Christchurch Shooting: My Brother Escaped the Australian Terrorist. But He Might Never Escape Islamophobia

First Person

Christchurch Shooting: My Brother Escaped the Australian Terrorist. But He Might Never Escape Islamophobia

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

I

n the wee hours of March 15, as I slept comfortably in my bed at my suburban Lucknow house, my brother’s world was coming apart.

Aamir, my brother who is in his mid-40s, moved a decade ago to New Zealand, constantly cited as one of the safest places in the world, with a welcoming government and a thriving community of immigrants. That notion, along with the hopes and dreams of so many people, were shattered on Friday when an Australian terrorist, Brenton Tarrant, opened fire on Jummah namazis at Christchurch’s Masjid Al Noor, leaving 50 people dead.

My brother was there.

I was woken up by my mother at 9.30 am, hyperventilating and in tears, with a phone in her hand. As I regained my senses, she told me that something had happened in New Zealand. For a few tense moments, my heart sank and my blood froze as I mentally ran over a series of possibilities, each worse than the previous one. But thankfully, my brother had managed to escape the attack unscathed. Calling from someone else’s phone, he’d informed his wife that he was safe and – like so many other accounts now surfacing – had found refuge in the house of a stranger, who lived next-door to the mosque.

The next few hours were sheer panic and uncertainty as the city of Christchurch went into lockdown. All we knew was that his kids, aged 12 and 6, were stuck at school, and his wife was alone at home, dealing with the chaos that unfurled around her and the torrent of phone calls that had been unleashed. In the meantime, we received no update from my brother and had no idea whether he was still safe.

The sound of what had seemed like a short-circuit in the mosque, had attracted my brother’s attention. It was only when the faint pattering paused, and the cries of the gathered worshippers started echoing in the outer chambers, as the terrorist reloaded his magazine, and a thunderous volley of gunshots accompanied by thick smoke began, that my brother realised his worst nightmare was coming true.

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Carl Court/Staff/ Getty Images

The people trying to escape through the only door were all gunned down and as the assailant continued to spray bullets indiscriminately – murdering young men and women and small children and old people alike. In that moment of panic, as the assailant reached the inner rooms of the mosque, my brother managed to escape the building. He knew he wasn’t safe in the car park outside and jumped the wall into the backyard of the house next-door, even as gunshots continued to ring.

Nearly four hours, 50 dead, and three captured suspects later, my brother was escorted home by the police. We managed to speak to him on the phone, and that’s when our entire family broke down.

I was able to form this detailed account of the incident from my brother, and also from the Facebook livestream video shared by Tarrant. Filmed on a GoPro camera, that video is not for the faint of heart: Tarrant can be seen listening to music as he thoughtlessly murders people, a scene that looked straight out of a first-person shooter video game.

Despite its surreality, for the first time, tragedy had come home. For the first time instead of feeling disconnected, I was directly involved in the horrifying ramifications of an international terror attack. Even though, we probably constantly live in fear of being caught in the crosshairs of such an incident, this is just the sort of thing that happens to other people.    

And that’s when I felt something inside me change.

These incidents, wherever or whoever they may happen to, happen to all of us, everywhere. The people who lose their lives in terror attacks are somebody’s brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters. They are not just a statistic of 50 dead and 50 injured. Real people, murdered in real time.

For Muslims, religious discrimination and communal violence is par for the course – in our country and outside.

And for what? In this particular case because they happened to belong to the “wrong” religious community. At this point, it would be downright foolish to not acknowledge the Islamophobic sentiment that triggers these attacks. The festering mentality – cemented and perpetuated by politicians and depraved social media fora and general discourse – that all Muslims are either terrorists or terrorist sympathisers and unwanted, harmful immigrants.

My brother, along with billions of other Muslims in the world, is neither of those. He is a New Zealand resident, a professor at a university, and an upstanding, tax-paying member of his society, with absolutely no link to any terrorist group. A man who might have been killed not by a terrorist, but by this dangerously stunted mentality, stemming from a vicious, post-9/11 bias.

But why blame just the West for a prejudice that has always been a part of the subcontinental landscape as well? For Muslims, religious discrimination and communal violence is par for the course – in our country and outside. We’re told to leave our land, every time an India-Pakistan cricket match is played. We read of incidents where people cancel their Uber rides because the driver is a Muslim; we go along with news of people refusing to hire Muslim employees. We are told to tolerate accusations of “love jihad”. And we have no option but to accept a government whose silent leaders refuse to reign in “gau rakshaks” who routinely lynch young Muslim men.     

The theatre of Indian politics is astutely mirroring this dangerous global trend and brazenly dancing to its infernal tunes. A minority that’s been cast under the shadow of doubt for ages is a terribly convenient target at the brink of general elections for political leaders of a particular bent. Caught in between this political tug of war are people who are made to prove their nationalism and restate their allegiance by the media.

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Carl Court/Staff/ Getty Images

In a time of radicalised emboldenment of the far-right, this sentiment has coagulated into a real threat to the lives of everyday Muslims. If you grew up Muslim in India, you’d know that this is just the zenith of a social dynamic between Hindus and Muslims – sometimes subtle, sometimes painfully obvious, but always present. And while we have lived freely as Muslims in the democratic India and grown up steeped in a variety of lifestyles and traditions, partaking in the great cultural osmosis of this beautiful and wild country, the divide was never as dangerously and rapidly widening as it is today.

Being an Indian Muslim was only incidental to my identity as an Indian.But with the way this current narrative is playing out, I won’t be surprised if one of these days my identity is reduced to a binary choice of either Indian or Muslim.

What’s truly, maniacally ironic, is that this self-admitted fascist murderer of Christchurch, was partly avenging the death of a little girl called Ebba Akerlund, killed in the 2017 Stockholm truck attack, also carried out by a lone-wolf terrorist who’d sworn allegiance to the ISIL. It’s like a macabre game of passing the parcel – an unceasing cycle of violence. My brother saw the madman avenging the 12-year-old girl, by shooting in the head a two-year-old boy, one he’d see at the mosque every week with his father.

Where does this bloodied buck stop? When does this horrorshow ferris wheel stop?

It stops with us, really.

In a world where bigotry and hate are the currency of political discourse; where religious, racial, and regional identity define our basic right to live; where intolerance and discrimination are not only implemented by fanatic zealots but also by everyday people, there is no hope for this violence to stop. No matter how many mosques and churches and towers and streets are blown up, this bottomless pit of generalised hate is never going to fill up.

I am not naive enough to believe that an incident like Christchurch can change the worldview of a people, or even an individual’s. But we can start with compassion. With one positive thought. With a smidgen of understanding of the suffering of a fellow person, even if they don’t share our beliefs or culture or faith. We can start by knowing that when a Brenton Tarrant shoots down a mosque, he is not putting an end to any ideological problem – he’s only turning another cog in this giant wheel of violence, greased by generalised hatred.

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