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#FriendshipNotFear: symbols and solidarity after Christchurch

#FriendshipNotFear: symbols and solidarity after Christchurch

A photo of Andrew Graystone standing guard outside his local mosque in response to the Christchurch shooting was shared across the world. He reflects on the experience. 21.03.2019

When we hear of a mass shooting in America or Europe, we often get the news as it is happening, or whilst the perpetrator is being sought. New Zealand is 13 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, so when people like me woke up on Friday morning to the news that 49 (now 50) people had been killed by a gunman in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, the incident was already over. Instead of joining the news cycle at the point of jeopardy, we joined it at the point of reflection, when we were trying to weigh and express what the event might mean.

My first thought, like many I suspect, was that if this could happen in Christchurch it could happen anywhere. I imagined that the many Muslims who gather for Friday prayers at my local mosques would do so with some sense of anxiety.  It made sense to me to walk to one of my local mosques and greet people as they arrived for Jumu’ah.  Then it occurred to me that I would look a bit silly just standing at the gate and grinning. So I grabbed a piece of cardboard – an old file hanger – and wrote a message on it: You are my friends. I will keep watch while you pray. I stood outside the mosque as people entered, and stayed at the gate until they left.

Someone took a picture of me, and as the day went on, I discovered that it was being shared widely, not only in the UK, but around the world.  I started to get messages from strangers saying they had been touched and encouraged by my simple action. Then I started to get requests for interviews from around the world. To date I have received in excess of 50,000 personal messages and given scores of interviews to news agencies, radio and TV stations in the UK, across the Muslim world, and perhaps most movingly on local radio and TV in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Even at this early stage I am beginning to reflect on what I have learnt from the experience. One of the themes to emerge from the tens of thousands of messages I have received is that Muslims in the UK and elsewhere live with a mild but perpetual undercurrent of threat. It is like a buzzing in the ears, varying in intensity according to context, but requiring constant vigilance. Of course, others also live with similar kinds of anxiety. Perhaps we all do, though as a white, middle–class man in the UK my threat level is almost inaudible. For others it is a relentless din. Unwittingly, my tiny action and the message on my card seem to have indicated to people that I understood the impact of this level of persistent fear. The word ‘Islamophobia’ suggests a fear of Muslims, but the effect is to generate a fear in Muslims. Both sides of this unholy equation need to be dealt with.

I’m learning about the extraordinary power of symbol. The thing that has “gone viral” is not me, but an image of a smiling bloke in a flat hat carrying a scrappy piece of cardboard with a message on. It’s not even clear from the picture that I’m standing in front of a mosque, as the building is currently being redeveloped, and is surrounded by hoardings. That image is associated with an action. The action was a simple, ordinary act of solidarity, done with little cost to myself. The particular action was simply standing on a pavement for 90 minutes, but the location, outside Medina Mosque in South Manchester, has proven to have a symbolic power vastly beyond anything I intended or could have planned. All I was doing was standing in a place where I don’t immediately belong – outside the gate of a mosque complex. The fact of doing so was simple to the point of being trivial. But the meanings attached to the symbol seem to have had a powerful resonance. I can’t sum up those meanings adequately in words. A symbol goes beyond words, and its meaning belongs to the one who reads it more than the one who inscribes it. But these are some of the meanings that people seem to have ascribed to it:

  • Ordinary looking bloke 

  • Going onto a neighbour’s territory 

  • Embracing a (small) risk of rejection 

  • Local 

  • Smiling 

  • Declaring friendship 

  • Anticipating and responding to fear 

We know about the power of symbols: the golden arches, the Nike swoosh, the Union flag. They take a small, simple thing like a hamburger or a pair of running shoes and write it large. But even though we know this, people of faith and belief continue to address the world almost exclusively in words. In another context I walk with men who have suffered abuse in the context of a church. Those men have heard countless words of apology from bishops and archbishops, but they still don’t believe that their pain has been heard. They will only know that their pain has been heard when a bishop stands in his cathedral and tears his robes, or lies prostrate, or makes a costly act in response to abuse, such as resigning his post.

Subsequently, as the image of my symbolic action began to go viral, I realised that I had an opportunity to reinforce it with a few words. This is the function of the hashtag on a tweet, or the tag on an image. The words I settled on were #FriendshipNotFear. I’ve attached them to every tweet and used them in every interview. There’s no automatic connection between the words and the image, any more than there is a connection between the Nike swoosh and the words “Just do it.” They are my attempt to cash out the symbol and give people some way to verbalise their identification with it. It couldn’t have happened the other way round. The symbol is primary and the words secondary. And right now, when solidarity across divides seems thin on the ground, it seems that anything that can symbolise it for us, remind us of it, call us to it, has power and value.

Andrew Graystone

Andrew Graystone

Andrew Graystone is a former BBC TV producer. He is now a writer and advocate for victims of abuse. He is working on a doctorate on the changing nature of embodiment in digital culture. He lives in Manchester and cyberspace.

Posted 21 March 2019

Britain, Extremism, Freedom of Religion, Islam, Multiculturalism, Security, Social Media, Society, Terrorism

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