When I woke up on 15 March 2019 to the news that 51 Muslims praying at two mosques in New Zealand had been murdered by a white supremacist, I wept.
I sat in my bed and scrolled through my Twitter feed and wept. The images showing people lying in piles inside and outside two mosques twisted me up inside.
I didn’t know I would be so affected; after all I’ve seen images of war and violence online and I was far away in South Africa. But that morning everything felt like it was here; the mounting sense of dread that had been building since 2001 for so many Muslims had now culminated into this tragedy displayed for all to see on our screens across the world. A right-wing fanatic had packed up his car with guns, torn through the suburbs in Christchurch, blasting racist music and live streamed his massacre to the world on Facebook. The scenes and stories that came out were horrific – the wounded man who tried to crawl away, the woman on the path pleading for her life, the body of a 3-year-old separated from his father, someone pretending to be dead amongst the bodies and others hiding under cars in the parking lot.
My father is at the mosque five times a day for every prayer including the one before sunrise. During the fasting month of Ramadaan I am at the mosque for the nightlong prayers. When I travel to other countries, I seek out mosques to find solace, it is the place where I remember my creator and reflect on my life. It is a place I associate with community and safety; where not only my friends and family come together but where I remember who I am and where I belong. It is the place where I feel protected. To see the place, you associate with your identity so shattered makes you feel unsafe even halfway across the world. It makes you feel vulnerable. And this was the terrorist’s intent; he wanted to incite fear.
I sat that morning in Durban and wept. I wept because those people didn’t deserve to die. I wept because those people had been targeted because of their religion. I wept because we live in a world of increasing hate and discrimination. Farid Ahmed, whose wife was killed in the shooting said in an interview that someone showed him a photo of his wife lying face down outside the mosque. ‘I never felt angry’ he says between tears, ‘But I ask, what was her crime?’
It felt like being Muslim was a crime. That despite what my religion taught me about peace and mercy and ‘loving for your brother what you love for yourself’ the media would always portray us as terrorists and extremists. That whole day I thought about the people who died and what their deaths meant and how it was to live in a world with so much misunderstanding, propaganda and misinformation. Islamophobia is on the rise across the US, the UK and Europe. The week after the shooting anti-Muslim incidents in Britain increased by 593%.
Still while there was grief there was also anger, a sense I think buoyed by New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern’s infamous statement that those killed at the mosque ‘… are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence is not.’ The video of the killings was banned and immediately pulled down from social media and the prime minister announced she refused to say the gunman’s name so that he wouldn’t achieve the notoriety he sought.
As the day progressed my fear evolved into something else. As names, photos and stories of the worshippers emerged I realised I didn’t want this tragedy to make us more afraid. I didn’t want it to pull people further apart. I didn’t want the killer to win. As an artist and a writer I know there are moments when an image can do more than words. A visual can harness a potent idea and convey it quickly to many.
I wanted to draw something that would make us feel safe again.
The mosque stands as a sign of hope and mercy and I would never let it become a sign of defeat. I wanted to create an image that would celebrate my religion and the lives of those passed. So when I heard that the words of the first victim, Haji-Daoud Nabi to the gunman was, ‘Hello brother,’ I knew I wanted to celebrate that. The moment encapsulated the heart of Islam for me: to call out with kindness even in in the face of hate. I wanted to capture the moment when one man wanted to kill another because he thought the other was evil even as the other showed him his goodness. And so I drew a mosque and a man in the door calling out, ‘Hello brother’ and shared it on my social media platforms. The image went viral immediately and was shared by numerous people all over the world, including media personalities, on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Whatsapp. When I see it being shared, I see it as a small act of defiance against those who thought they could destroy us. I see it as reminder that love is always greater than hate. In fact, all the viral artworks that came out of this tragedy were about love and solidarity not revenge and bloodshed as they could have easily been. Ruby Jones, a Kiwi artist created an image of two woman hugging with the words, ‘This your home and you should have been safe here’. School students in Auckland redrew an image of a Maori and a Muslim woman doing a hongi – touching noses on their school fence. Pat Campell in Australia drew New Zealand’s iconic silver fern in the form of Muslims in different forms of prayer emphasising their unique identity within the unity of the country. A 75-foot-high mural in Melbourne shows the moment Jacinda Ardern, clad in hijab tightly embraces a Muslim woman.
An image can capture a spirit and the spirit of that moment was support and love.
The terrorist did not get the notoriety that he wanted. The video was taken down. There was an outpouring of love from the world. And while we heard stories of horror from within the mosque we also heard about how worshippers like Naeem Rashid lost his life while trying to tackle the shooter, how his son, Talha Naeem died protecting others, how a man named Abdul Aziz ran outside and threw a credit card reader at the shooter trying to draw him away from those inside the mosque and how neighbours opened their doors to hide those fleeing. People lay flowers, notes and drawings outside the two mosques. Less than a month later most semi-automatic and military style weapons were banned on the island. This year, despite the fears of the coronavirus people returned to leave flowers, to offer condolences, to perform the traditional Maori haka and schoolchildren came to sing at the gates.
It’s one year on and we still live in a world of fear and hate and we still mourn those who died but whenever I remember that morning in March how I cried unexpectedly in my bed for all those people who died in the mosque, I also remember how much love the people of New Zealand gave their community, how the world reached out in support and how a mosque remains a place of hope and mercy.
Most of all I remember how love was bigger than hate.