Solidarity vigil for New Zealand mosques shooting held in Diag, interrupted early due to false active shooter threat

Sunday, March 17, 2019 - 9:50pm

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Illustration by Sherry Chen

The Islamophobia Working Group and the Muslim Student Association hosted a vigil on the Diag Saturday afternoon in light of Friday’s mosque attacks in New Zealand, where at least 50 people were killed and another 50 people were injured. The vigil, attended by over 200 University of Michigan students, faculty and local residents, was interrupted about 30 minutes in when two police officers ran through the Diag ordering the crowd to move in response to a potential active shooter threat —  which was later determined to be unfounded —  in Mason Hall, located next to the Diag.

The vigil was organized on Friday by Haleemah Aqel, Intergroup Relations program coordinator and University alum, Muslim Student Association president and Business senior Mohammad Shaikh, Public Policy junior Arwa Gayar and LSA junior Silan Fadlallah, co-founder and president of the University's chapter of Epsilon Alpha Sigma, the first Arab sorority in the United States. Before the event began, organizers passed out flameless LED candles to attendees.

All speakers addressed the crowd from the steps of Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library. The event began with remarks from Samer Mahdy Ali, director of the University’s Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Ali explained that the vigil was planned in less than 24 hours to serve as a place for community members to grieve.

“The Islamophobia Working Group wanted to create a space where we can all come together as a community, to show solidarity, to have a space where we can grieve and connect with one another,” Ali said.

The University’s Muslim chaplain Mohammed Tayssir Safi told attendees to call out injustice any way they can, especially in light of Friday’s tragic event.

“Our humanity is at stake, my dear brothers and sisters, but know that the sanctity of your heart, the seed of compassion and morality, is the most valuable of all,” Safi said.

After speakers recited a prayer in Arabic and its English translation, Aqel encouraged attendees to honor the attack victims by recognizing them.

“I think it’s a great injustice if we don’t recognize the victims, recognize their lives, recognize their experiences, their stories,” Aqel said. “Remember these victims more than just being victims, more as individuals … who had beautiful lives, and that their stories will continue to be told and that we will not forget them.”

Shaikh then shared a prayer with those in attendance, honoring the lives of those who were killed in Friday’s attack.

“We pray that you bless this gathering, where we mourn the loss of the 49 brothers and sisters that we lost yesterday,” Shaikh said. “We pray that the light they shined in this world continues to bring them eternal benefit … that you enable our thoughts and our prayers to manifest in our service, in our activism, and in our pursuit of inspiring change in the world.”

LSA sophomore Basil Alsubee then addressed the crowd, mentioning that he grew up in a Muslim-majority country and was not exposed to Islamophobia as a child. Alsubee then urged attendees to be aware of how they interact with people on campus and of the possible biases in the media they consume.

“There are a lot of people on this campus who are marginalized,” Alsubee said. “If there’s one value in my faith that I’ve grown up with that I feel very strongly about, it’s consciousness ... both of yourself and your own biases, and of those around you. I was not aware of Islamophobia as a kid … it’s really shocking to me to see these kinds of things being perpetuated, whether it’s on the Internet or on campus, and I just want everyone here to be very cognizant of the people around you.”

Zaynab Elkolaly, a senior at Washtenaw Technical Middle College, urged the crowd to channel their grief into action.

“Every time we hear about these tragedies when they happen, people are very quick to say ‘Let’s not jump to policy. It’s too soon, let’s mourn,’” Elkolaly said. “And while it is incredibly important for us to mourn, we must not become trapped in sadness. At the point when we are ready, we must take action. We must understand this hate crime was enabled by our administration and the white supremacy that they are breeding, that they are allowing, that they are condoning.”

Elkolaly also encouraged the audience not to be afraid in the face of hatred. She specifically addressed non-Muslims in the crowd, telling them to stand and fight with the Muslim community.

“To non-Muslims here, I want you to understand that we are not afraid,” Elkolaly said. “Muslim means ‘Do not be afraid’ … We will not cower in fear. We will continue to wear hijab, we will continue to wear kufis … Do not feel sympathy for us. More so, fight with us when the time comes.”

State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, and state Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, then took to the podium, and Rabhi addressed the crowd, encouraging those present to be a “light” in face of hatred and evil.

“It is dark today,” Rabhi said. “But in our hearts is a great light, like the light that is in our candles, like the light of the sun that is beginning to shine on the crowd. That is the light that will carry us forward. Not just us here, but people all across the planet who are grieving, together. Let that grief be the fuel that fires that light.”

Fadwa Ashur, a sophomore at Eastern Michigan University who is Palestinian-American, read a poem she had written about Palestine. She said the poem addresses Islamophobia and hatred and thus has many parallels to the New Zealand shooting.

“I never understood the phrase ‘The truth will set you free’,” Ashur said. “Because my truth, it traps me. It cages me, only letting me see the darkness, knowing what happens but not able to do anything.”

In Ashur’s poem, she addressed the deaths of Palestinian citizens and noted that the death toll will continue to rise.

"They are left, thrown away, called necessary casualties, expected to increase," Ashur said.

At this moment, two police officers ran through the Diag, yelling repeatedly at the crowd to move. The crowd scattered, running to nearby buildings, many heading up the steps of Hatcher.

In an interview with The Daily after the false active shooter scare, Elkolaly reminded and encouraged the University community to stay strong in spite of fear.

“I want people to continue to be fearless,” Elkolaly said. “I said it in my speech and even after this all has happened, I’ll say it one million times after: Do not be afraid.”