Previously published by The Campus
It is often in the most persecuted groups that one finds fortitude in identity, empathy, and wisdom. As four Muslim women sat across from each other, remembering the lives and legacies of their 50 brothers and sisters killed in New Zealand, they explored identity, embodied empathy, and spoke wisdom.
Salimatou Barry, Bintou Jabbi, Fatema Waggeh, and Aiah Abdelmegid found themselves in the Student Organization Club Space, or SOCS, as they do nearly every day. There, they discussed how they heard about the deadly attacks, what it meant for them, the larger political context, and their community’s always persevering strength.
The First Moments
The New Zealand mass shooting – which targeted two mosques in the city of Christchurch – occurred on Friday during salatul Jumu’ah, or Friday prayer, known as the holiest of the week. Given the time difference, most people in the U.S. heard of the attacks late Thursday or early Friday morning.
Salimatou Barry recalled that she was at a loss for words, but was not that surprised. “I didn’t have a surprised feeling,” she said, “which is really sad because I feel like being Muslim in The States, you kind of get accustomed to stuff happening.” Barry, explaining the interactions immediately following, shared, “we didn’t talk, because we didn’t know what to say.”
Echoing her friend’s words, Aiah Abdelmegid remembered how she felt after reading the news on Facebook: “I didn’t even know what to say. Like I was just looking at my phone like, what is this?” Abdelmegid continued, “I don’t understand how he just went in and pretended it’s a video game and just starting shooting everyone.”
Fatema Waggeh noted that the holiness of the day was one of the hardest things to wrestle with. “People just didn’t really understand what actually happened on that day. How significant going into prayer on a Friday is;” she continued in disbelief, “are you telling me that someone can go to do something as simple as prayer on a Friday, on the most holy day of the week, and can get killed?”
The Muslim faith values familial bonds between brothers and sisters in Islam across borders. Directly following the news, the women thought of their immediate and extended families, asking: “What if?”
Barry held, “I was just thinking about how would I feel if that happened to my own family?” She went on, “And they’re my brothers and sisters in Islam, so obviously I feel for them, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about what if that was my dad or someone that I actually knew closely.”
Bintou Jabbi spoke to mourning her fellow Muslims abroad while spending time with her community in New York: “I hear news about 50 of my brothers and sisters in Islam dying and then I see the people that I know and love here and then I feel like ‘I’m glad they’re alive and that we’re here together,’ but what now?”
Also feeling the tragedy on an immensely personal level, Waggeh shared, “The youngest person killed was a three year old and that kind of hit me really hard because I have a son, and I’m thinking about if he goes to the mosque with his dad and [how he] can get killed.” Waggeh’s son Ahmed is one, just two years younger than Mucaad Ibrahim, the little boy whose life was taken too soon.
MSO, WII, and CCNY
In times of heartbreaking hardship and elated joy, the Muslim Student Organization and Women in Islam come together to build community at City College. Whether they are praying, laughing, or complaining about finals, these two interconnected clubs represent a second home for a lot of students on campus.
Following the Christchurch events, MSO and WII came together in support and protection. Thinking immediately of safety, Barry wrote in a group chat of club members to “grab a buddy” to ensure power in numbers against copycat violence.
She said, steadfast in her care and concern, “It’s like we never have time to mourn. We always have to be proactive and make steps. So my first thing was getting a buddy system, you’re leaving campus at eight o’clock. Okay. You get someone and take the same train.”
After hearing the news in their group chat, Jabbi told, “I came here and I prayed and I made sure that I was with my brothers and sisters in Islam.” She further said that she wanted to be mindful that all those in danger were being looked after. Jabbi gave, “Even if I don’t know you and if I see that you’re Muslim or if I see that you’re also somebody that’s in a marginalized community, [I wanted to make sure] that you’re safe.”
New Zealand vs The United States
While headlines about mass shootings plaster newspapers in the U.S. with increasing regularity, New Zealand is a incredibly peaceful country when it comes to gun violence. In fact, the NZ Police reported that only 69 instances of murder with a firearm occurred from the first of January in 2008 to December 31, 2017. People murdering nearly 70 other fellow humans is still a tragedy and cannot be underplayed. Yet, comparatively, Alabama – the state with the closest population to New Zealand, 4,888,949 versus 4,784,745, respectively – experienced 454 homicides by guns in 2016 alone, according to gunpolicy.org, a Web source for published evidence on gun violence.
In other words, whereas gun violence is becoming an element of American society, mass shootings, or shootings in general, represent anomaly in NZ, not the norm.
One similar facet of the two nations, as found by The Pew Research Center, is the recent rise in islamophobia. Having a score in 2016 of just 0.48 out of 10 on Pew Research Center’s Government Restrictions Index, New Zealand is one of the least religiously restricting countries in the world. However, their GRI ticked upwards slightly in 2016, after Winston Peters, leader of the New Zealand First Party, claimed men were “treating women like cattle,” in Islam, Pew shared. Likewise, Pew also found that, in the U.S. during 2016, “there were 127 reported victims of [anti-muslim] aggravated or simple assault, compared with 91 the year before and 93 in 2001.”
However, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern handled this hate in a noticeably different way than President Donald Trump. Just days following the shooting, Ardern announced a national ban on “all military-style semiautomatic weapons, all high-capacity ammunition magazines and all parts that allow weapons to be modified into the kinds of guns used in [the] attack,” as detailed by the New York Times. On a personal level, Ardern also donned a headscarf and visited mosques across the nation, consoling local communities impacted by the violence.
On the other side of the world, Donald Trump denied any influence on the attacker, despite the shooter mentioning him by name. In a 74- page manifesto, the shooter referred to Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” AlJazeera reported. In response, Trump tweeted “The Fake News Media is working overtime to blame me for the horrible attack in New Zealand. They will have to work very hard to prove that one. So Ridiculous!”
When thinking about these two different approaches, Abdelmegid said, “I really loved the way she did it and how she put on the headscarf to show her support. But that’s not something you would see people here do. They would just attack us for wearing this, but she didn’t do that.” Looking ahead, she held, “I was honestly hoping that we’d end up having a president in the future like her.”
Finishing each other’s sentences, the other three women agreed with Abdelmegid. Waggeh described that, as a Black, Muslim woman in the United States, “we’re doing everything we can to try to make ourselves fit into this country system. It’s just not working.” Her words brought sighs and repetition from those at the table.
Strength and Solidarity
These women find themselves at the intersection of islamophobia, racism, sexism, and gun violence. Within this mess, they are well-spoken, resilient, and strong. They want others to know that Islam is peaceful, that they are peaceful.
Even more, rather than silence their religion, these events caused the women to dig their heels in and stand strong to global instances of hate. Jabbi shared, “It made me even stronger in my faith […] to show that this is not going to deter me.”
Their message, as elucidated by Barry, is simple: “I think what people forget is that no matter how different we are in terms of race, ethnicity, religion – we are all humans. We all are the same exact people and we all feed and feel on the same exact thing. We just needed someone to understand where we’re coming from and to say, ‘I support you.’”
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