Two years ago I landed in Canada, a society that prides itself on being open, multi-faith and multi-racial.
My daughter and I go to the mosque for Friday prayers as a regular practice. My experience in Canada is that practising Muslims might not go to a mosque to pray on weekdays, but each one of them tries to make it to the weekly congregational prayer. For Muslim immigrants, this is as much an opportunity to stay in touch with their community, as it is to connect with the Almighty.
My routine has been different for the past month, though — ever since the deadliest gun attack in New Zealand’s history left 50 worshippers dead and 50 more wounded inside two mosques in Christchurch. Factoring in the time difference, when I walked into the prayer hall, it had been a mere twelve hours since the massacre.
I could hardly stay focused on the imam’s sermon, as my mind and eyes wandered around in all directions. I looked for nooks and corners in the prayer hall where I could hide my daughter just in case a mass killer decided to target our community mosque. I even contemplated instructing her on what to do in the event of an attack that left me incapacitated or dead. But I let it be. Knowing as I did how much my daughter enjoys her trips to the mosque, I didn’t want to instil fear in her innocent mind.
Unfortunately, my adult brain was still ringing with words from the 74-page manifesto of Brenton Tarrant, the perpetrator of the Christchurch mosque massacre. The depth of this hatred on the web seemed sufficient to inspire mass killings anywhere in the world, not just in faraway New Zealand.
As the world grappled with the terrible human cost of this deranged mentality, there were far more questions than answers in my own mind. In alarm, I spent the next three Fridays at home. I chided myself for having gone there in the first place. Praying in a mosque was perilous: no one knew if the ideas that spurred Tarrant into carrying out this appalling act resonated with the wider community of right-wing extremists.
As more details of the attacks emerged, I became outright paranoid. I stopped walking my girl to school, citing snowy sidewalks as an excuse, and driving the short distance just to avoid crossing paths with potentially crazed individuals who lived in an alternate reality of white supremacy. After the spring break at school, my daughter continued to wear outgrown shoes that pinched her toes, because I refused to go to the mall. There might be people who think their homelands should be for their “own people”, and were ready to spill innocent blood to achieve that goal.
Two years ago I landed in Canada, a society that prides itself on being open, multi-faith and multi-racial. I was apprehensive about my first move to a country where I was no longer a religious majority. The immigration officer examined my papers, and then handed me my passport and said, “Welcome to Canada, ma’am”.
Muslim immigrants have been recipients of such hospitality all around the world. In fact, minorities within the Muslim immigrant communities, often persecuted in their own homelands, have found solace in open-minded societies. New Zealand was no exception.
However, in these same societies also live those who find faults with this social integration. Most worrying, in particular, is the rise of Islamophobia. It seems like mainstream Muslims and their minority factions are now in the same boat, clubbed together in the eyes of Islamophobic terrorists.
In the aftermath of the Christchurch attacks, I debated my decision to immigrate to Canada, given the rise of extremist elements in the West, and the biased stance of the media, particularly American TV channels.
On CNN, I noticed TV presenters’ casual bigotry in talk shows and interviews with Muslim leaders and activists, with most viewers justifying it as innocent, journalistic enquiry. Meanwhile tabloids in the UK were no better, as they directed latent antipathy and a general mistrust towards Muslim minorities in the world with misleading, and often, caustic headlines.
No wonder that the likes of Tarrant had no qualms about killing Muslims. Canada too has seen such right-wing terrorist attacks: in 2017, a 29-year-old man stormed into the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre and shot people gathered for prayers, killing six and injuring five.
However, four weeks after the Christchurch shootings, I realised I had to reject my negative emotions. They were holding me down. It meant putting up a brave front in the face of these adverse times, so I did my ablutions, and drove to the mosque for Friday prayers.
This time, it was not the spiritual or social connections that took me there. It was to convince myself of my own resilience. And there was indeed strength in being united — even amidst fear, worry and tears. The same feelings as mine were mirrored in the eyes of several fellow worshippers. With this thought in mind, I shrugged away my apprehensions, and stood alongside 200 other Muslim women, to pray.