COMMENTARY: When describing the Christchurch mosque attack, let’s call it what it is — terrorism

A police officer patrols at a cordon near a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. Multiple people were killed in mass shootings at two mosques full of worshippers attending Friday prayers on what the prime minister called "one of New Zealand's darkest days," as authorities detained four people and defused explosive devices in what appeared to be a carefully planned attack. Mark Baker/AP Photo

The terror attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday hit too close to home for me.

Every day I drop my child off at an Islamic school that invites its students on Fridays to attend the beautiful communal prayer services held in the mosque that adjoins it — the same Friday prayer services that worshippers have been attacked at by a white supremacist gunman in Quebec City, and now in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Many Canadian Muslims will attest to the sudden rush of fear they felt after Alexandre Bissonnette opened fire in a Quebec City mosque and killed six people two years ago on Jan. 29. Jewish Canadians in particular would be able to empathize: The feeling was similar after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh last year that left 11 dead during morning Shabbat services.

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In the weeks and months after the Quebec City shooting, I would sit in my car for a few moments after dropping my daughter off at school, in a cloud of jumbled thoughts. What if a deranged shooter entered the school or mosque? Were the administrators prepared to respond to a terror attack? Why was I even choosing to send her to an Islamic school if I knew the risks that came along with it? But if I pulled her out, wouldn’t I be caving into the fear that white supremacists wanted me to feel?

The mosque adjoining the school has been the target of hateful vandalism once before. As upsetting as that incident was, I never felt the community was under threat. But if it happened in Quebec City, why couldn’t it happen in Toronto?

I have no doubt that people across New Zealand and Australia are wondering the same thing. Police in Christchurch called for all mosques in the city to shut down after 49 people were killed and at least 48 were seriously injured, including children, in the shootings at two mosques. Reports indicate that one gunman is an Australian who is believed to have written a manifesto outlining his intentions. In it, he espouses far-right and anti-immigrant ideology.

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WATCH: World leaders react to Christchurch mosque attacks

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New Zealand shooting: World leaders react to Christchurch mosque attacks – Mar 15, 2019

As with coverage of all terror attacks, the narrative — the way a story is shaped and told by the politicians, police and the news media — is crucial to how the public understands it. Importantly, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the shootings as a terrorist attack. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the suspected attacker as an “extremist right-wing violent terrorist”.

Why does this matter? Because attacks committed by Muslims are often immediately reported as a terrorist attack, whereas attacks by non-Muslims are pretty much never perceived to be.

Take the example of a shooting at a Las Vegas music festival in 2017 that killed 58 people and left 869 injured. The gunman was a 64-year-old white man. According to the Las Vegas Sheriff, this was clearly a case of mass murder, and although he personally called it a terrorist attack, it didn’t meet the federal definition of one.

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A day before that, a police officer in Edmonton was thrown into the air after being hit by a U-Haul truck driven by a Somali Muslim man. Abdulahi Hasan Sharif allegedly stabbed the officer with a knife before running off and hitting four other people with a second car. Police in Edmonton, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canadian news outlets quickly referred to this story as a terrorist attack, largely because police found what appeared to be an ISIS flag inside the driver’s car. But more than a year later, the suspect has still not been charged with terrorism-related offences.

In other words, if it had been a Muslim gunman, motivated by religious or political ideology, that had attacked a church in New Zealand, the words “terrorist” and “terror attack” would have been used a lot more liberally.

WATCH: Ardern condemns ‘extreme’ ideology of shooting suspects

Click to play video: 'New Zealand shooting: Ardern condemns ‘extreme’ ideology of shooting suspects' New Zealand shooting: Ardern condemns ‘extreme’ ideology of shooting suspects
New Zealand shooting: Ardern condemns ‘extreme’ ideology of shooting suspects – Mar 15, 2019

Muslims have good reason to be wary of the first words that come out of a politician’s mouth (or Twitter feed) after a terrorist attack. After the New Zealand tragedy, Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer was the first Canadian party leader to respond. But his words felt far from empathetic.

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“Freedom has come under attack in New Zealand as peaceful worshippers are targeted in a despicable act of evil,” he posted. “All people must be able to practice their faith freely and without fear.” Writer Andray Domise responded: “You haven’t even named the religion being practiced, or the type of house of worship wherein the people in Christchurch were attacked. Why is that?”

Paul Adams, a journalism professor at Carleton University, noted the aloofness of Scheer’s statement. “By framing this as an attack on freedom, Scheer tries to disassociate himself with the general disgust and condemnation of the incident but direct that feeling away from its obvious target – Islamophobia – to a value associate with his rhetorical line,” he said.

Freelance journalist Davide Mastracci also responded to Scheer by posting an image of him being interviewed by Rebel Media, an overtly racist Canadian far-right political and social commentary site. “Who you choose to spend time with says a lot more than this tweet, where you conveniently leave out that the attack happened at a mosque,” Mastracci wrote.

Words matter — including the ones that are not used.

It’s always worth remembering that horrific events motivated by hate often have a ripple effect, even if they are oceans away. It’s something I’ll be thinking about as I drop off my daughter again to school next week with a heavy heart. But I must also recall the words and acts of compassion our community received after the Quebec City mosque attacks — the protective ring of peace that people of all faiths and none formed around our mosque in freezing temperatures for example — and the subsequent one we formed around a local Toronto synagogue after the Pittsburgh attack.

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Love can overcome hate. And if anyone can demonstrate that, it’s Canadians.

Shenaz Kermalli is a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Ryerson University.

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