On March 22, the Islamic Society of Central New Jersey (ISCJ) held an event in solidarity with New Zealand in response to the horrific shootings that took place at two mosques which left 51 Muslims dead at the hands of a white Australian supremacist on March 15.
The evening began with a gathering of interfaith guests who conversed between themselves about gun control, Islamophobia and white supremacy. Muslims, non-Muslims, adults and children became engaged in writing letters to the New Zealand families affected by the tragedy. These letters, being a gesture of global support and an effort to directly alleviate the pain of those affected, were personally addressed to specific families by their names. Above the letter writing stations was a poster board that said, “Our hearts are with you. Love brings us together.”
Many were present at the South Brunswick mosque to promote this message of love. Among them were South Brunswick Mayor Charlie Carly, who expressed, “Life’s hard enough … let’s remember to stay together. Let’s not indulge in hatred. Let’s indulge in mutual understanding.”
Indeed the entire event was a showcase of mutual understanding as people of all backgrounds came to break down barriers. Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, Department of Health Commissioner Shareef Elnahal, Walter Pullen of the Department of Homeland Security, Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert, Senator Linda Greenstein, the Rev. Sharyl Dixon of Kingston Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Karen Johnston of the Unitarian Society of East Brunswick, Cantor Bruce Rockman of Congregation B’Nai Tikvah in North Brunswick, South Brunswick Schools Superintendent Scott Feder, and Sikh representative Mandeep Singh Arora all shared unifying words that encouraged the active mobilization of the local Central Jersey community against hatred.
Heather Ciociola, member of the Sisterhood of Salam Shalom, delivered a heartfelt speech, voicing the true purpose of a community. “My Muslim sisters were one of the first to show up in support for us after Pittsburgh. Now it’s our turn,” she said.
But the evening was not only filled with words of condolence and solidarity. It was also an evening that encouraged real action.
Youth of the ISCJ community, Boy Scouts and students of the Noor-ul-Iman School in South Brunswick lined up behind a podium, taking turns to share the stories of those who lost their lives on the day of the New Zealand terrorist attack. Each victim profile began with “Say their names” and ended with “one of 51”. This was an initiative to humanize the Muslim victims, counteracting the narrative of mainstream media which chose to humanize the perpetrator instead. As Imam Sohaib later explained, “It is through stories that we change perceptions and reveal the truth.”
South Brunswick Chief of Police Raymond J. Hayducka shared the South Brunswick Police Department’s mission statement: “provide effective and efficient police services through the partnership of community, to prevent and deter crime as well as reduced the fear of crime, protect property and individual rights through education and enforcement,” promising that his officers would continue to honor this mission everyday. Hayducka emphasized that this mission of “education and enforcement” is what would ensure the safety of mosques such as ISCJ. The South Brunswick fire marshals took a stand as Hayducka spoke to display their own vow of protection for all people in their township.
A panel discussion with influential leaders concluded the evening. David Leonardis of the state Division of Criminal Justice, the Rev. Wendi Werner of the Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, Rabbi Adam Feldman of The Jewish Center in Princeton, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University, and CAIR NJ Executive Director James Sues explored the ways in which the interfaith community could work to combat hate crimes, mass shootings and the surge of white supremacy.
And although the New Zealand tragedy was addressed with love and action in only one evening, the panel discussion caused many to return home with a newfound motivation to continue the fight for justice throughout their lifetime.
This article and photos were submitted by Khadeeja Qureshi, a Princeton High School student and a member of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey.