Kent State community comes together to remember New Zealand shooting victims

Sehar Shaikh, the president of Kent State University Muslim Student Association,  speaks to people gathered in Risman Plaza for a vigil for the victims of Christ Church on March 18, 2019.

Madison MacArthur

As snow fell heavily across Risman Plaza, community members, students and faculty gathered for a candlelit vigil to honor the victims of Christchurch shooting in New Zealand.

On Friday, a gunman opened fire in two mosques while livestreaming and killed 50 people.

President of the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), Sehar Shaikh, worked with the university and her organization as well as local groups such as the Islamic Society of Akron and Kent (ISAK).

“I remember I woke up on Friday morning and my dad told me, ‘Hey, there was a shooting in New Zealand,’” said Shaikh, a sophomore political science major. “I said, that’s not new because we’ve just become so desensitized to all the shootings and trauma that’s been happening.”

Shaikh said she feels like it’s almost become the culture at this point; she describes it as just a continuous numbness.

“We woke up to something that had been happening around us, in the U.S. specifically, but to hear that it was a shooting at a mosque … 50 people have died because of it,” Shaikh said.

Shaikh said she watched the footage, and it was “like a first-person shooter game, filmed just like that by the shooter.”

“He goes in and just guns down people, it was even more heartbreaking when the first he shot said welcome brother, he gets gunned down just like that,” Shaikh said.

She said the community at Kent State has been supportive since news of the shooting broke.

“The morning of the shooting, Dr. Lamar Hylton, the dean of students, sent an email to our e-board saying his condolences and he said, ‘We’re here for you,’” Shaikh said. “It moves me just knowing our administration is behind us if we ever need anything.”

Shaikh said at first she believed it would be a smaller local thing with mostly students, faculty and administration, but it expanded to the local community beyond those with ties to Kent State.

Throughout the vigil, the MSA hosted multiple speakers: Abdulkarim Sekta, the assistant imam at ISAK; Faheem Shaikh, the president of ISAK; Ghulam Mir; Shammas Malik; Brad Jagger, a faculty member of religions studies and Christian minister; Jim Levin of Temple Israel; Rabbi Josh Brown of Temple Israel; Fatima Shendy, an alumni; and Lamar Hylton, the dean of students.  

Sekta opened the vigil by reciting from the fourth and ninth chapters of the Quran, calling out the power of the human life.

For this reason, we have ordained for the Children of Israel that whoever kills a person, unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land, it as though he had killed all men,” Sekta said. “And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the lives of all men.”

Lamar Hylton spoke next and thanked everyone for coming to the vigil. He highlighted the power in what the vigil represented and how it brought the university together.

“Something life-transforming has happened to the citizens at Christchurch, New Zealand, to the Muslim community and to the world,” Hylton said. “Ordinary words fail us, yet it is impossible to remain mute.”

Snow continued to fall, coating everyone in a somber blanket of cold that intensified. As the wind swept through the plaza, kicking up drifts that attached themselves to coats, hats, hijabs and hair, Hylton continued.

He told those in attendance the candles they lit this night would be a sign of remembrance to all who lost their lives, as well as a call to action against the attacks on religious freedom.

“Today we can choose in the light of what our candles mean to take another hand, lift another’s burden or simply acknowledge another’s worth,” Hylton said.

There were many messages shared by the speakers, thanking the community for their support in coming and showing that these events impact everyone, not just one community.

Rabbi Brown asked the audience questions from the prophet Amos.

“Can two people walk together if they have not met? No, they cannot, but once they have, they can do a lot more than walking,” Brown said. “They can run faster together. They can teach better together. They can pray more fervently with each other, and they can be the one who saves the other from the hate-filled bullet for every shot that was fired.”

Another message that rang out is that this fear of the unknown is what drives this hatred, as echoed by Levin, Malik and Mir, who pointed out that only together this crisis can be overcome.

“We come here to answer the Prophet Amos by raising our voices and by saying that we will walk together, we will walk and we will teach and we will pray and we will end this international emergency together,” Brown said. “But if we are to do that, if we are to walk together, we have to meet each other first.”

As Brown spoke, the wind lightened up and snow fell gently on the still crowd. Groups of students coagulated closer together with friends and strangers alike.

Jagger acknowledged himself as a white man, describing the call to action he wants for Christians and discussing how the New Testament is used in radical messages and how it has continued being used in such manners.

“I think of terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan that was birthed inside of Christian churches. I think of white supremacists who use the Christian New Testament to support hate, bigotry, and violence and I am ashamed,” Jagger said. “I stand before you to stand for justice, not to defend my faith. I ask Christians to stop being apathetic.”

He called for Christians to analyze their own faith, their own beliefs and to speak out against these hateful actions. He called for everyone to “unite as brothers and sisters of the faith. We unite as people of the book.”

The speakers closed with a poem written by Shendy, a Kent State alumna who spoke of the power she felt seeing the students continue to be active no matter the situation. She is proud to be a member of a community that is outspoken, “who not only talks the talk, but walks the walk.”

“So what lessons are we teaching? What acts of kindness are we leading? So what is faith without action? What is conviction without passion?” Shendy said. “What is the point of a perfect vision? If it turns a blind eye and becomes passive, or if you think to yourself that someone else will stand up only to realize they haven’t.”

As the sun poked through in the closing moments of the vigil, people wiped tears from their cheeks. Among the crowd was Dominique Brown, a junior global communications student; Jordan Easley, a sophomore international relations student; and Austin Bashore, a senior teaching English as a second language major.

“Jordan and I are both the core leaders of the campus Green Party chapter and … we’ve been all around the world showing our support and solidarity as global green parties for our Muslim communities and those most vulnerable to white supremacists’ attacks,” Bashore said. “We wanted to do our part here at Kent State.”

Brown, invited by a friend, said she wanted to come and show her support for MSA by attending the vigil.

Students, community members and faculty then gathered for coffee as flowers laid on top of the fountain and 50 tea lights were lit for the victims of the Christchurch shooting. There was laughter, tears and hugs exchanged as they came together in one community.

“And love is a universal language,” Shendy said.  “So tell me what language do you laugh in?”

Kent State MSA holds vigil for New Zealand Victims from on Vimeo.

Madison MacArthur is a senior reporter. Contact her at [email protected].