The day after an Australian terrorist claimed the lives of fifty Muslim worshippers at their mosques in Christchurch, I attended a vigil in central Melbourne. I wanted to mourn alongside other people, in particular other members of racialised minorities. The bloodshed may have taken place in New Zealand, but this was an Australian hate-crime that we had long anticipated. And those of us who were reviled as ‘invaders’ in the killer’s manifesto remain in the cross-hairs of the far-right.
Although I do not wear hijab on a routine basis, I have sought to make my religious identity more visible since the morning after the election of Donald Trump, when I lifted the scarf that was draped across my shoulders and drew it over my head. I wore a headscarf to the vigil so that my hair would be covered during the prayers, but also because it seemed appropriate for the somber nature of the occasion.
Thoughts of the horrible scenes from the massacre and fears for what lay ahead were too intrusive for me to be able to focus on the speeches. However, I appreciated the sense of anger and grief and in particular the presence of, and words of solidarity from, First Nations people whose history is littered with massacres. Yet my most abiding memory of the day is that of the white lady who was handing out roses to visible Muslims in the crowd, telling us she was sorry for what had happened.
My ‘thank you’ was very curt. Was I supposed to administer absolution in return for a rose? Is the gift of a flower supposed to miraculously heal an ongoing trauma? This seemed like a bargain-basement form of atonement, no substitute for solidarity and civil disobedience in the face of structural racism.
A primary-school aged girl ‘of Middle Eastern appearance’ wearing jeans and a baseball cap stretched out her hand for a rose, but the flower lady ignored her. She had presented her offering to the girl’s hijab-wearing mother and moved on, with the girl’s hand still reaching out towards her. I gave the girl my rose. She accepted it in silence.
All through the speeches, the girl focused on the rose and I focused on her rather than on thoughts about the grandfather who survived the war in Afghanistan only to meet his end in a place of worship in what was supposed to be a safe location, on the women who were murdered because ‘it’s the birthrates, it’s the birthrates, it’s the birthrates’, on the children who were slaughtered because ‘children of invaders do not stay children’.
The girl in the baseball cap paid only brief attention to the fragrant blossom, instead running her fingers up and down the stem and examining the thorns in great detail. I felt a moment of alarm—hadn’t I read a newspaper report about a little girl who had fallen into a coma after pricking her finger on a rose thorn? Then I realised that I had somehow managed to conjure a scene based on Sleeping Beauty—the princess who slept for a hundred years after pricking her finger on a spindle, her court barricaded by a thicket of overgrown rose bushes. This girl didn’t look like a Disney or Brothers Grimm fairytale princess. She was a sturdy little brown girl who was sensible enough not to let a pretty flower distract her from the danger of the thorns.
Of course, we were far from the only Muslim recipients of flowers in the wake of the Christchurch attack. Mosques and community centres around the world were flooded with deliveries of condolence bouquets. Christchurch council has said that it will photograph the thousands of flowers presented in memory of the victims before composting them for a memorial garden at the mosques where the crime took place. I am not so churlish as to suggest that floral offerings should be hurled back in the face of the givers. They can serve as recognition of our pain and fear, and they can symbolise a commitment to solidarity and justice.
But the thorns among the roses are the claims to innocence, the assertions that ‘this does not represent us’ as though that is enough to exempt any of us from responsibility in a society founded on genocide and supersaturated with racial violence, past and present. Do not presume to hand us a rose and walk away with your conscience cleansed.
Be strong, be safe, my fairy-tale princess with your baseball cap and your thorn-laden rose. There are plenty of us ready to fight by your side as you do daily battle, but you are right to be cautious about promises so easily given and so quick to fade.