Reflections of a Muslim Student 60 Days after New Zealand’s Darkest Day

This reflection was written by AUT PhD candidate Najmah Usman with her husband Kusnan Sayuti.

On 15 March 2019, two mosques were attacked. 50 people died that day, with one more person dying after two months in the hospital. Among the dead was a child, Mucad Ibrahim (3), who passed away when he joined his father and older brother to pray on Friday at the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch.

I said to my husband that it was lucky we would finish our study soon, otherwise we would be a target of hatred here. Honestly, the terror broke my belief that New Zealand was the safest country in the world. I had enjoyed that belief for over 3 years during my study.

One week after the terror, my scholarship officer Margaret Leniston informed me that my extension had been approved for an additional 6 months of study. I took a break for a few days. I said to myself: this is a chance for us to inform the world of what my family feels, sees, hears, and observes after this darkest day in New Zealand.

I previously wrote a reflection one week after this tragedy. Now, reflecting after 60 days, I have thought about three main things: 1) the power of reflection; 2) being free of prejudice; and 3) moving from sympathy to empathy.

Books about Islam and reflection notes on the wall in AUT Library

The Power of Reflection

People recognize me as a Muslim very easily as I wear a veil (hijab). As far as I know, the common understanding of the hijab in the West (though not for all) is of a ‘prison of freedom’ for Muslim women. There is no doubt that in some war-torn or extremist-led Muslim countries, media have portrayed Muslim women deciding to uncover their hijab after (for example) the ousting of the Taliban. Unfortunately, this promotes the generalization that all Muslim women wear the hijab because of cultural or religious pressures, not by choice.

For me, I choose to wear the hijab based on my understanding and internalization of my Islamic teachings. I observed how supportive Kiwis were of #headscarfforharmony in my university, on the bus, and on social media, on the Friday one week after the tragedy. The world saw how the power of reflection could engage many people in learning about Islam from people surrounding them, not just from the media, who often portray the hijab as a prison. My supervisor Sharyn Graham Davies wrote in an article: “To those who say feminism valiantly fought for the right of women not to cover their hair, I say feminism fought, and still fights, to enable women to have real choices.” This is me, and other sisters, who choose the hijab as a part of our understanding of Islam, without putting negative judgments on other Muslims who make different choices.

I realized how this power of reflection taught many Kiwis to feel what Muslims feel. By wearing headscarves, they showed the world that Muslim culture is a part of Kiwi culture, and that every Kiwi has the power to protect all humans and all religions. Even some of my friends and scholarship officers asked my permission to use my pictures with the hijab for their activities.

A flyer on campus

We need to inform the world that ‘Islam is one religion in many cultures’ – a message promoted on the AUT campus in the aftermath of the attacks through a beautiful flyer. Islam, like other religions, teaches kindness, good deeds, justice, and love; however, understandings of Islam and other religions may differ across cultures and communities. People outside of Muslim communities can reflect by observing Muslim people around them, visiting mosques, and also wearing the hijab to overcome misconceptions about Islam worldwide, particularly related to global terrorism.

Being Free of Prejudice

I have reflected on the world’s move from cultivating Islamophobia to destroying Islamophobia in recent years.

I wonder whether, if we talk of Islamophobia in relation to this terror in Christchurch, we imply that Muslim communities should be blamed even though they were victims. For instance, Australian politician Fraser Anning wrote that “the real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.”

Nevertheless, I have learned about how New Zealand implements the ideas of being free of prejudice; destroying stigma and discrimination; stopping bullying; and focusing on the problem, particularly in relation to justice, law, and human rights.

The world can see after this tragedy how the Prime Minister of New Zealand exemplifies being ‘free of prejudice’. We never heard Jacinda Ardern discussing the terrorist’s characteristics. His name, nationality, the colour of his skin, his race, and his sects or religion went largely unmentioned. Even the picture of the terrorist was blurred in the media here, and online media in New Zealand decided not to show the video of the terror attacks. The Prime Minister said that she did not want to give the terrorist notoriety in New Zealand. Every terrorist will be punished under New Zealand law, and she will protect every victim.

I imagine that if the terrorist had been Muslim and from the Middle East, as is the common perception of terrorists, this great leader would have done the same things. She would have made sure that the majority of Muslims in New Zealand were safe, that hatred of Muslims was minimised, and that the terrorist was punished without mentioning their background, religion or race.

I learned how Kiwis are working to bring down Islamophobia and hatred, and cultivate love for everyone through the education system, not only at University level but also in primary schools in Auckland. Our kids’ teachers taught these values in their school for a whole month after this tragedy. My kids learned to always remind their mother that ‘we should be kind to everyone’. Four weeks after the tragedy, I attended one remembrance event at Parnell School. I noticed how teachers, parents, and students transferred their positive energy to embrace each other; to acknowledge that every kid is unique and special; and to embrace Muslim sisters and brothers too. My kid and her classmates sang a nice song about kindness, and started their performance by saying “be kind everyone.”

Video about kindness in Parnell School, on a Friday four weeks after the tragedy

Moving from Sympathy to Empathy

I have noticed how Kiwis have smiled at me during my walking to my university; talked to me while I am waiting for a bus; and showed their respect to me. Some of them say “Assalamu’alaikum” (may peace upon on you). Because I am a woman using a veil, people recognize that I am a Muslim. I feel how after this tragedy, they have moved from sympathy to empathy.

Almost 60 days after the tragedy, on 13 May 2019 (during Ramadhan), a security guard visited us during our fast-breaking. She said hi to us and told us that she never puts a bottle of water in front of her desk in the library, as she respects Muslim sisters and brothers who are fasting. Then, as we were walking through AUT, we said hello to two men who sat on Hikuwai Plaza. One of them said spontaneously: “Ramadhan Kareem” (Happy Ramadhan).  We said: “Thank you.”

For my family, we felt safe in Auckland as of three days after the terror attacks. At 60 days after the darkest day, we feel loved and have learned a lot from this tragedy.

We owe much to New Zealand about these lessons of life for our own journey after we return to our beloved country, Indonesia. Thank you New Zealand, thank you to my scholarship providers, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of New Zealand, and thank you AUT.

Najmah, kids, and AUT scholarship officers

About Najmah Usman

Najmah is a lecturer at Sriwijaya University in South Sumatera Indonesia. She is currently a PhD candidate at Auckland University of Technology (with a New Zealand ASEAN scholarship). She is also a writer, blogger, and a feminist. She is an expert in both quantitative and qualitative research and has published four books related to Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Previously she was awarded an Australian Partnership Scholarship and a Netherlands Fellowship Partnership.

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