The morning of the Christchurch attacks – which saw 51 Muslims die while worshipping peacefully – I felt sick watching all the coverage pour in.
I was not alone in that reaction. Across the globe, thousands, Muslim or not, mourned together at the senseless killing – even those of us who were thousands of miles away from New Zealand.
But as the news cycle moved on, taking the impact away from our immediate consciousness, Muslims were left reeling.
This feeling of connection to those we’ve never met – this deep sense of oneness and shared pain – is a trait that’s specifically common to Muslims, according to a new study.
Researchers at Sussex University found that Muslims are uniquely bonded by a shared community – an ummah.
Researchers of the study dubbed this phenomena ‘vicarious trauma’, experiencing the pain that other people have faced.
Professor Mark Walters, lead author of the Sussex University study, tells Metro.co.uk how they explored the impact of Islamaphobic hate crimes on British Muslims.
He explains: ‘We found that Muslim communities experience a strong moral bond that was based on a shared cultural and religious belief system.
‘This was linked to the concept of brotherhood (noted by several of our interviewees), or “ummah” which means “community of believers”.’
This meant that when a Muslim person heard or read about another Muslim being victimised at local, national and even international levels, they were likely to experience vicarious trauma, or ‘shared suffering’.
The paper outlined in detail the different ways in which Muslim people experience community and the different types of effects indirect hate crimes have on their emotions and behaviours.
Who did the researchers study?
In total, there were 18 respondents. While researchers admit the sample size is small, the results they found were telling.
Interviewees were recruited through Sussex Uni’s partnership with Muslim organisations via snowballing which is used to identify new interviewees through those already interviewed.
Participants’ ages ranged from 18–59. Gender was self-assigned by participants and included 12 males and six females.
The sexual orientations of participants were also self-categorised and included 16 heterosexuals and two unassigned.
The ethnic backgrounds of participants were listed as: four Bangladeshi, four mixed race, two Arab, two Muslim, two unassigned, one British Bangladeshi, one British Pakistani, one Indian and one Afghani Muslim.
Vicarious trauma is usually referred to in relation to counsellors and therapists. It’s the emotional residue of exposure that they have from hearing their patients’ trauma stories and becoming witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that survivors endured.
It’s interesting, then, that Muslims should feel this way towards a group they may not be personally attached to or have had direct contact with, such as Muslims on the other side of the world.
But it makes sense. The last prophet of Islam, Muhammed, said: ‘This ummah is like one body, if one part is hurt then the whole body suffers.’
Amaliah, a platform dedicated to amplifying Muslim voices, dealt with this vicarious trauma through much-needed Soul Sessions, an informal chat with Muslim women reeling from the aftermath of Christchurch.
I attended this meeting and was moved by the tangible vulnerability and emotion experienced by the group. We were all one.
Nafisa, one of the two Bakkar sisters who make up Amaliah, tells us their platform has always been guided by how to make it easier for Muslim women to exist.
She tells Metro.co.uk why an event like this was important: ‘After the New Zealand attacks happened, we felt like there was a sense of communal grieving, it had really disturbed and upset our community in a way we hadn’t necessarily seen before.
‘The concept of one ummah showed in that moment. Even though it was in New Zealand, it felt like it could’ve just as easily been Finsbury Park.’
After Muslims around the world were left with no choice but to get on with their life, Amaliah wanted a safe space where British Muslims could process it all.
‘Someone told us how they tried to have that conversation at work but the person wanted to move on really quickly so we thought we’d create a space for that outlet.
‘So we told people our doors are open, there’s no agenda, let’s come together. We had about 120 people sign up for free, about 65 turned up.
‘It was really emotional and there was a sense that someone very near had passed.’
The events at Christchurch happened during Friday jummah prayers, the holy day for Muslims. This heightened the sense of closeness for us – it could’ve been our own uncle, dad or mother who make that trip to the mosque every week.
Amaliah continued their Soul Sessions after the General Election too, to regroup and process how the new government would affect Muslims.
‘One of the feelings of both sessions was that we are never going to belong,’ she says. ‘A lot of people felt like their everyday lives and workplaces are not safe enough to have these discussions and they’re internalising it all.’
Where can ostracised Muslims turn?
There’s a lack of adequate services and spaces to address this vicarious trauma. Muslims experience this insular feeling and yet can’t address the challenges that they face.
The group is under-referred to mental health services, according to a Muslim Council of Britain report.
There are also not enough mental health specialists with knowledge of the ummah and the community to have adequate conversations and provide suitable therapy for Muslims wanting to talk about it.
In figures for UK psychology in 2016, there were 9,812 white, 181 black, and 723 other ethnic minorities in the industry so, concerning representation, therapists on offer are mostly white and mostly female.
Though these events might bring us together, they can alienate British Muslims from the general public.
Professor Walters explains: ‘Hate crimes are “message crimes” aimed at terrorising entire groups of people.
‘The research suggests that hate crimes can have significant impacts on the emotions and behaviours of entire communities of people.
‘These impacts extend beyond local communities to effect Individuals nationally and even globally.
‘People who share core identity characteristics often feel greater levels of empathy towards one another. These bonds often gave rise to a sense of “shared suffering”, with community members feeling connected to other individuals worldwide through their common experiences of hate and prejudice.’
He continued: ‘Hate crimes affect entire communities of people leaving many feeling angry, anxious and fearful that they could be next.
‘It often results in entire communities of people feeling vulnerable to targeted victimisation and this can result in individuals changing the way they behave, including where they are prepared to go in their neighbourhoods and who they feel safe socialising with.’
We might feel like one ummah but when terrorists chip away at us, the community is left broken and we have to pour into one another, even when we fill from an empty cup.
Whether you know it or not, the Muslims in your life may be hurting – it might be time to start a conversation.
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