Comment

Vigils are useless without real change

Lamia Imam was not surprised by a racist attack on Christchurch's Muslim community - just by its scale. Now, we must question how we came to accept the idea of violence towards her community and many others, she writes.

I am a person who knows someone that died in a mass shooting. Even as a New Zealander who lives in Texas, I never imagined I would be that person, and I definitely never imagined that it would be because of something like this happening in my home.

I was home, thousands of miles away, when I saw the news that there had been a shooting at the Deans Avenue mosque. It is the first mosque I ever went to as a child, and it is also the mosque I attended while I was a student at the University of Canterbury.

My first thoughts were to dismiss it because I just didn’t believe mass casualties were possible. I assumed some people might be hurt but it would be a small incident. I assumed, because I didn’t believe something like this was possible in New Zealand.

I am not naïve. I am not surprised that a racist attack happened to the Muslim community in Christchurch. I am just surprised by the scale of the attack. This makes me think about how easily I have accepted the expectation of violence towards my community.

In the coming weeks, a theme will develop. We will condemn this horrifying act of violence as extreme and out of the ordinary, we will come together as a nation and hold vigils, and we will try to move on from this tragic incident.

We do not take threats by white supremacists seriously, because we believe they have a legitimate point of view that should be protected under free speech principles. We fail to recognise that these views sit on a spectrum and mild forms of racism legitimises violent racist actions like this.

But we will have to do much more. We will have to root out the ideologies that got us to this point, because if we don’t, another community is going to be the victim of this. Muslims are not the only victims of white supremacy. As with the Charleston Church shooting and Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting, we can see that all of us are in danger.

I am scared, I am sad, and I am angry. It is not just because I was born into a Muslim family. As a public policy student, I can see the public discourse that led us to this. We do not take threats by white supremacists seriously, because we believe they have a legitimate point of view that should be protected under free speech principles. We fail to recognise that these views sit on a spectrum and mild forms of racism legitimises violent racist actions like this.

It is not only how Muslims and brown people are talked about in white-majority countries, but also how we talk about any minority group. This "othering" of people has created an environment of legitimised hate. We can’t talk about jobs and housing without vilifying immigrants and “Chinese investors”. We are obsessed with assimilation of brown people, but balk at the de-platforming of literal Nazis on social media. In New Zealand, we cannot even talk about te Reo in schools without invoking racist reactions from politicians. We are resistant to everything that does not subscribe to “white, middle-class normality”.

We must change the policies that have allowed racism and anti-immigrant sentiments to thrive, Lamia Imam says. Photo: Supplied.

We have politicians all around the world – Donald Trump, Geert Wilders, Nigel Farage, Narendra Modi, Benjamin Netanyahu, Aung San Suu Kyi, Xi Jinping, Fraser Anning, and our own Winston Peters (just to name a few) – who understand that vilifying Muslims does not have any consequences, electoral or otherwise.

They are not denounced by the media in uncategorical terms. They are not rejected by their constituents. They may not think of themselves as anti-Muslims, but anti-Muslims see them as their leaders. We live in a world where their rhetoric, whether direct or veiled, is reported as a valid point of view. But it is not just Muslims: we have fascist leaders who actively vilify black people, Jews, the LGBTQIA community, indigenous communities, and non-white immigrants, and we accept this as part of our political discourse because the constituency supports it.

Over the last few days I have been wondering how someone like the shooter got radicalised to such an extent. He lives in a country that is not in war, and yet he believed Muslims were bringing about destruction. The clear answer is that our political discourse is radicalising white supremacists.

There are news articles about white fertility rates, as if immigrants are actively stopping white folks from having kids. It is presented as a competition between white people and non-white people. Rarely are immigrants presented as people who move because they are escaping violence, climate change, economic hardship to create a better life for themselves. I strongly believe every person has a right to improve their life in whatever way they can, but white people talk about moving countries with a sense of entitlement that is never afforded to non-white people.

If we want to change hearts and minds, we must show what the alternative is. Editors have to be willing to give up on “clicks”, political leaders have to be willing to reject “racist votes”, social media platforms have to forgo revenue.

I currently live in the United States where there is an actual Muslim ban on immigration in place. The President wanted a total and complete shutdown of any Muslims entering the country prior to his election. There are one million Rohingya Muslims who have escaped Burma because of ethnic cleansing. There are Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps in China. There are Palestinians in an open-air prison in Gaza. Are our politicians speaking up against these atrocities, and any others?

I understand that international relations is a messy and sensitive area, but our leaders need to be showing white supremacists that we are not tolerant of innocent lives being vilified in any capacity. I see journalists asking the question, “Is [insert politician’s name] a racist?” That is the wrong question to be asking. Are their policies designed to harm racial minorities? Is their rhetoric designed to pander to racists? Then they are racist. We do not have to establish it. It is evident.

I don’t want to see condolence statements from politicians and commentators who routinely vilify immigrants and other minorities. We need policy changes from the government to media outlets to social media platforms. We need to decide what our values are and if anti-immigrant racist sentiments align to those values. If they do not, they are not required a platform.

If we want to change hearts and minds, we must show what the alternative is. Editors have to be willing to give up on “clicks”, political leaders have to be willing to reject “racist votes”, social media platforms have to forgo revenue.

These are difficult actions, but without them vigils and speeches are useless. We are just waiting for the next massacre.

Lamia Imam worked for the Labour Party and the Ministry of Justice in Wellington after graduation. She received her Masters from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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