'Something … rotting within our society': Muslims struggle with New Zealand mosque shootings

With a voice weakened from despair and lack of sleep, one of the leaders of Winnipeg's Muslim community searched desperately for words, any words, in the aftermath of Friday's shootings at two New Zealand mosques.

Islamic Social Services Association hosts anti-hate conference Friday for Muslims and non-Muslims

Shahina Siddiqui is consoled Friday at the start of the second day of a conference on anti-racism, the rise of hate and the far right. (Gavin Boutroy/CBC)

With a voice weakened from despair and lack of sleep, one of the leaders of Winnipeg's Muslim community searched desperately for words, any words, in the aftermath of Friday's shootings at New Zealand mosques.

"It's just … surreal. You just, you just … don't want to believe it," Shahina Siddiqui, executive director of the Islamic Social Services Association, said through deep breaths and long pauses.

"There's something really rotting within our society, where people think this is OK to do, where they are so driven by hate."

The attacks at two mosques filled with worshippers during Friday prayers in Christchurch left 49 people dead and another 48 injured.

Today is just … I don't know how you can articulate in words. My heart right now is just with those families and those children.- Shahina   Siddiqui

A man in his 20s has been charged with murder.

Australian media reports have identified him as Brenton Tarrant, 28, from the city of Grafton in New South Wales, Australia.

Siddiqui has been awake through the night since news of the shootings broke. She said the Muslim community has been concerned about the increase in radicalism and far-right extremism.

A view of the Al Noor Mosque on Deans Avenue in Christchurch, New Zealand, taken in 2014. (Martin Hunter/SNPA/Reuters)

Coincidentally, the Islamic Social Services Association on Thursday began hosting a two-day conference on that topic and the threats it poses.

"Today is a glaring example of that," Siddiqui said. "There's a lot of things running through our heads right now."

The conference, Striving for Human Dignity: Race, Gender, Class and Religion, features experts, organizers and academics from Manitoba, elsewhere in Canada and the United States. It is open to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. 

"The rise of this kind of hatred, we've been watching it, we've been seeing it coming. But still, we were still hoping, at some level, maybe … maybe we are wrong. Maybe nothing will happen," she said.

"Today is just … I don't know how you can articulate in words. My heart right now is just with those families and those children."

Shahina Siddiqui, executive director of the Islamic Social Services Association, has not slept since news of the shootings broke. (CBC)

The conference in Winnipeg began with prayers for the victims of the shooting.

"We are devastated and we join together today in solidarity, and always, with all victims of hate crimes — xenophobia, Islamophobia," said Krishna Lalbiharie, one of the organizers of the conference.

"We're very mournful and we're very sorrowful."

Lalbiharie called the conference the "only conceivable grace in this period of unspeakable devastation."

"We are thankful that we are able to gather here today as a community of activists and citizens that will never, ever shirk from seeking a civil society which speaks to, and advances, expressions of unity and inclusivity," he said.

The conference offers promise through the darkness of Friday's tragedy, said Siddiqui.

"It's hopeful when people from so many diverse communities come together," she said.

At the same time, she says it would be a mistake to feel complacent or too secure.

"We should, but it seems the Muslim community cannot — we cannot let our guard down," she said.

"I don't know how I'm going to talk to my grandchildren today about what's happening."

A Winnipeg police cruiser is stationed outside the Grand Mosque on Waverley Street during Friday afternoon prayers. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Increased policing and condolences

Winnipeg police said they have been in contact with members of the Manitoba Islamic Association and they're increasing their presence and visibility in the areas around local mosques.

That increased police presence could be seen during Friday afternoon prayers at the Grand Mosque on Waverley Street. Islamic association spokesman Idris Elbakri said he appreciated the gesture, since so many people in the community were grieving, frightened and on edge.

"It helps reassure people and [is] a deterrent in the case of any copycat ideas," he said.

Hours after the fatal shootings at a Christchurch, New Zealand Mosque, people gather for prayers at Winnipeg's Grand Mosque. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

More children than usual were in attendance at the Grand Mosque on Friday, due to a professional development day for Winnipeg teachers. Elbakri said it was especially difficult to speak to them about the horrors that unfolded half a world away.

"This should never become the new normal for anyone."

In addition to additional resources, the Winnipeg Police Service also offered condolences to family and friends of the victims in New Zealand — something other organizations and politicians have done as well.

We are witnessing an explosion of racism and violence around the world.- Belle Jarniewski , Manitoba Multifaith Council

"I am devastated by the news of the despicable and cowardly shootings in New Zealand. Freedom of religion, peace and rule of law are pillars of democracy and the world we share," Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said in a statement from his office.

"On behalf of all Manitobans, we strongly condemn this horrific attack against Muslims. Our prayers are with the victims of this senseless attack and their loved ones.

"We have reached out to our Muslim community here in Manitoba to offer our support during this incredibly sad and difficult time. We stand together with you in peace and solidarity."

Solidarity was a common refrain in condolence statements, including one from the Manitoba Metis Federation, which lowered flags on Friday at its Winnipeg headquarters.

The organization said its leadership and staff are disheartened by "the senseless act of terrorism." 

"The MMF … wants to assure our Muslim neighbours, here and around the world, and our Metis citizens, that it will always stand against Islamophobia and these horrendous acts of violence," the statement says.

The Manitoba Multifaith Council also issued a statement, with president Belle Jarniewski offering "our deepest sympathy" on behalf of the board of directors.

"As attacks on places of worship proliferate around the world, it is essential for us to join together to condemn all expressions of hatred. We are witnessing an explosion of racism and violence around the world," the statement says.

"Hate speech is supported by all too many as free speech and an inherent right. Simply put, that means we are not doing enough — to educate, to condemn and to join together to combat hate.

"We can only be stronger when standing together."

A vigil will be held on Friday at 8 p.m. at the Grand Mosque on Waverley Street to honour the victims of the New Zealand attacks.


Darren Bernhardt


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Jillian Taylor and Nelly Gonzalez