Muslims say they were ignored in the set-up of a Royal Commission into the Christchurch terror attack. Will the commission itself listen? David Williams reports.

“They are us.”

Those simple, powerful words spoken by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on March 15 capture the messages of inclusion, togetherness and aroha that reverberated around the country after the Christchurch terror attack that killed 51 people and injured 50.

But there’s frustration that the Royal Commission investigating the double mosque shooting was set up without consulting the Islamic community. Now there are concerns the victims, their families and the wider Muslim community might not be at the centre of the commission’s work.

In other words, some Muslim people are wondering when it will truly feel like “they are us”.

Connection recognised, but not consulted on

Ten days after the attack Ardern confirmed a Royal Commission would investigate its causes and whether it could have been prevented. The terms of reference – key to any Royal Commission, as explained by Aaron Smale about the inquiry into state abuse – would be confirmed within a fortnight, she said.

The Islamic Women’s Council told Newsroom it was important they had input into the terms of reference – and worried they wouldn’t be consulted. When the terms were released the following week, Muslim groups – publicly, at least – said they were happy, and took account of their submissions.

But Crown Law now confirms those groups weren’t consulted.

In an Official Information Act response to Christchurch youth advocate Josiah Tualamali’i, Crown Law says it was principally responsible for drafting the terms, although it consulted with other departments and agencies. “In drafting the terms of reference Crown Law did not consult with Muslim community leaders, and or victims of the attacks.”

The importance of getting meaningful input from the Muslim community was recognised from the outset, the letter says, and is “reflected at several points in the terms of reference”. In the terms, the Government records its expectation that the inquiry will “connect with New Zealand’s Muslim communities”. It also wanted the inquiry to appoint a “suitably qualified person or persons” to help deal with Muslim communities.

“This makes people feel less heard, and less important, more invisible.” – Josiah Tualamali’i

Tualamali’i, who posted the OIA response on Twitter, tells Newsroom he was surprised – but grateful – Crown Law was so honest.

“I don’t think that this has been done very well, to help communities who already feel disconnected feel any closer to the places of decision-making. This makes people feel less heard, and less important, more invisible.”

The Samoan-New Zealander says some of the Muslim youths he has been working with felt the inquiry might have been a chance to be heard for the first time, to say how authorities hadn’t taken some of their complaints seriously. But, Tualamali’i says, for the community not to be consulted on the commission’s terms compounded other decisions out of their control, like when the victims’ bodies were returned or when the mosques were re-opened.

“This was possibly one of the more significant grievances committed because there’s no justification for it, in my view.”

Aliya Danzeisen, of the Islamic Women’s Council, says a Minister did show council members the terms of reference “very briefly” in an unrelated meeting, but it wasn’t properly consulted – despite their requests. “We were ignored,” she says. “If you’re going to do an open and full and fair inquiry then you need to have input from the stakeholders … That hasn’t happened.”

She adds: “It makes it more challenging for an already challenged community.”

There’s been frustration with the Government in the past, she says, for its “lack of full engagement” with the Muslim community, including with its elected or appointed leaders. As outlined by fellow council member Anjum Rahman, the council raised concerns with the current and previous governments but felt they weren’t taken seriously.

But there’s still hope

Danzeisen confirms the council will meet the Royal Commission next week. The commission is setting up a Muslim reference group – although “they haven’t asked us for names”. “We’re concerned, we’re worried. We still have some engagement and there’s potential that it could be okay.”

The two commissioners – chair Sir William Young, a Supreme Court justice, and member Jacqui Caine – are quality people with good reputations, she says.

Danzeisen’s biggest concern is that in the commission’s closed hearings those people explaining “the actions of the Government and the inactions of the Government” go unchallenged. “We’ve got to have people in the room.”

Sia Aston, a spokeswoman for the Royal Commission, says initial meetings with Muslim communities have begun in Christchurch – “as you would expect” – including with the Christchurch Muslim Liaison Group, formed after the March 15 attack. Progress is being made to form a Muslim community reference group, she says.

The group will “help to ensure the Royal Commission process builds in appropriate and accessible opportunities for Muslim communities to take part in the inquiry”, Aston says. “The Royal Commission’s head of community engagement will continue to connect with Muslim communities through a programme of engagement, which is currently being developed.”

She adds that through local Imams and the liaison group, the commission has offered to meet with affected families on their terms.

However, according to Danzeisen, the group representing the whole Muslim community – The Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) – hadn’t been consulted as of last Saturday.

At a public meeting in Auckland she attended that day, it was said FIANZ’s submissions to the Royal Commission hadn’t been responded to, and it hadn’t been consulted on the establishment of the reference group. “To be ignored or not consulted … this is really surprising,” Danzeisen says.

Newsroom was unable to reach FIANZ to confirm those details yesterday – and Aston was silent on the issue.

Struggling with scars and pain

Danzeisen says more than two months after the attacks, many in the Muslim community are struggling – and the recovery, including rebuilding the leadership in Christchurch, will take years. Because the Muslim community is so small, almost everybody knew somebody hurt or killed in the attack, she says.

“It’s a wound that takes a long time to heal. Like any wound there’ll always be scars and pain.”

What can non-Muslim New Zealanders do to show their support?

People who want to cause harm should be called out, she says. She uses Auckland Mayor Phil Goff as an example, for speaking out on Twitter about hateful comments.

Had an amazing visit to the Ranui Mosque with @jacindaardern and @PhilTwyford on Friday. I posted about it yesterday on FB. This is the moderation I had to do today to clean up my FB page. The amount of vitriol and hate was disgusting. I thought we were better than this 💔

— Phil Goff (@phil_goff) May 27, 2019

Danzeisen says New Zealanders can continue to show the warm smiles and companionship they displayed to Muslims immediately after the terror attack. But she says that warmth should extend to all communities, not just Muslims. The underlying message, of course, is that everyone’s the same – or “they are us”.

“We have a saying, if you don’t know your neighbour you’ll never know if they’re hungry. You have to reach out to your neighbours. That’s something all of our communities should be doing.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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