In the wake of the March 15 Christchurch terror attacks, New Zealand experienced an outpouring of solidarity but as time passed, public attention waned, leaving Muslims to grapple with preserving the memory of the victims, writes Re: News contributor Guled Mire in this opinion piece. 

Speaking with impacted communities and experts, Guled looks at the nation’s journey of healing, exploring grief, challenges of remembrance, global lessons, and the unwavering resolve of those involved in preserving the memories of March 15 victims.

Five years ago, Christchurch was rocked by terror and gunshots, forever changing the sense of safety its residents held dear. 

Men, women, and children gathered for Friday prayers, seeking solace, unaware their sanctuary would become a scene of carnage. 

Armed with hate and fueled by white supremacist ideology, Brenton Tarrant unleashed terror upon innocent worshippers at two mosques, Al Noor and Linwood, on March 15, 2019. 

The attack exposed deep-seated prejudices, forcing New Zealanders to confront the darker aspects of their national identity. 

For too long, the myth of New Zealand as a racially harmonious paradise has shielded its inhabitants from acknowledging systemic injustices faced by communities that have been marginalised. 

Initial unity and waning support 

In the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks, New Zealand witnessed an extraordinary outpouring of unity and solidarity. 

Vigils, memorial services, and public demonstrations echoed throughout the nation, epitomising the strength of a community united in grief. 

Bariz Shah emerged as a powerful advocate and voice of the Muslim community in the weeks, months, and years since the attacks. 

Reflecting on the nation's responses five years after the tragedy, he expresses frustration with the country's shifting priorities, he says: "I feel like five years on, the country quickly has kind of moved on and we Muslims are still pleading for the country and the rest of the world to just recognise our humanity." 

Plans for a National Remembrance event on the first anniversary were derailed by the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, further complicating the already challenging process of remembrance and healing.  

"We've had to continuously innovate to keep the conversation alive and ensure the victims are not forgotten." 

Shifting landscape of remembrance

A poignant remembrance event in Christchurch drew 1000 people, from government officials to community leaders, survivors, and ordinary citizens, to mark the second anniversary of the attacks.   

Studying abroad during the second anniversary at Cornell University in New York, the physical distance only served to deepen my emotional connection to my homeland and the communities affected by the attacks.

Despite being thousands of miles away, I closely followed the commemorations, feeling a profound sense of solidarity and empathy with my fellow New Zealanders. 

Sahra Ahmed, a stalwart member of the local Muslim community who read out the names of victims and was one of the speakers at the national remembrance event weeks after the attacks, highlights how the emotional landscape has evolved.  

"Over time, it became evident that relying solely on government-led commemorations was insufficient. We had to step up and explore innovative ways to honour our loved ones' memories." 

Parliamentary remarks and the absence of national remembrance events on the third anniversary underscored the challenges faced in navigating the aftermath of the attacks. 

Consultations with affected communities revealed a desire for a more inclusive and community-led approach to remembrance, centred on amplifying the voices and experiences of those directly affected by the attacks. 

This shift reflected a growing recognition of the importance of centring the perspectives and narratives of the Muslim community in the remembrance and healing process.

While some saw this as an opportunity for more authentic forms of remembrance to emerge, others like myself, expressed concerns about diluting the national commitment to honouring the victims. 

Silence and lack of official recognition in 2023

After two years overseas, I returned to New Zealand - and the absence of official plans for national remembrance in the lead-up to the fourth anniversary events spoke volumes.

The silence and lack of official recognition left a void - an absence of duty, honour, and remembrance.

To me, then-Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ oversight and government indifference was glaring. I felt it reflected a broader trend of neglect and apathy towards the victims and affected communities. 

It was a stark reminder of how easily tragedy fades from public consciousness, overshadowed by immediate concerns and political priorities. 

Instead of leading the nation in mourning and reflection, our political leaders chose silence, relegating the memory of the victims to the sidelines.  

As the fourth anniversary passed with little fanfare, leaving a void in the nation’s conscience - the misconception, driven by the government, that Muslims do not want to commemorate March 15 was debunked on TVNZ’s Breakfast

Sara Qasem, who lost her father Abdul, expressed her disappointment in the absence of formal recognition, emphasising the importance of commemorating such a significant event. 

“Even though the concept of a memorial is still so murky … it’s quite important that we at the very least have some kind of formal recognition.” 

Hamimah Ahmat, chair of the Sakinah Community Trust, echoed these sentiments, advocating for a national moment of reflection. 

“We don’t want whatever happened on that day to just be forgotten about and for the country to just move on,” she said.

Their voices, shared on national television, challenged the prevailing narrative and underscored the importance of meaningful government-led commemorations to honour the victims and address issues of Islamophobia and intolerance. 

Community resilience and calls for government action 

 In the aftermath of March 15, Hate towards Muslims saw a spike nationally and globally with the Christchurch attacks inspiring white supremacist around the world

The Muslim community's resilience has emerged as a formidable force, infused with hope. 

This hope, born from collective outrage and determination, seeks accountability from leaders to ensure the memory of March 15 victims is honoured with dignity and respect. 

It's a hope refusing to be dimmed, whispering a resolute ‘never again’. 

In the absence of national remembrance events, the community began to fill the void left by governmental indifference. 

Unity Week NZ

One grassroots initiative, Unity Week NZ, spearheaded by Sakinah Community Trust, seeks to bridge divides among communities.  

"Unity Week NZ responds to the vacuum left by government inaction in establishing a national observance to signify their commitment to promoting social cohesion, embracing diversity, and fostering a sense of belonging among all citizens," Hamimah said. 

"It embodies our resolve to heal and rebuild, showing communities can support each other." 

Hamimah's advocacy stems from a belief in the government's role in fostering social cohesion and resilience, which was a core and integral recommendation arising from the Royal Inquiry.  

Government investment in remembrance activities contribute to the well-being, resilience and unity of community for generations to come, she said. 

Global lessons

In the aftermath of the March 15 tragedy, I think it's crucial to recognise that New Zealand isn't the first place to confront the dangers posed by white supremacist ideologies. 

Ali Esbati is a survivor of the 2011 Norway attacks on July 22. 

He highlighted to me how the unsettling trend of immediate assumptions meant that before the perpetrator was identified, there were claims that pushed a narrative of an Islamist terrorist attack.  

"The Norwegian state has done good things like funding education at the memorial centre but in the early years there was lack of will from many forces to address the threats of Islamophobia and white supremacy." 

"Commemorations are important but what really matters is what is done during them - using the platform to educate and prevent future radicalisation for example." 

The moral and political imperative of remembering 

The coalition government’s recent actions such as proposed gun law reforms in the wake of the tragedy, invites global perceptions that the country is sliding away from its commitment to reckon with its ugly realities and truths. 

Yet, as the nation marks five years since the Christchurch terror attacks, the chilling reality persists.  

The ideology behind these types of atrocities still linger.

At its core, the act of remembering and honouring the victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks transcends individual grief and collective mourning - it becomes a moral and political imperative.  

As communities grapple with the aftermath of the tragedy, the significance of remembrance takes on added weight, serving as a rallying cry for justice, empathy, and solidarity. 

For Bariz Shah, a government-led national framework for remembrance is a necessity. Having something like this would emphasise the need for accountability and continuity in honouring the victims, he said. 

"The United Nations have come out and made March 15 an international day to combat Islamophobia. If the United Nations can come to an agreement and actually come up with something like that. Why can't we do it?"  

What the government is providing now is not enough, he said. 

"Offering condolences and platitudes is insufficient. We require concrete action and meaningful support from our government." 

Guled Mire is an award-winning creative, writer, fulbright scholar and community advocate. He is the producer and host of Re:News Third Culture Minds series.

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