On the night of March 15, a Government Minister phoned Aliya Danzeisen of the Islamic Women’s Council. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern would have called, she was told, but had to attend a briefing about that day’s terror attacks in Christchurch.
“I specifically said to the Minister that I spoke with that we need to wait until everybody is buried and we’ve been able to mourn before we can proceed on anything else,” Danzeisen says. “But as soon as that was over we wanted a face-to-face meeting with the Ministers that we met with [last year] and with the Prime Minister.”
Is that time imminent? “It’s now,” she says.
Since the attacks on two city mosques that killed 50 people, members of the council have been prominent in the media discussing their years-long campaign to raise concerns about Islamophobia with successive governments and agencies.
In an effort championed by former Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy, council members met with the Security Intelligence Service in 2016, senior civil servants in 2017, and, early last year, two Government Ministers and officials from the Department of Internal Affairs and Office of Ethnic Communities.
Danzeisen, who lives in Hamilton, says her council had positive experiences with some agencies but not all. Concerns over rising harassment of Muslim women appeared to fall on deaf ears. Fundamentally, the council didn’t get the support it asked for, she says.
“There definitely has been a failure.”
If the council doesn’t feel it had the ear of Government before March 15, does it believe Ministers are listening now? “We’ll see in the next couple of days,” Danzeisen says.
Concerns that terms will be too narrow
It would look at what could or should have been done to prevent the attack, she said, including the roles of relevant departments and agencies, such as the SIS, police, and the Government Communications Security Bureau. Obvious questions include whether agencies adequately focused on white supremacists and if concerns about Islamophobia were taken seriously.
Yesterday, Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters told Sky News that further details about the Royal Commission would be released in the next 48 hours.
Danzeisen says it’s important her group has input into the Royal Commission’s terms of reference and is able to present to the inquiry. “We know who we spoke to, we know what concerns we raised.”
If the terms of reference are too narrow then some key agencies may be excluded, she says – agencies that were approached with concerns and, on the surface at least, have not appeared to act.
“We realise [the inquiry] has to be expedited, because of the potential for harm if it’s not done well and quickly. But we also need to ensure it’s broad enough.”
Another member of the Islamic Women’s Council, Anjum Rahman, also of Hamilton, says the Royal Commission shouldn’t focus too narrowly on security issues. She’s particularly interested in what happened after a full-day meeting with senior public servants in March 2017.
“It would be useful to have some inquiry as to what was done after that meeting, and what progress was made or not made, and if there wasn’t significant progress what were the stumbling blocks; what stopped it from happening.”
“It’s important Muslim communities are given the chance to feed into the design and scope of the inquiry.” – Guled Mire
The view that the Government should consult on the commission’s terms of reference seems to be gaining momentum.
Last week, Wellington-based Muslim community advocate Guled Mire tweeted: “It’s important Muslim communities are given the chance to feed into the design and scope of the inquiry. It needs to be wider than law enforcement agencies and must also take into account the failures of social agencies in countering all forms of extremism.”
In a statement, the Prime Minister’s office tells Newsroom: “Cabinet will determine the manner of consultation on the terms of reference.” It ignored a question asking when that decision will be made.
National Party leader Simon Bridges didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Danzeisen says two Ministers have told the council that its request to be consulted on the Royal Commission’s terms of reference will be considered in due course. “And we’ve relayed back that this is important and immediate.”
She says the danger of an ineffective inquiry is a “repeat of what happened”.
“If another community, or our community, raises concerns again, and we only have access to certain people and [concerns are] not relayed again, or they’re not followed, we could be in the same spot. And we don’t want that to happen.”
Within days of the Christchurch attacks, the Human Rights Foundation, with the Muslim community, set up the website www.reportislamophobia.nz for the public to report abuse. The fact there wasn’t already an obvious place for these complaints, and there appears to be no official assessment of the rise of hate speech, suggests the problem has been overlooked. The only prosecution ever brought for hate speech in New Zealand was in 1979, The Listener reported last July.
A High Court hearing involving the alleged Christchurch gunman is scheduled for Friday. It is expected to deal with procedural matters and the accused, an Australian who had been living in Dunedin, will appear via audiovisual link.
An amendment bill to ban military-style semi-automatic weapons and shotguns, with limited exceptions, passed its first reading yesterday, much to the chagrin, and embarrassment, of its lone opponent, ACT leader David Seymour.