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New Zealand reacted to the tragic mosque killings with deep humanity

Generosity of spirit was on full display: non-Muslim citizens donned hijabs in solidarity, politicians legislated swiftly—and survivors emerged as leaders and heroes
Mourners comfort each other at a makeshift memorial near Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 17, 2019. New Zealand grappled with grief and horror on Sunday, as the death toll rose to 50 and the suspect’s family apologized two days after a terrorist attack at two mosques in Christchurch. (Adam Dean/The New York Times/Redux)

Among the tens of thousands of people who trudged to and from Masjid Al Noor on Deans Avenue during the Christchurch atrocity’s aftershock were the workers from the Riccarton Road Kmart, about a half-hour’s walk from the mosque. They walked in a silent procession, all 102 of them. They carried flowers and candles and little mementoes, and at the base of an oak tree in Hagley Park, just across from the mosque, they made a kind of shrine with the things they’d brought, in memory of a co-worker. Her name was Ansi Alibava.

Alibava worked part-time. She was 25. She’d come to New Zealand from Kerala, India, to study agribusiness management at Lincoln University, and she’d just completed her master’s degree. She was looking forward to graduating in May.

Alibava didn’t attend prayers very often. She and her husband, Abdul Nazer, ordinarily worked on Fridays, and Alibava held down a second part-time job at Lincoln Agritech. Alibava initially escaped the massacre, but after the killer had fired hundreds of rounds into the congregation, she ran back to search for her husband. It was then that the killer gunned her down, as he was running back to his 2005 Subaru Outback, parked in an adjacent alley. Nazer had survived. He found Ansi dead on the sidewalk.

At her shrine in the park, Alibava’s co-workers left a card everyone had signed with their remembrances pinned to the tree, and a framed photograph of Alibava with a smile lighting her face. Amid all the bouquets of flowers, and dozens of candles in little glass cups, was Alibava’s Kmart vest, on the grass, with her name tag pinned to it.

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“She was tragically lost to us,” store manager Liam Dawson told me. “The team wanted to pay their respects, and they wanted to lay flowers and candles, and so we all walked down.” Kmart workers from the Shirley store across town volunteered to work the Riccarton employees’ shifts that afternoon. “Everyone who works here, we all walked together as a family. We just thought we should show our support to those poor people, as much as we can.”

Nearby, yellow police tape flickered in the breeze, marking a wide cordon Christchurch police had strung around the mosque, up and down Deans Avenue and into the park. Inside the mosque, evidence specialists were undertaking their gruesome, painstaking, heartbreaking work. Their labour carried on, day after day. So did the autopsies. The families waited for the authorities to formally identify each victim, to confirm what they already knew to be true. Anyone known to be at the mosque who was not among the 50 wounded in Christchurch Hospital, or otherwise accounted for, was dead.

Day after day, the families and friends of the dead waited patiently under the trees, comforted in the arms of friends and strangers.

The co-workers of shooting victim Ansi Alibava created a shrine to honour her memory (Carl Court/Getty Images)

It took the killer little more than half an hour to slaughter 42 people at Masjid Al Noor—another died later in hospital—and another seven worshippers at the Linwood mosque less than 10 minutes away by car. In Islamic tradition, the dead are intended to be washed, cared for, prayed over and buried within 24 hours of death. The massacres were carried out on the afternoon of Friday, March 15. It wasn’t until a full week had passed, on Friday, March 22, that the last of the bodies were released to the bereaved. On that final day, 26 people were buried in a mass funeral at the Christchurch Memorial Park cemetery.

Among the thousands who came to Hagley Park to wait, to offer consolation or just to stand in shock and disbelief was Motasin Uddin. He’d come to the police cordon at Hagley Park with his 19-month-old nephew, Muazzen, in a stroller. “Every Friday we come to the mosque, and every Saturday,” Uddin told me. “But on the day it happened, I didn’t go to mosque.” His brother Moktadir, Muazzen’s father, did. He’d borrowed Uddin’s car. “He is badly wounded, in the hospital. He was shot in the leg. But this is a good community,” Uddin said. “A good community.”

That same thought was on the mind of Diana Butterfield, who came to the police cordon line in Hagley Park to pay her respects with her granddaughter Edie, who was about the same age as little Muazzen. “We do come together, we New Zealanders,” Butterfield said, recalling the 2010-2011 Christchurch earthquakes that took the lives of 185 people.

“But that was nature. This is different,” she said. “This was premeditated evil.”

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In the minutes before the killing spree, 28-year-old white nationalist Australian Brenton Tarrant, a self-described terrorist and fascist, announced his intention to commit mass murder in Christchurch in an email sent to 70 people. One of the recipients was New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. He also circulated copies of a 74-page racist manifesto outlining his aims. As he went about his killings, he used a head-mounted camera to live-stream and upload a full 17 minutes of the slaughter to Facebook.

And yet, despite all his blood-curdling hatred and the explicit wish he’d set out in his manifesto that his act would serve the cause of “further destabilizing and polarizing Western society,” the people of New Zealand showed by their words and deeds that they were having none of it.

In the days following the massacres, ordinary people took over a conversation that in Canada, Australia, the United States and Europe, and even in peaceable New Zealand, is almost entirely dominated by experts, interest groups, pundits, shouters, policy analysts and politicians.

Immigration, gun violence, racism, the integration of Muslim refugees into Western societies, terrorism—all the fractious debates and controversies that normally push and pull at public opinion—were overwhelmed by ordinary people, including Muslims and their neighbours and fellow citizens, in a national eruption of grief, affection, solidarity, empathy, mourning, kindness, unity and cohesion.

As there always seems to be when ordinary people are called upon in extraordinary moments, there was also heroism.

At the Linwood mosque, 48-year-old Abdul Aziz heard shooting outside, where Tarrant was already killing people. As Tarrant began shooting through a window, Aziz picked up a hand-held credit card machine, left his four sons, ran outside and threw the device at the shooter. Tarrant dropped what was apparently a modified rapid-fire shotgun, ran back to his Subaru, picked up another of the four military-style semiautomatic rifles he’d used as murder weapons at Masjid Al Noor, and began firing at Aziz.

The shotgun Tarrant dropped had either malfunctioned or it was out of shells, Aziz later explained to reporters. “I had it in my hand,” he said. “I just got the gun and threw it on his window like an arrow and blasted his window.” Tarrant drove off, and moments later, two out-of-town police officers who’d heard the shooter’s vehicle described over the radio rammed Tarrant’s Subaru on Brougham Street and arrested him at gunpoint.

There were other kinds of heroes, too.

The wheelchair-bound Farid Ahmed survived the massacre at Masjid Al Noor, but his wife, Husne Ara Parvin, 42, did not. Parvin was in the women’s section of Masjid Al Noor when the shooting started. She ran to join her husband and died shielding him from bullets. Two weeks later, at a national memorial service attended by about 20,000 people in Christchurch, Ahmed addressed the crowd. He’d been thinking about the killer, and wondering what had happened to him, what had gone wrong in his childhood. And he wanted to forgive.

“I want a heart that will be full of love and care and full of mercy and will forgive lavishly,” he said. “This heart doesn’t like that the pain I have gone through . . . that any human being should go through that kind of pain. That is why I have chosen peace, I have chosen love and I have forgiven.”

Zeeshan Raza, a 38-year-old engineer from Pakistan who moved to New Zealand four years ago, was attending the service at Masjid Al Noor the day of the massacre. His parents, 67-year-old Ghulam Hussain and Karam Bibi, 63, had come to Christchurch in February for a visit. All three were murdered at the mosque. In Pakistan, Raza’s sister, Maryam Gul, the daughter of Ghulam and Karam, told the BBC that although she had been left without any family, her initial anger had subsided. “First of all I wanted [the killer] to be punished very severely,” she said. But then she recalled the teachings in the Quran against the will to vengeance, and hoped for the killer’s redemption, that he should repent and see that what he did was wrong.

The youngest of the dead was three-year-old Mucaad Ibrahim, from a family of Somali refugees. In the chaos of the shooting at Masjid Al Noor, Mucaad had become separated from his brother and father. It wasn’t until Sunday, two days later, that the family was informed that Mucaad’s body had been found among the dead at the mosque.

The oldest to die was the first to die. Haji Daoud al-Nabi, 71, greeted the killer as he entered Masjid Al Noor. Al-Nabi appears to have mistaken Tarrant for a soldier—the killer was dressed in military gear—and welcomed him with the words, “Hello, brother.” Al-Nabi was a beloved member of the small Afghan community in New Zealand, having arrived in the country in the late 1980s.

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At the corner of Deans Avenue and Brockworth Place, at the edge of the police cordon, a steady stream of people came with wreaths, bouquets, balloons, cards, drawings and letter-sized placards. A striking number of them were obviously written and illustrated by schoolchildren: “You are my friends. I will keep watch while you pray.” Many were photocopies of an emblematic photograph of Prime Minister Ardern embracing a Muslim woman: “New Zealand is their home. They are us.” And many were clearly written by Muslims: “Thank you, Kiwis, for making us feel safe again.”

At the main gate to Hagley Park’s glorious Botanic Gardens, a great berm of wreaths and bouquets and little works of memorial art stretched at least 100 m along Rolleston Avenue, from the Curator’s House to Canterbury Museum. New Zealand’s florists and flower wholesalers couldn’t keep up with the demand. People were uprooting their own flower gardens or gathering ferns from the countryside to build the little shrines that were popping up all around Christchurch, and at mosques and public places all across New Zealand.

A number of Christchurch carpenters, carpet layers, gardeners, plasterers, painters and glaziers volunteered their labour to remove all traces of the horrors from the two mosques as quickly as they could. By Saturday afternoon, eight days after the killings, the work had been completed at the little Linwood mosque—formerly a house. And at the grand Masjid Al Noor, almost every sign that anything horrible had happened there had vanished.

Members of the local Muslim community enter the Al Noor mosque after is was reopened on March 23, 2019 (William West/AFP/Getty Images)

The day of the mass burial at Memorial Park was a Friday, a full week after the terror. That afternoon, the Muslim call to prayer was broadcast live on public radio and television stations across the country from a special Muslim Friday service, attended by at least 20,000 people, on the grounds opposite Masjid Al Noor in the park. The prayer was followed by two minutes of silence.

There are only about 50,000 Muslims in this entire country of roughly 4.8 million people, but it was difficult to distinguish between Muslims attending the service as a customary religious practice and New Zealanders who were there to show their support. A “headscarf for harmony” campaign had taken off spontaneously, and thousands of non-Muslim women, including police officers, wore headscarves to the service in the style of hijabs. There had been a brief alarm about “cultural appropriation,” but New Zealand’s Islamic organizations responded by saying the gesture was warmly appreciated. Some non-Muslim men also took it upon themselves to wear scarves on their shoulders.

It was in these small, guileless ways that ordinary people of all faiths and none rose to the challenge of basic human decency in Christchurch, and they did so in the unique ways of New Zealanders. Roughly one in six New Zealanders is Maori, the Indigenous people of the islands, and the country’s bicultural heritage took the foreground. The words Kia kaha—“stay strong”—were spoken everywhere. All over New Zealand, people gathered in candlelight vigils to utter karakia—the Maori term for prayers, or incantations—and to offer each other comfort by waiata—in song.

The throttled anger of the people was given expression, too, in performances of the haka, an ancient Maori dance of defiance that has long been adopted by the country’s Pakeha—the descendants of the Europeans who colonized the islands in the early 19th century. The haka has more recently been taken up by immigrants to New Zealand from almost every culture on Earth. One in four New Zealanders is foreign-born.

The 38-year-old Prime Minister Ardern rose to the challenge of leadership by striking a tone that was straight from the mood of the people—it helped that she’s the daughter of a small-town Mormon police officer and a lunch-counter worker. She opened the first sitting of Parliament following the shooting with the Muslim invocation, Wa alaikum salaam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh: “May the peace, mercy and blessings of Allah be with you.” In those first days, she wore a hijab at all her public appearances. She moved quickly to harness the power of government to unite the country.

The stringent new gun laws that Ardern’s Labour government is bringing in won the immediate support of the Opposition centre-right National Party, as well as the tentative agreement of New Zealand’s firearms lobby. Ardern also set in motion a Royal Commission to look into the ability of New Zealand’s police and intelligence to come to grips with the rise of white-nationalist terrorism, and to examine whether the Christchurch atrocities could have possibly been foreseen or prevented. Her government also committed to bearing the costs of the funerals and the related financial calamities faced by the bereaved families and the survivors. Private donations for the victims, organized by a variety of agencies, had exceeded $8 million within a week of the killings.

Police officers in headscarves pay their respects at a prayer vigil held in the park (Adam Dean/The New York Times/Redux)

But the mantle of national leadership was also borne by such New Zealanders as Cashmere High School head boy Okirano Tilaia, who mobilized Christchurch high school students in a mass vigil to honour the dead and to commit the country to a deeper understanding among and between New Zealand’s diverse faith communities.

Cashmere High School was particularly shaken by the killings. Cashmere student Sayyad Milne, 14, was among the dead. So was former Cashmere student Tariq Omar, 24. So were student Hamza Mustafa, 16, and his father, Khaled. Hamza’s brother Zaid, 13, suffering the pains of his bullet wounds, attended their funerals in a wheelchair. The Mustafas, Syrian refugees, arrived in New Zealand only a few months ago from a refugee camp in Jordan.

There were also some discordant voices, as there always are, sooner or later. The writer of an anonymous opinion essay published in a popular New Zealand news outlet was fiercely critical of the hijab-headscarf gesture, on the grounds that it was merely a token of white privilege, “derailing the examination of white supremacy, systematic racism, Orientalism and bigotry.”

New Zealanders greeted that sentiment with more or less the same degree of disregard that they offered the Pentecostal fundamentalist preacher Brian Tamaki, who broke with New Zealand’s mainstream Christian churches in objecting to the broadcast of the Muslim call to prayer. “Jesus Christ is the only true God,” Tamaki complained. “This is not us.”

An even uglier dissenting voice was heard at an “anti-racism” rally in Auckland, where Ahmed Bhamji, chairman of the Mt. Roskill Masjid E Umar, told the crowd of about 1,000 that Israel’s Mossad was likely the real culprit behind the Christchurch atrocities, and the killer was probably put up to it and funded by “Zionist business houses.” The Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand was quick to condemn Bhamji’s remarks. So was New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission: “Prejudice against Jewish people has no place in New Zealand. We must condemn racism, hate and anti-Semitism whenever we see it.”

New Zealand’s Jews and Muslims maintain quite cordial relations. Jewish leaders routinely attend Iftar dinners during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Following the atrocities of March 15, for the first time in the history of the country’s small Jewish community, synagogues were closed for Shabbat. “I was on the ground in Christchurch and I saw rabbis and Jewish community leaders coming to support and pray with us for the victims and their families,” the prominent Muslim activist Umar Abdul Kuddus said.

I saw the same sort of thing in Christchurch. Every day, people trudging to and from Masjid Al Noor, at the point of tears, laying wreaths at the corner of Deans Avenue and Brockworth Place. Total strangers with their arms around one another. Ordinary people being generous, innocently clumsy, kind and utterly extraordinary. In the grip of premeditated evil, and such terrible hatred, they were seized with such immense, boundless love.