Arriving in Boston alone in the fall of 2018 to join Brandeis University’s Heller School, I experienced the “otherness” I used to read about in my sociology books. The scrutiny started at the airport — the moment I landed. I guess my skin gave it away. 

As someone who grew up in Kashmir, a politically fraught place, and being continuously and unnecessarily frisked and stopped by authorities has been unwelcome but unsurprising. But this time, after living in Boston for a few weeks and experiencing constant stares, I was truly learning how “otherness” works in American social, political and religious contexts.  

What I didn’t know was how deadly this feeling of “otherness” could be. 

The recent March massacre of 50 Muslims attending Friday prayers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, revealed how pernicious this perceived sense of “otherness” can be. This episode was similar to the murder of innocent Jews at the Pittsburgh synagogue in the fall of 2018 — and revealed how hate can kill. 

After many of these incidents, expressions of condemnation and shock reverberated around the world, and vows of religious unity abounded in community after community. Yet I often wonder: Was the world really shocked?  

After Christchurch, Pittsburgh and many other devastating acts of terrorism around the world, there were massive outpourings of support across social media platforms, from community leaders and houses of worship. But these gestures are unlikely to change anything unless we change our outlook towards each other. 

Working towards this goal will require us to recognize — and work on eliminating — many biases we carry implicitly. What we need is a concerted effort to reach out to and learn to live with those whom we view as the ‘other’ — especially “the strangers” among us, who for most developed countries mean those from immigrant and marginalized communities.  

And there is evidence on why we need to do that. A quantitative analysis found that when Muslims perpetrated acts of terrorism, they received 357 percent more news attention than similar acts committed by non-Muslims. The word “terrorism” is rarely used when a non-Muslim is the perpetrator. Conversely, “terrorism” is used almost exclusively by the news media when the perpetrator is identified as a Muslim. This needs to change. 

These attacks on minority populations — often labeled as religious extremists — will continue to occur unless and until root causes of this prejudice are identified, acknowledged and addressed. When different segments of society feel alienated, and there is no unifying narrative from community and government leaders, demagogues take advantage of the situation to sow and foment insidious divisiveness.  People start to notice how newcomers appear to look and act differently, and begin to see them as the source of social problems that may have always existed. Many believe their own governments are complicit in changing the social demographics of the country and believe they need to take matters in their own hands.

Research shows that when a majority group feels threatened into becoming the minority, they favor their own group. Since white populations tend be majorities, holding powerful positions in the West, studies demonstrate such tendencies are found in many other groups that face a loss of power. This is not to single out a community, but to ensure that conversations that account for changing demographics need to take place.

There are unmistakable similarities between Christchurch and Pittsburgh; first is that the attacks were committed against minority communities in their places of worship. These premeditated attacks are perpetrated to inflict deep psychological harm among vulnerable communities.  

The message is clear: You can be attacked in places where you expect refuge and safety. 

The perpetrators’ goal is to convey to the target communities that they are safe nowhere and to create an atmosphere of deep, unquenchable fear. Often, these attackers succeed, causing the target minorities to abandon the very elements of their identity that make them unique.

While the whole world is enraged at the atrocities that transpired in Christchurch, just as it was after the Pittsburgh massacre, we are obliged to ask ourselves: What has really changed? What steps do we take to ensure that such events don’t occur again?  

Given the currents of hatred and toxicity running through our society, it is incumbent upon us to take corrective steps on an individual level. We cannot just rely on the government to do this, as most of these attacks are lone-wolf attacks, which by their very nature are difficult to predict. In multicultural societies, this means we need to reach out to each other and begin inter-faith and cross-cultural conversations.  We can begin by simply talking to those who look, pray, live and love differently from us. 

On my first Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, I was graciously invited by my Jewish professors to attend dinner with their family. I realized that they celebrate their families and one another in the same ways I used to celebrate Eid with my own family. It taught me that, despite how much hate politicians provoke, deep down we are all the same.  

Our communities need to reach outside of our comfort zones and make conscious efforts to get to know people who are ethnically, socially, economically and religiously different from us. 

Such exchanges can stimulate improved communication between natives and immigrants, and create opportunities to discuss matters of faith and how diverse communities choose to express their various traditions, values and beliefs.  This could include opening mosques and churches to members of different religions and allowing them to be a part of each other’s services and celebrations. And while these discussions and engagements would be difficult, with strong leadership, sincerity and good will, they will invariably lead to a better tomorrow for us all.