White terror, part three: The itch at your back
I remember the sensation of dread, a guy had driven his van to the mosque. This is like as it was kind, it just happened. It was ongoing. People still didn't really know the extent of the… the massacre. And he rocked up and shouted out the side of his car that he was just there to celebrate. And then drove off. There were bodies on the ground, people who had just been killed. And your instinct is I'm going to go there. And just cheer.
From Schwartz Media, I’m Osman Faruqi, this is 7am.
A year on from the Christchurch terrorist attack, Muslims in Australia are still wrestling with a new level of fear. Some have been drawn back to faith. Others are questioning the way media and politics has stoked division. In part three of this series, I talk to poet Omar Sakr about life as a brown, Muslim man, living in Sydney, a year on after the attack.
This is Episode 3… the itch at your back.
I'll never forget that. That that was the thing that somebody felt was okay to do and to publicly declare to the authorities there, right? There must have been a sense that this is an allowable sentiment, I can express this here. It is safe for me to do that. And that contrast is just. It's beyond sickening. I wasn't surprised by it. I did feel a sense of, maybe...maybe another layer of hurt that I think any Muslim in Australia who, particularly, who is in the media, has a public profile or a semi-public profile or speaks and writes and so on, like I do and you do... I think we've been very vocal about what is happening in this country. I think we've been very vocal about this very dangerous demonization which has just rolled on unchecked.
I was never really religious when I was young. My parents were Muslim and they encouraged me to read the Quran… my dad would take me to mosque on Eid. But I always felt that was more out of cultural obligation than a really strong sense of religious devotion. By the time I hit my teens, I was a confirmed atheist. Religion just wasn’t a part of my life, though when you’re a brown guy with a beard and an Arabic name, everyone around you assumes you’re Muslim anyway. My dad would still drag me to mosque then, but I kind of hated it… and I was just going through the motions. After Christchurch… things changed. I had never felt more isolated in the country I grew up in. I started to feel this compulsion to start going to mosque more regularly.
I wanted to express solidarity with the Muslim community, who were feeling so victimised about what had gone on. And it wasn’t because I suddenly became religiously devout, but because I wanted a sense of community. I wanted to be around people who looked like me, and were going through the same thought processes after Christchurch that I was. So I started going to Friday prayers with some friends of mine - they were also second-generation Australian Muslims with a similarly complicated approach to religion.
One of them was Omar Sakr, he’s a poet who writes for The Saturday Paper.
You know, my family, we didn't go to the we didn't go to mosque except on Eid. And I think partly that was just because there wasn't one close to us. But also, I just didn't get it. They didn't really go. My immediate family didn't really go. I've always considered myself Muslim. My family's Muslim on both sides, the Turkish and the Lebanese. And I think, yeah, I've had a fluctuating relationship to Islam and to God. But over the past few years, you know, I've...I've had a similar urge to the one that you were just describing. You know, I wanted to get back to prayer. I wanted to kind of get back to those roots, because it was...it was and it is a grounding experience.
I go to the mosque and it’s simultaneously one of the safest and most loving environments. I feel such a sense of relief when I'm there. I can let go of my anxieties and just pray. But in the back of my mind, you know, initially, I would have that thought process of what if some guy comes in here at the back like...you're so vulnerable when you're praying, you're not meant to stop praying once the prayer has begun, you kind of have to continue regardless of what's happening around you. And so you can't...you can't look back. It's a ritual, right? There's a process. There are movements involved. So even if you're scared, that's in the back of your mind, you can't check on the itch at your back, so to speak. So, yeah, there was this. There's absolutely some fear. And I think it will never go away entirely.
And when I look at the people who are being harmed, I see my sisters, I see my brothers, my uncles, I see their names...of course, I have a very emotional reaction to...hateful rhetoric, to the violence that we see routinely unleashed on our communities.
We’ll be back in a moment.
The thing about the Christchurch attack that always stood out to me was that, if we’re honest to ourselves, it didn’t come out of nowhere. Because of how horrific the massacre was there was this attempt to distance ourselves from it. The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, said that extremism like that “had no nationality”.
Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“The crime was perpetrated by an extremist terrorist, and extremist terrorists have no nationality. Their only nationality is hate and violence…”
It’s a tempting thought… the murder of 51 people is just so evil, how could it be grounded in the same culture the rest of us belong to?
“...it all begins with extremism, and extremism of all sorts of views, from whatever perspective. And that’s why it’s important that a tolerant society such as Australia gravitates towards the middle...”
The problem was, Brenton Tarrant did have a nationality. He was an Australian. And while he spent the last couple of years before the attack overseas, he was inculcated in a country whose politics and media have been demonising Muslims and migrants for decades. When Blair Cottrell, then the leader of the far-right United Patriot’s Front, appeared on ABC TV to espouse his extremist beliefs… Tarrant posted on Facebook:
"Knocked it out of the park tonight Blair, your retorts had me smiling, nodding, cheering and often laughing. Never believed we would have a true leader of the nationalist movement in Australia”
No individual, other than the shooter himself, is responsible for what happened in Christchurch last year. But we need to acknowledge the role played by politicians and many in the media in demonising an entire community, and normalising White Supremacist ideology.
There is a remarkable indifference to our suffering. News Corp published almost 3000 articles in one year between 2017 and 2018 that tied Islam to violence, that negatively portrayed Islam and Muslims. There are consequences to creating and profiting off that kind of demented hatred.
Hmm. I think that’s really interesting because now it's like a constant hum throughout the political ecosystem. And to me that was a big tipping point as well was not just that this massacre happened, which was already a moment that we were reeling from grieving. And the day after, not even like a week after or a month of that. The day after and four days after that, Politicians on the right just lined up to take advantage of it or to blame us for it. I still can't get my head around that.
No, right, so like... even as... even as victims we’re still to blame.
Countries that allow large-scale Muslim immigration invariably have escalations in crime, violence, and terrorists attacks. Now as far as I’m concerned that’s just a statement of fact...
Killing… brown people, killing Muslims is part of what this country and the West does and has been doing for many, many years. And so it doesn't make sense really that it would change markedly after this fact. In fact, you know, my friend Michael Muhammad Ahmed. He called me the day of the massacre or was possibly the day after. And he was...very upset. And he was saying, I think I think this is it. You know, I think this is the moment where they're going to realise that they being the white mainstream, they're going to realise that they've gone too far, that this has allowed such a horror to occur. And I said to him. Straight away, I said it's not, it's really not going to change if you pay attention to the massacres that they unleash in the Middle East, in the Arab and Muslim world or the massacres they ignore. You understand that our lives and our deaths do not matter to them at all.
Omar’s a poet… and as I started to put this episode together in the days after our conversation… I wanted to hear what he’d written about Christchurch… so I gave him a call.
Phone Call -- Osman:
“Just give me a sec I’m just trying to get the sound quality on your end…”
I wanted to hear how these experiences were shaping the art he was making.
Phone Call -- Omar:
“I’ve written two poems. One is called “Poem After Christchurch”. It is an empty page, an absence. The second poem is called “Post-script for Poem After Christchurch”:
What did you imagine Write it down I’m sick of speaking for monsters Nor will I inhabit the victim
Speak for yourselves dear monsters
Tell us what you did”
Phone Call -- Osman:
“Wow. Can you tell me about those poems Omar?”
Phone Call -- Omar:
“As an Arab Muslim, I’m always expected to write about the violences and traumas inflicted on our bodies and our communities, and I’ve done that before and i will do it again, because I think it’s necessary. But it comes with a cost and I think sometimes that cost can’t be bought. Sometimes the imagination fails. Sometimes, you know, your heart fails. And here certainly mine did.”
Phone Call -- Osman:
“Omar, thank you.”
When Christchurch happened… I thought things would change. I thought it would be a wake up call for those in power… politicians… the media… to change the way they would talk about Muslims, to acknowledge the threat posed by the far-right.
That hasn’t happened. The far-right is more emboldened than ever. Despite the risks we face, politicians aren’t taking the threat seriously enough. I wanted to tell this story because I wanted us to really acknowledge the horror of Christchurch and its legacy.
The people who are currently controlling this conversation... they’re the ones who don’t want to have it. But we need too. Or this will happen again.
Also in the news… The federal government has extended its coronavirus travel ban to include Italy. Foreign nationals who have been in Italy, mainland China, Iran and South Korea will not be allowed into Australia for 14 days after they leave those countries.
And former Vice President Joe Biden has cemented his lead in the race to the Democratic presidential nomination. Biden won four of the six states that held primary votes last night, growing the gap between him and his competitor Bernie Sanders.
This special investigative series on the aftermath of the Christchurch attacks would not have been possible without the hard-work and support of the entire 7am team.
7am is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.
Elle Marsh, who reported part one from Christchurch, is our features and field producer, a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
Brian Campeau mixes the show. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.
New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app.
I’m Osman Faruqi. This is 7am. Tomorrow, Ruby Jones will be returning to host the show with Paul Bongiorno.
A year on from the Christchurch terrorist attack, Muslims in Australia are still wrestling with a new level of fear. Some have been drawn back to faith, while others are questioning the way the media and politics have stoked division. This is part three in a three-part series.
Guest: Poet and writer for The Saturday Paper, Omar Sakr.
7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app. I’m Ruby Jones, see you next week.