‘Unintentionally Shot Down’: Ritual Gatherings in Uncertain Circumstances

“If you play with fire, you will get burned…” That warning of parents and teachers often applied to local and limited issues has been played out on the world stage over the past week. The assassination of a leading Iranian general by the US and the retaliation by Iran in targeting two US military bases in Iraq (although seemingly with their fingers crossed behind their backs) had the potential to escalate quickly – but it did not immediately (or has not yet). What happened next though was the unthinkable. A commercial passenger jet with 167 people on board was shot down ‘accidently’. Mistaken for an incoming missile, the Iranian military acknowledged that this was human error, ‘an unforgiveable mistake’.

This has been a tremendous tragedy for those most directly affected, as well as impacting many others less directly connected. As the facts unfold and the shock wears off, new ramifications or retaliations may emerge. One aspect of this series of events, however, has been the different news emphases between the US and Canada (and elsewhere). Once the jet was shot down, what preceded the crash faded into the background of concerns in Canada. What came to the foreground was the reality that 138 of the 167 people killed were returning to Canada (or arriving for the first time). The plane was full of academics; Canadian citizens of Iranian descent and Iranians studying and living in Canada, returning for the new academic term. Many were graduate students, there were also professors and their families who had gone back to Iran for the break. Among the dead are numerous physicians, dentists, chemists, engineers, physicists, researchers who had already made remarkable discoveries in their fields.

The impact of this loss is, of course, most pronounced on their families and friends, but also on universities across Canada. Where I teach at the University of Western Ontario, four students were among the dead, elsewhere – like Edmonton – had many more who died, and the list extends from coast to coast. What do we do? How do we mourn the dead? It is commendable that the elected officials in Canada have turned to the primary business at hand, mourning the dead and comforting their loved ones, calling this a ‘national tragedy.’ The reality for the remaining family members is the struggle of coping with death and at the same time wrestling with the logistics of getting to Tehran. For those who died as Muslims, timing is particularly important; visiting the crash site, identifying the dead, attending funerals or bringing bodies back to Canada has been compounded by the reality that commercial flights to Tehran are few and far between.

For those remaining in Canada, especially at the many universities directly affected, there have been numerous vigils and memorial events already held, as well as more to come. But, unlike the too-frequent disaster rituals that gather people as secular events where the multicultural and multifaith (or no faith) reality of those who have died and those who shape the rituals limits the ritual elements, these have been tentative events in different ways. The assumption (probably correct) is that the majority of those who died are Muslim (in Iran, the best guess is 90% of the population is Shi’a). But there are also Christians and Zoroastrians in Iran, as well as those who may simply call themselves secular, especially in Canada. What are the rituals around which university communities can mourn? On a national level, a vigil on Parliament Hill in Ottawa went the secular disaster ritual route, with candles, photos, names, speeches by officials, and flags at half-mast. A number of cities, such as Toronto, hosted public vigils overseen by the Iranian Canadian Congress or other Iranian heritage groups, which added Iranian music and poetry in Farsi to the gatherings. The Queen sent a “message of condolence” to the Govenor-General of Canada on 11 January, and other letters of condolence are read out. But at university gatherings, there is a bit of a quandry about what to do, with the minimum choices being the most common option.

Because many of the memorial events are overseen by a combination of Iranian students and elected officials, there are the usual gatherings in a place at a particular time, photos, candles, flowers, speeches, and the omnipresent video of still photos accompanied by music. The talks have been sprinkled with “they are all in our prayers,” “may they all rest in peace,” as well as repeated condolences to families and friends. Lest this sound dismissive, these gatherings may be enough to offer comfort and support just as they are. One Iranian student said “I feel like we are important to the country, to the university, to Canada, that they care about us, and it really means a lot to us.” Just showing up is both important and a good thing.

But is religion missing because the assumption is that the dead are Muslim and we should not say anything? Is it incorrect to voice Muslim prayers in mixed company (or simply because the prayers are in Arabic and have to be translated for many to understand?) For 40 days after death, grieving takes many forms in Islam, including the prayers for the dead (present and local) specifically the Salat al-Janazah and the intercessions, or Duas. There are prayers for funerals when one is absent, plus other cultural expressions different in shape and language. Was religion absent because we are more comfortable with secularity, or with a ‘safe’ form of vaguely Christian civil religion? Are we not comfortable with the plurality of prayer languages and beliefs represented in the gathered community? Perhaps in the local mosque the prayers and sermons will sound very different, perhaps in the Jewish synagogues the prayers will sound different, perhaps in the Christian churches on Sunday mornings the language will be different. But the unease lurked beneath the sincere and important presence of students, faculty and others.

Perhaps most noticeable however is the follow-up at the affected universities. Attached to the announcements of the vigils have been listings of counselors, wellness centre hours expanded, grief counseling, and more. All of this is good – and all of this deals with one circle of related aspects of grieving and fear. None of the notices (as of January 11) have reminded students and staff of the availability of chaplains whether they be Muslim, Christian, and other, who are available to also help. No where is prayer or spirituality evident, no where is the hope in Islam (“Indeed, to Allah we belong and to Him we shall return”) or Christianity (“in sure and certain hope of the resurrection”) or in other religious traditions, given voice. Have we left the public square because we do not know what to say and how to say it when multiple religions gather together?

May those who died rest in peace, and may their families and friends find strength and comfort over the days to come as they struggle to cope with the immediate challenges of funerals and other arrangements, and in the years to come as absence and memories continue.

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