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On the 19th of March, the NZ High Commission, ANU New Zealand Club and Tumanako Maori Cultural Group held a vigil in Nara Peace Park in Canberra following the tragic terrorist attack at two mosques in Christchurch which resulted in the deaths of 51 people.
The first thing that we noticed was the number of community members that had shown up to grieve in solidarity with the Muslim community. Thousands of women, men and children swarmed the park, set to the slowly setting sun over the lake.
The second thing we noticed was the peaceful atmosphere. Standing there, surrounded by a sea of strangers, you didn’t feel like one person in a crowd; instead you were in the moment, soaking in everything that was happening around you. After days of chaos, anxiety and grief, it was a moment of peace that felt both long overdue, and tragic in itself. It seemed significant that this solidarity, this shared peace, had come at the expense of so many lives.
When was the last time Muslims and non-Muslims, Australians of all backgrounds, had joined together in this way, to offer support to each other? Why do these moments only occur when the very worst has happened, instead of long before, when the forging of these community bonds could have prevented the alienation and dehumanising that leads to the violence we saw in Christchurch?
There were several speakers at the vigil, including a Muslim Imam who did a prayer. He asked everyone around him to reflect during this time. He explained that at Friday prayers, the men, women and children would attend Jummah in this peaceful, reflective mood.
Everyone was silent during the prayer, which he said first in Arabic and then translated into English. As he said the prayer, we listened with eyes closed. All you could hear was the Imam talking and the laughter of the kids running around and playing near the lake. This made us smile, and bought back some fond childhood memories.
It was exactly like the atmosphere at Friday prayers at the mosque, an event we attended throughout our childhood and adolescence, before full-time work took the days away from us.
The kids running around and laughing outside on the mosque lawns, or at the back of the hall; sometimes you would hear someone give a little laugh, and then a couple of other people might join in before concentrating on the prayers again. It was always a calm, serene atmosphere of faith and community, coupled with the mundanity of all human life. It was ordinary, and that’s what we feel has been irrevocably lost as a result of the violence of one man, and the hundreds more across the world who spurred his hatred on until it erupted into a massacre.
Now, when our father heads to Friday prayers, we will be watching our phones, wondering if he will be safe, or if this will be the day that violence changes our lives forever, like the lives of the families who lost loved ones in Christchurch? Now, when our community attends the mosque, maybe children will be left at home, safe and away from the public hatred so many Muslims face daily in Australia.
Those memories we have of the mosque as a light-filled space of prayer and families may remain just that – memories, that will grow more distant with each new act of violence, each new reminder of the hatred that divides our global communities.
It has been over a fortnight now since the Christchurch massacre, and already people are turning their attention to other things. Those thousands of Australians who turned out for vigils across the country are getting on with their lives, maybe lifting the shroud of sadness from their shoulders with each passing day.
But for Muslims in Australia, that shroud is not a new one – since September 11 2001, we have been continuously draped with grief and loss, the fabric growing thicker and heavier with each new tragedy, whether committed in the so-called name of Allah, or in the name of fear and xenophobia.
If you attended a vigil for the victims of the Christchurch massacre, remember that a loss of life was not the only loss sustained. Muslims have lost their safety, their innocence, and their ability to fully enjoy the public spaces they have created in this multicultural country.
Keep standing with us, as we adjust to this new reality yet again.