71-year-old grandfather Haji-Daoud Nabi, who was shot as he welcomed a stranger to his mosque. Author provided

Remembering my friend, and why there is no right way to mourn the Christchurch attacks

Editor’s note: this article was updated on Sunday March 15 to reflect the latest news on event cancellations due to coronavirus.

On March 15 last year, I lost a close friend in the Christchurch attacks. When Haji-Daoud Nabi greeted a stranger at the door of the Al Noor mosque with “hello brother”, he was shot dead – one of 51 people killed.

I met Haji-Daoud at a Wellington mosque as a teenager, which led to a lifelong friendship. His stories partly inspired my PhD research in Afghanistan. There, I studied the way violent events can shape people’s sense of community.

But I never thought those lessons from Afghanistan would one day also apply in the peaceful country I grew up in.

One year on, disagreeing about how to remember

Over the past year, on my visits home to New Zealand, I’ve spoken with victims’ families, community leaders, people working on the recovery effort, and others working with the royal commission of inquiry into the attacks.

I have watched closely as the community I grew up with has moved forward. I have observed Muslim communities that in many ways are stronger now and better integrated – both with each other, and with the wider public – than before last year’s attacks.

Rather than turning people against Muslims, shared grief and anger has arguably led to a stronger society.

But I have also seen disagreements and differences emerge between Muslims in New Zealand, including around how the attacks should be remembered – particularly this Sunday’s planned National Remembrance Service in Christchurch.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (centre) attended special Friday prayers at Christchurch’s Horncastle Arena, on Friday 13 March 2020 – before the decision to cancel this weekend’s even larger memorial event. John Kirk-Anderson/Stuff/Pool

Before the event was cancelled on Saturday due to coronavirus concerns, Christchurch City Council had said the Sunday afternoon service would be jointly led by the local Muslim and Māori communities, along with the council and New Zealand government. Thousands of people had been expected to attend, and it was going to be streamed live online for a global audience.

Some in New Zealand had been unhappy about the service, saying they would rather “move on”. Spokespeople from both the Otago and Canterbury Muslim Associations, along with other Muslim groups, had distanced themselves from the commemoration. The general sense has been that celebrating anniversaries is not part of Islamic practice.

But not everyone believes this.

The Al Noor mosque re-opened eight days after the shootings. Earlier this week, Al Noor’s imam Gamal Houda said the attacks were a “crime against humanity” and should be an exception to normal Islamic rules. And other Muslims, like my friend Aya who lost her brother in the attacks, had been part of ongoing planning and consultation around Sunday’s planned commemorations.

A worshipper prays at a makeshift memorial at the Al Noor mosque, four days after the attacks. Mick Tsikas/AAP

For some, “remembering” is an occasion for silence and moving on. For others, it is a time for protest and a catalyst for change.

One of the recurring themes in my PhD fieldwork in Afghanistan, as well as others who have written on violent events, is that the voices of survivors often get subsumed by the “big story” - what the massacre means for a community or national identity.

But what the Christchurch anniversary highlights, yet again, is there is no single, homogeneous group of Muslims, in New Zealand or anywhere else, who all want and believe the same thing.

No one person or community can claim to own an event like the Christchurch attacks, or what it means, or how it is remembered. Each person mourns in their own way.


Read more: Far-right extremists still threaten New Zealand, a year on from the Christchurch attacks


Cultural practices intertwined

In March last year, I couldn’t get a flight to Christchurch in time to be at Haji-Daoud’s funeral.

Watching his funeral via video instead, I was particularly moved by the haka, led by a Muslim, and the procession of bikies escorting the hearse carrying his body to the burial site.

To me, this spoke to who Haji-Daoud was as a person. He was as Kiwi as he was Afghan.

Over the past year, we have seen cultural practices intertwine like this in surprising ways. First, through a spiritual cleansing of the two mosques that were attacked, by both Ngāi Tahu (the South Island’s main Māori tribe) and Muslim leaders.

A memorial at the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, one of the two targeted in the attack. Mick Tsikas/AAP

After that, marae (Māori meeting places) opened their doors to Muslim mourners, and mosques opened their doors in turn. Messages of aroha (love) and kia kaha (stay strong) were written outside mosques, and often translated into Arabic.

I do not think this was a momentary reaction. I think it represents a genuine coming together that has reshaped the way Muslims, and other Kiwis, know each other.


Read more: Christchurch's legacy of fighting violent extremism online must go further – deep into the dark web


This Sunday morning, in the hours before the much-debated (now cancelled) national remembrance service, the Kilbirnie mosque in Wellington had planned to host its annual open day.

Being part of Wellington’s Muslim community, I remember so many open days like it: filled with fun, laughter, henna painting, bouncy castles, barbecues. In the past, they were days of celebration. This year, it would also have been a day of remembrance.

But only hours before the mosque’s doors were due to open, the mosque announced its open day had also been regretfully cancelled.

The risk was that, because anyone could just turn up without a ticket, contact tracing would have been too difficult if it later emerged that someone with coronavirus was among the crowd.

In the end, it was the very openness of the Kilbirnie event that meant it had to keep its doors closed today.

But beyond today’s anniversary, living with a spirit of openness is one of the best ways to pay tribute to my friend.

If the mosque open day had gone ahead, and if he could have been there, I can just picture Haji-Daoud behind the barbecue flipping sausages – or at the gate, welcoming strangers inside.

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