recreating a War on Terror military campaign here. Muslim lives are not for you to take, brother. Inna lillah wa inna ilayhi rajioon is what we say when we receive the news of death. To God we Belong, and to Him we shall return. 

The counter-terror security apparatus is further strengthened and fuelled through national responses to far-right violence, while systematic causes remain un-acknowledged in the nation’s dismembering with the white nationalist terrorist and the hand-balling and disposing of the Muslim terrorist to implicate Muslim communities. To find any promise to move forward, it’s crucial for us to remember that the onus is on political leaders to prevent both categories of violence, even as neoliberal governments are increasingly reversing War on Terror logics, treating white nationalism as pathological to individual neo-Nazis with little interrogation of the white supremacist cultural and political landscape that rears them.

In comparison to respite in militarised cultures of policing as saviour, the Christchurch Muslim community has utilised One Year On to call for peace – a call that can be metaphorically extended as telling of frames of war, gesturing to imperialist projects that have not ended. Centring the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty in both colonies is fundamental to honouring this call. Yet Ardern’s invitations falls weak and hollow against their pursuit of peace-making. On March 13, she said:

A year on, I believe New Zealand and its people have fundamentally changed. I can’t see how you could have an event like this and not … the challenge for us will be ensuring that in our everyday actions – and in every opportunity where we see bullying, harassment, racism, discrimination – calling it out as a nation.

Has this anti-racism, multiculturalism mantra not already been turned into official knowledge since many of our refugee communities arrived to Aetoroa in the 1990s? What has fundamentally changed?

I read the Muslim call for peace as a movement beyond ritualistic gestures redemptive of whiteness towards a spiritual and communal commitment that may disrupt the violent logics inherent to the colony. It is a brave message at a moment of commemoration that is as relevant in guiding our response to the crisis of coronavirus as it is to the prevention of another Christchurch, tackling domestic violence and the defeat of far right authoritarianism across the West.

If Muslims are to offer our labour and do this counter-storytelling, testimonial, witnessing – this memory work without it turning into an experience of performing grief and trauma for the good white nation, I don’t understand the interest in memorialising Christchurch without the discomforting remembrance of legacies of massacre that both Australia and New Zealand need to exercise to arrive at an end to racial violence. This is not an isolated massacre. Turning it into a national, historical occasion can be fetishising and de-politicising.

This anniversary has been eclipsed by coronavirus and I feel safer in the momentary distraction of both the white fascist that is probably fortifying themselves in hoarded toilet paper, and the white liberal condemning Morrison’s incompetence – taking distance from our suffering. I wish racialised communities had the power and autonomy to invite the white public to lock down their whiteness in response to crises of racist violence, and to suspend their intrusive good-doer efforts. In holding vigil, I’d like to echo the advice that professor Gary Foley gave in 1999:

Racism is only a problem that can be overcome by people who are part of the community in which it festers. By definition, the problem of white racism should be the primary focus of white support groups … rather than seeking to come into our communities and ‘help’ us, you have a much more important role in your own community… We can solve our own internal community problems, therefore it is up to you to change your society, not ours.

National memorialisation of Christchurch is quarantined, but that’s not necessarily a lost moment for anti-racism. Muslims don’t need the good white public to come into mosques and share in our loss and pain. They are not us, and we are not them. We occupy different positions and while we practice modes of ‘ungovernable grieving’ to pray and re-build and have internal conversations on protecting ourselves, we need those with power and privilege to re-visit March 15 to cultivate the will to build towards the peace we demand. That’s pain that is not for Muslims to carry, a pain white nations could be confronting more than once a year through critical, decolonial pedagogies and literacies. 

 

Image: The Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch photographed by Michal Klajban

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Tasnim Mahmoud Sammak is a PhD candidate at Monash University, Faculty of Education. A Palestinian second-generation refugee, mother of two young boys and political organiser, she writes and researches on 9/11 Muslim political subjectivities and imaginaries through decolonial counter-storytelling.

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