From New Zealand to Chicago

Recalling values to manage world’s vulnerability

March 17, 2019

By Wael Merza

Translated from Arabic by Dr. Wayel Azmeh


Nothing brings into focus the vulnerability of the world we live in so intensely like an event similar to the assault on the two mosques in New Zealand two days ago.

Despite millions of police, security forces, and intelligence, and despite all the advances in tracking, surveillance, eavesdropping, and spying on potential terrorists, a man called Brenton Tarrant slipped through the cracks. Until now, he was obscure, unknown in the world to all but his family and friends. In the most secure corner of the world, this previously unknown man arrived to execute and forecast live in cold blood, for over an hour, one of the ugliest acts in the world.

This young terrorist is Australian, of Christian religion, and a madman by some measure—and there are many other mad individuals like him who share the same aforementioned affiliations. However, we, as Muslims, know that we have mad people who think in the same way, and that some of them might be willing and preparing for revenge in an even uglier way. This revenge might happen in a week, a month, or even a year despite the millions of law enforcement officials, advanced technology, and the backing of laws supposed to facilitate their mission.

With what has happened and is happening in the world today, the term “vulnerability” acquires a meaning like never before. It is a vulnerability that is not helped by increasing the numbers of police forces, availing them of more advanced technology, or passing stricter laws. It certainly does not hurt to augment all of the above, but those measures are not capable of lessening the world’s vulnerability. Only restoring values to human societies could help save us from this deluge of terror which does not distinguish amongst peoples or religions. Evoking values in the current conditions might seem idealistic to many, but it is precisely this kind of dismissive thinking about ideals that is the problem.

In Chicago, where I now live, curiosity drew me to closely observe reactions to the New Zealand event from within, as well as from without the Muslim community. The Friday sermons I heard agreed on the values humanity shares in sorrow and joy, and while the mosque orators condemned Islamophobia and its promoters, they nevertheless assured people that true strength is not in vengeance, but in working on two fronts:

Deepening Muslim presence through heightened consciousness and organization;

Intensifying integration within American society and its bodies.

Furthermore, the Muslim community went beyond rhetoric to organize a large meeting that united Muslims and others to express the value of common solidarity. Outside the Muslim community, others participated in shows of solidarity. Many mosques and Islamic centers received phone calls and emails in the morning from neighboring churches, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist temples; from publicly elected officials, and normal citizens. All the messages started with condemning terror before expressing condolences and offering help. On the security front, there was a police squad guarding every mosque in Chicago during the Friday prayer. Furthermore, many mosques received bouquets of flowers sent by neighboring fellow-American communities; it is noteworthy that many of those who delivered the flowers were white men and women. I saw, myself, a woman in her fifties delivering the flowers to the mosque’s imam with tearful eyes.

There is a lot of evil in our world but restoring and strengthening values in societies is the most effective weapon to repel evil. I deliberately use the word “restoring”, for it is an endeavor that requires a substantial, deliberate, and conscious effort. It is a process that cannot happen fortuitously.

The Imam who received the flowers told me that his mosque was in the process of buying a larger building to move to. However, the local city council denied their request to occupy the new building for purely financial reasons. For, the building was classified as a commercial facility that was contributing one quarter million dollars to the city coffers every year in taxes. Changing its classification from a commercial building to a mosque would result in losing this yearly tax, since places of worship are tax exempt.

Many members from the Muslim community tried to lobby with the City council members on behalf of the mosque to no avail. Therefore, the mosque decided to send a delegation to visit neighboring churches and temples to inform them about their predicament and ask them, just merely ask them, for advice about how to deal with the situation.

The mosque delegation did not get advice.

Yet, in the next city council hearing, the hall was full of hundreds of non-Muslim citizens who are members of the neighboring churches and temples led by their leaders, some had to stand for lack of vacant seats. They all demanded that the city council approve the building permit for a place of worship, which was granted in a few minutes.

This particular neighborhood enjoys security and prosperity today with much less vulnerability than other neighborhoods that did not experience this kind of solidarity among its citizens. It is clear that the way forward through this chaos lies in bolstering our defenses with solidarity with our communities, and stronger integration with society at large. Only thus can we fight against the world’s descent into rapidly-intensifying vulnerability.

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