By Sarah McKinnis
On March 27, the auditorium in Luce Hall filled with a diverse crowd. People of all religious backgrounds had come together to mourn and find solace in community a week and a half after the terror attack at the Christchurch mosque in New Zealand, where fifty-one people died in the shooting on March 15th—many of them immigrants and refugees who had already fled violence at least once before in their home countries.
“Stories That Heal: Reflections After New Zealand Mosque Attack,” hosted by the Chaplain’s Office at Yale, was a combination of silent reflection, prayer, and conversation. It addressed not only the suffering in the wake of the tragedy, but also the political environment that allowed it to occur.
It opened with a moment of silence, followed by a recitation from the Qur’an and words from several Yale chaplains. Rabbi Jason Rubenstein spoke of the reality of fear in the Jewish community, especially following the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, and offered his unwavering support for the Muslim community. It takes “everyday heroism,” he said, to continue to pray and worship as usual.
Omer Bajwa, the director of Muslim Life at Yale, spoke too, condemning white nationalism as the common enemy in such attacks and raising the point that the shooter was “driven by a hateful and contagious worldview that’s becoming a global threat.” How do we stop this threat? Bajwa offered words from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Jewish theologian and Jewish philosopher in the 20th century: “Words create worlds.” Bajwa described his desire to see beautiful words create a beautiful world and went on to tell the stories of three people killed in the attack. One such person was Husna Ahmed, who had led women and children out of the mosque when the shooting started, but was killed when she returned inside looking for her husband, a wheelchair user. Her husband survived and spoke two weeks later at a national memorial service, saying to the crowd that he had forgiven his wife’s killer because he wanted a heart “that will be full of love and care and full of mercy.” Stories like these, full of radical empathy, serve as different perspectives and ways to understand what happened beyond the statistics.
The panel discussion that followed was truly a conversation between “hearts and people,” as one audience member said. Each panelist was uniquely qualified to talk about the topics at hand due to their unique backgrounds and perspectives—Nadir Nahdi, a storyteller and YouTube Creator for Change; Wazhma Sadat, a Yale law school student and social entrepreneur; Jason Stanley, a professor of political science and expert on the mechanics of hate; and Baljeet Sandhu, a current innovator in residence at Tsai CITY in New Haven and a leading human rights lawyer in the UK.
Nahdi started the conversation by revealing his own identity struggles while growing up Muslim in a generation framed by the terror following 9/11, saying, “we don’t know who we are outside of resisting the perceptions of everyone else.” Nahdi’s YouTube channel BENI is his way of resisting those perceptions by sharing stories—his own and others’—of young people defining their own narratives. Following Nahdi’s speech, a clip from his video “Fight for the Future,” played, highlighting the power of diversity, creativity, culture, and his goal of “shifting the story from what I am not to what I am.” During the panel discussion, Wazhma Sadat echoed Nahdi’s sentiments: “we need to fight for our future, but we also really need to fight for our present.” An immigrant from Afghanistan, she grew up in the midst of war, where people would not schedule plans for more than a week in advance because they did not know if they would still be alive by then. She was familiar with fear and religious persecution, but shared how more recently in the U.S. her presence had become a political issue, as wearing her hijab made her visibly Muslim. Later in their discussion, Sandu explained that this political tension translated into real fear for many. After the shooting at Christchurch, she received many calls from some of the young Muslim refugees she had represented in the UK. They had settled and adjusted to life in the UK but are now afraid for their safety again.
Professor Jason Stanley not only brought an academic perspective to the discussion about the current political moment, but also a personal one—he is the child of two survivors of Nazi Germany. He prefaced his remarks by acknowledging how difficult and seemingly trivial it is to go into abstractions—generalized ideas and social theories—during times of human suffering, but also that such abstractions are essential. Stanley believes that we are seeing Hitler’s fascist ideology reemerging, this time manifesting as white nationalism with people placing blame specifically on immigrants and Muslims. In particular, he explained the importance of recognizing that in attacks such as the Christchurch attack, and the shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue and the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, the killer is motivated by similar themes: patriarchy, xenophobia, and islamophobia. These attacks, he emphasized, were not just motivated by a singular person’s hate, but by a dangerous and powerful rhetoric that has infiltrated different factions in our society. Sandu agreed, commending the New Zealand Prime Minister for identifying the Christchurch shooting as a terrorist attack almost immediately, but citing the issue that in the UK, she believed it would be deemed the work of one crazy individual and the threat of growing white nationalism would be dismissed.
When asked if she believed that we could use empathy to combat the toxic, poisonous rhetoric behind such terrorist attacks, Sandhu wavered but explained that her hesitation was with people coming from the outside to solve a problem without fully understanding the issue. However, she does believe in applying empathy to these situations through leadership and organization, citing communities on the ground who do things with love and use their experience with hate to innovate and build resilience.
In Sandhu’s words and in the words of the other panelists, there was hope—hope that was bolstered by the many people who came out to the event in support of the Muslim community, whether they were Muslim or not. But as Nadir Nahdi voiced, “it’s taken a tragedy for this room to happen.” He reminded us that we should also come together in this way to celebrate one another even when tragedies do not occur. In order to do that, we must build communities that allow people who initially might be outsiders to feel that they can be invested in them. Nahdi’s answer to that task? Stories of the human spirit. The emphasis on creativity and innovation was present throughout the entire event, leaving the audience with a greater understanding of how the stories Nahdi promoted could be stories that heal.
Sarah McKinnis is a first-year in Trumbull College.You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.