Aliya Danzeisen was crossing the tarmac at Auckland Airport on March 16 of this year to board a plane to Christchurch, when a jarring text message made her forget herself.
The message was from an official at a Government agency who Danzeisen, a Hamilton-based Islamic leader, had been dealing with for years in an attempt to secure public money to support the Muslim community. The message – sent a day after the Christchurch mosques attack – said the agency was getting more resources.
“It didn’t say, how are you? Is anybody that you know hurt? What do you need?”
In her disbelief, Danzeisen, of the Islamic Women’s Council, went to show her phone to the person she was flying with but was chastised by an airline employee. So she switched off her phone and replied via email the next day: “Sorry I couldn’t reply because I’m really busy and because our national coordinator has lost her son.”
It was then that the sender realised the callousness of the message. “That’s an example,” Danzeisen says. “There are plenty – there’s a lot within the Royal Commission.”
Danzeisen was a keynote speaker at last week’s New Zealand Political Studies Association conference in Christchurch. She detailed a five-year campaign to get politicians and officials to take the council’s concerns seriously.
Much of her story is intensely personal. Her 14-year-old daughter watched the Christchurch shooter’s video, seeing someone she knew get killed.
For the first three months, Danzeisen averaged three-to-four hours’ sleep a night. Right now it’s four-to-five hours. “It’s not just me. That’s typical of the Muslim women leaders in New Zealand.”
The vitriol on the news forced her to switch to a commercial radio station.
She describes getting up each day at 5.30am to check the news before waking her kids at 6am, in case she needed to prepare them for what to say in the school yard, if something happened overseas in the night. “I wasn’t the only one in the nation who did that.”
There have been positives.
Support for the families of the 51 martyrs, the 49 seriously injured, the 180 others injured in some way, and those traumatised by being present. The establishment of a Royal Commission. The Christchurch Call to remove terrorist and violent extremist content online.
In the week after the attack, politicians listened and Muslim groups were consulted. The public reaction was wonderful and reassuring, she says – reinforcing why many Muslims chose to make New Zealand their home.
But the picture is mixed.
Some politicians still haven’t met with her group, despite multiple requests. High level officials who, in recent years, agreed to hear the concerns of Danzeisen and her group, haven’t made contact, even after March 15. Despite a fruitless cycle of meetings, presentations, and calls to write reports and business cases, it’s still not clear what permanent support government agencies will offer the broader Muslim community.
Danzeisen: “The state sector didn’t work and it’s not working.”
Borrowing a phrase from George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, she says all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. Her point is that Muslims are not treated equally.
This comes from a white American who gave up a successful legal career to return to teaching – someone who knew privilege and wealth and gave it up.
“I know, coming from my background, and my litigation experience, if I didn’t have a headscarf, if I had advocated those same issues without a headscarf, and without the term Muslim, and said, this is happening to a community, they need help, I believe in my heart that we would have been listened to. But we were discounted.”
The question is, what chance is there now of equal treatment?
Speaking truth to power
Orwell wrote: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Having been born on a farm in the American Midwest, Danzeisen was raised to do just that. “If we don’t like something we’ll tell you, and we’ll tell you right away. But we’ll work with you to figure it out.”
Perhaps that’s what propelled her to study law (although her first choice was political science and international relations). She loved the arguing and court battles, but not the long hours typing on a computer.
The Hamiltonian is a revert Muslim. She wasn’t born to the religion, she chose it – turning to Islam after 13 years of study, and stopping through Buddhism, Shintoism and Catholicism on the way.
She adopted Islam four months before the 2001 terrorist attacks.
“September 11th did give me pause – not related to the Muslim community, but was I happy with my life? I chose to go back into education. I’d been a teacher before I practised law for eight years.”
By 2006 she had paid off her bills and returned to teaching. “I was free to be who I wanted to be.”
When Danzeisen came to New Zealand she chose to wear the headscarf. That’s when she noticed a change. It’s rare for people, when they meet her, to pick that she’s a white American woman.
At a well-known New Zealand store – that she doesn’t name – she was standing in front of two shop assistants while they argued in front of her: “You take her,” said one. “No, you take her,” said the other.
Danzeisen piped up: “Do you realise I speak English?”
The Islamic Women’s Council will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year – at its national conference to be held in Christchurch. It has an executive of strong, educated, experienced professional volunteers.
(A quirk of the Muslim community, which numbers 57,000 people according to the latest census, is how young it is. Nearly two-thirds are under the age of 35, while about 6.5 percent are over 60. With fewer elders, that means much of the heavy lifting is done by working-age people, taking them from their families, from their homes.)
The council brings Muslim women together to share stories and raise issues, to be inspired by international speakers, and have some fun.
It fosters and develops young women. They’re all still in New Zealand, working in IT, social work, speech pathology, science, and the police. There’s also a dentist and photographer. These young women are now giving back – not just to their community, but to their country.
One might expect the state would be just as nurturing of a vulnerable and marginalised community.
“It was vitriolic. We were feeling it. Our youth were distressed. We ourselves were having difficulty dealing with it.”
Six years ago, the Islamic Women’s Council was doing what most communities, and churches, do – investing in their own, especially their youth, and holding barbecues and fundraisers. They were plodding along fine, and making good progress, Danzeisen says.
There was a vibrancy in the community. “We were feeling good.”
Then, in 2014, there was a change. It came suddenly, sweeping in from abroad.
“It was a change we had no power to control,” Danzeisen says.
It started with conflict in Gaza. Over July and August, more than 2200 Palestinians were killed, according to a United Nations estimate.
Muslim youth in New Zealand were particularly troubled, and peppered their elders with questions. How? Why? Help?
“They’d not seen something like this before,” Danzeisen says. While older Muslims had seen the pendulum swing back and forth as such, from peace to war, were more settled than the youth, who had lived comparatively comfortably.
Paired with that was the rise of ISIS, or Islamic State. After months of fighting in Syria and Iraq, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate on June 29.
“It was big,” Danzeisen says. “It was something that we ourselves were, like, where did this come from?”
The tension was immediately augmented by media, bringing a focus on Muslims far beyond that of September 11, 2001. “It was vitriolic. We were feeling it. Our youth were distressed. We ourselves were having difficulty dealing with it.”
At work, Muslims would stumble into conversations about what they’d heard on the news, as events from 16,000km away would be placed, uncomfortably and unreasonably, on their shoulders.
“People were wondering, why aren’t you speaking out?” Danzeisen says. “We did, that’s the first thing. But that wasn’t put out.”
What more could they do? They put their head down, settled their community and, as she puts it, kept “building”.
As 2014 came to a close, another shock – this one local.
Prime Minister John Key announced the Government would introduce new laws to deal with New Zealanders recruited by terrorist groups like ISIS. Changes included powers to suspend or cancel passports, and warrantless surveillance. The Security Intelligence Service also got a $7 million boost.
Danzeisen: “It was clear that it was specifically made to address the Muslim community.”
The Bill was rushed through. Its first reading was in late November and it was passed 11 days later. The public had two working days to make submissions.
In its submission, the Human Rights Commission called for important changes, but stressed the “importance of developing relationships with affected communities and fostering social solutions to the broader issues of terrorism and extremism”.
In Parliament, Labour MP David Shearer, the party’s former leader, says the changes were “targeted at members of the Muslim community” and the Government should give them time to provide feedback. There were fears they were being picked on, Shearer said.
Labour’s Phil Goff, a former foreign minister who’s now the Auckland Mayor, called it an appalling abuse of process (although Labour eventually supported the bill).
If people weren’t looking at the Muslim community they were now. You need your passports removed, some were told. What’s wrong with you?
“What was happening in Iraq and Syria now was placed on us – and it was placed on us by the Government,” Danzeisen says. “And it was intense.”
The Muslim community needed help. So they went to the only organisation big enough and capable enough to provide support for the community’s various issues – the Government.
The Ministry of Social Development provided a facilitator for a weekend and the Islamic Women’s Council executive came together and identified their issues: what they were seeing, and what was being reported to them.
A policy paper was written, with nine points. They included education, employment, health, social isolation, family violence. There were concerns about the misrepresentation of Muslim women in the media. Also, the rise of Islamophobia. In practical terms, how do you report a hate crime?
The nine points would be central to discussions with politicians (Government with a capital “G”) and bureaucrats (government with a small “g”).
Through 2015, as the ISIS issue grew in stature, the council engaged with police, holding discussions with high-level female police officers.
Council members also plugged into a building global movement called countering violent extremism, or CVE, attending summits in Singapore, Australia, and the United Nations.
“There did not seem to be a desire to solve this issue,” Danzeisen says. “We found the dialogue is not productive and we backed off as an organisation.”
In the Government’s 2015 Budget, the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and Government Communications Security Bureau each get an extra $20 million over four years.
Then, in December, another bombshell from Prime Minister Key, over so-called “jihadi brides”.
In an open session of the powerful intelligence and security select committee, SIS boss Rebecca Kitteridge mentioned that, over the previous year, there had been an increase in New Zealand women heading to Iraq and Syria.
“Where’s it going now?” Key asked. “Jihadi brides?”
After the meeting, Key told media one or two people had left for Syria and engaged in weddings “effectively at the very last minute”.
The pressure, already intense, became vice-like. The country’s prime minister had placed it “on us”, Danzeisen says, that Muslim women were leaving New Zealand to support ISIS and marry their fighters. “And he didn’t place just on the community in general or just on New Zealand, he placed it square on Muslim women.”
Amid the panic, there was also puzzlement. Who were these women? The Muslim community was small enough that you could ask, “Who left?”, and you’d be told.
“We couldn’t find anyone,” Danzeisen says. “We looked and asked and there wasn’t any example of somebody.”
That’s because no one did. In March 2016, it was revealed that the people Key was referring to had left from Australia. He rejected accusations of scaremongering, and refused to apologise to Muslim women in New Zealand, saying it didn’t matter where the jihadi brides left from.
Muslim women bear the brunt of abuse because they’re identifiable and vulnerable.
Later that year, at the Islamic Women’s Council’s national camp – attended by three female police officers, in case of threats – about 100 of 120 females aged between 12 and 26 said they’d been harassed or discriminated against by a teacher or professor in the previous year.
Key’s December remarks added fuel to the fire. The very next day, young Muslim women were harassed at school. “It wasn’t in one school,” Denzeisen says. “It was nationwide.”
One headscarf-wearing 14-year-old was taunted: “Someone should check her backpack for bombs”.
Muslim women didn’t need an apology from Key, Danzeisen says, it needed its issues addressed. “We sought engagement.”
(Danzeisen reveals Kitteridge approached her group the following year, to apologise, even though she never used the phrase jihadi brides. “And she was seeking the right to clarify to media when they got it wrong.” When asked, the SIS didn’t deny it.)
Global events add pressure
Western cities continued to be hit by terrorist attacks and mass shootings.
There was Sydney’s Lindt café hostage crisis in December 2014, in which three people were killed. The Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris in January 2015, followed by the attacks that killed 130 in the same city in November. Nine church parishioners were shot dead in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2016, there was the Pulse nightclub shootings that killed 49 in Orlando, Florida, and the murder of British MP Jo Cox.
New Zealand’s Islamic Women’s Council was in desperate need of a champion, someone with access to government but not so close they couldn’t speak plainly and rattle a few cages. Enter Race Relations Commissioner, and former squash world champ, Dame Susan Devoy.
It was Devoy who approached Danzeisen at a barbecue over the 2015-16 summer. They’d met a few times previously. The commissioner was worried about reports of increasing discrimination against Muslims. They also discussed the possibility of some sort of attack in New Zealand.
Devoy visited Danzeisen’s home, where the Islamic leader raised safety concerns.
“From that conversation,” Danzeisen says, “she picked up the mantle and became the strongest advocate that we had through this whole process.”
Doors started opening. In April 2016, council members met with Attorney General Chris Finlayson, who was also the Minister responsible for our spy agencies.
The Government had passed new security laws without consulting the Muslim community or helping to solve its problems. “They were focusing on us but not letting us be involved,” Danzeisen says. Finlayson gave clear assurances at that meeting, but also to its national body at the annual conference, that it would be included – it would have a seat at the decision-making table.
Finlayson seems to recall a different meeting, part of a series of gatherings on proposals to make sweeping changes to intelligence and security laws. He tells Newsroom the sentiment he gave was: “Everyone’s entitled to the protection of the law, everyone is subject to the law.” (As long as they’re treated equally, some might say.)
The former Minister, who left Parliament in January, says he remembers concerns being raised with him. He told authorities: “Keep in touch with these folk because they need a little TLC.”
As to promises of a seat at the table, he says: “I’d never give assurances like that, I don’t think, because I would be incapable of performing them.”
Thanks to the advocacy of Devoy and, Danzeisen believes, spy boss Kitteridge, the Council got a meeting with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) in January 2017. Officials from DPMC, the Department of Internal Affairs, and Office of Ethnic Affairs were present.
“We raised those same concerns and we emphasised urgent need,” Danzeisen says. They noted pressure was building and it was taking its toll. “We were exhausted as a community.”
But its persistence was about to pay off. Again, with help from Devoy, the Islamic Women’s Council was one of nine groups that presented at the heads of government meeting in March 2017.
“We were engaging. The Government was talking to us but they weren’t actually doing anything.”
It was a who’s who of the bureaucracy. DPMC was there, State Services Commission, Police, Education, Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Business Ministry, and Corrections.
“Their highest officials were at this meeting,” Danzeisen says. The council presented its nine points, giving Islamophobia its own point for the first time because of increasing harassment. There was discrimination and marginalisation, they said. The media portrayal of Muslims was harmful.
The community was over capacity and lacked resources.
Then it told the government how it could help.
“We talked also how this would impact New Zealand and its brand if they didn’t get it right,” Danzeisen says. “And how it was already impacting how people felt about New Zealand.”
The council specifically raised the potential of loss of life in New Zealand.
“We made specific, clear statements about our concern with the alt right in New Zealand. And we gave examples.” A hardcopy example of social media vitriol was handed to each attendee.
They got the message, Danzeisen says, and they knew who would suffer first if they got it wrong.
Discussions between government agencies and the Muslim community seemed to be on the table. “We’d be at the table is what we were told. Within two months we were no longer even in the discussions. The discussions were still occurring but we never got another invitation back.”
The day after the heads of government hui, the council met with Finlayson and discussed the alt right, giving concrete examples. “He never engaged with us again.”
(Finlayson says he certainly remembers being told about extremism. He thinks “alt right” is a term that came to popular usage after the deadly white supremacist protest in Charlottesville in 2017.)
At the Islamic Women’s Council annual conference in 2017, Denzeisen sat on a discussion panel with Devoy and Kitteridge.
“I said that there needs to be a little less talk and a lot more action was needed to help our community. And engagement thus far had been one sided. We were engaging. The Government was talking to us but they weren’t actually doing anything.”
Since 2016, it had spoken with growing urgency and alarm. “Something was going to happen, we could feel it. But the level? We didn’t know.”
They were sent burrowing back into the bureaucracy.
A big problem Muslim groups face in finding funding is the reliance, in this country, on lotteries and alcohol money to fill the gaps in public spending needed to fix social issues. Danzeisen: “We as a Muslim community can’t access that. To do so goes against our beliefs.”
In meetings with Government departments, they’d constantly be told to apply for a lotteries grant, like other community groups. Beyond that fundamental lack of cultural understanding, the council would scratch its head.
“Why are you relying on lotteries funding for social development?” its members would ask. Such a structural impediment left Muslim groups feeling like second-class citizens.
The council also presented to private funders, like trusts. They’d often say that the Muslim community needed social workers.
“And we were, like, we know!” Danzeisen says. Well, the trusts said, we don’t pay for social workers, that’s the Government’s job. And anyway, the trusts could only hand out cash in $5000 dollops – and there’s no guarantee the money will roll over.
“They literally said in the one meeting, the Government’s shirking their duties.”
Another issue the council faced was the constant turnover government officials. They’d upskill one person on their issues and needs, and have to start again when they left of got replaced.
The person in charge of the community’s programme changed after the 2017 heads of government meeting. The new person hadn’t even been in that room. There was a new director at the Office of Ethnic Communities, who didn’t know the Muslim community.
“We struggled through the bureaucracy,” Danzeisen says. “It was clear through all communications there was a lack of awareness of our issues.” There was minimal expertise in the state sector about Muslim issues, a lack of understanding of the complexity of those issues, and a lack of action on matters the community thought that were important.
(In one meeting, Danzeisen explained to officials why a particular situation would affect the Rohingya people, the Islamic group from Myanmar. “They didn’t have people who spoke the language, and they didn’t have people who understood the hidden meanings of some of the statement.”)
She gives an example of asking a government agency for a national strategy. “They decided that they would do a workshop in Hamilton.”
The council argued against it because Hamilton is the most settled Muslim community. “We said it’s one of two things: You want to either destabilise the one community that’s stable; or you want to take a low hanging fruit and look like you actually have done something.”
Stubbornly, Hamilton remained the focus.
With the change of Government after the 2017 election, Danzeisen’s group reeled out the nine points with the new Minister of Ethnic Communities, Jenny Salesa.
Frustration was high at the point. It had been nine months since the heads of government meeting. “There was not a single example of change,” Danzeisen laments.
She fired off a volley of frustrated emails to the head of the public service, Peter Hughes. She wanted a set of performance measures from government departments. Instead she was invited to a meeting.
A glimmer of hope
Devoy, who attended the January 2018 meeting with Hughes, says it was born of frustration at getting nowhere. There were emails backwards and forwards beforehand saying: “Your staff aren’t doing their job, actually, and nothing’s happening, can we all meet?”
Danzeisen and council colleague Anjum Rahman raised their points of concern.
“We raised more than a dozen,” Danzeisen says. “And we gave evidence on where they had failed us. We had specific evidence on each of the points to the State Services Commissioner.”
Afterwards, Hughes agreed to the establishment of a Muslim advisory group, and asked his deputy to locate money within the state sector to support us. (They’d asked for up to $250,000, to employ some fulltime social workers with culturally appropriate experience to help them within their communities.)
“We came out of that meeting feeling like there was the potential to change,” Danzeisen says. It seemed to spark some momentum, as they secured meetings with Justice Minister Andrew Little and Salesa, again. (Danzeisen spoke at a national security conference where she was labelled as being from the “suspect community”.)
The newly formed advisory group, representing a diverse range of people across the Muslim community, met in May to set its terms of reference. Ahead of that meeting, the agencies that had attended the heads of government meeting the year before were asked to list their achievements.
“Only three sent anything to us,” Danzeisen says. “And basically the programmes they had done were programmes they were already running prior to the meeting.”
Then, mid-year, a huge blow – Devoy announced she was leaving. “She was our strongest advocate,” Danzeisen says, her voice breaking. She plucks tissues from a nearby box.
“And they didn’t fill the position until after the attacks. They just recently filled it. And we lost our only advocate. We had conversations with Ministers about how important she was to us.”
Momentum stuttered – then stalled. In July, the State Services Commission said it couldn’t find the money. Hughes, who had promised to check in after six months, didn’t.
Hughes responds that Denzeisen is right to champion Muslim communities and to challenge public agencies’ responsiveness. “I expect government agencies to listen to the communities they serve and to respond appropriately where they can and, when they can’t, to be clear about that.” He says Danzeisen was seeking funding for an initiative in Hamilton – she says, however, she was pushing for a national programme. Hughes says a business case has been prepared on behalf of the Muslim community and the Ministry of Social Development is waiting for it to be submitted.
Department of Internal Affairs deputy chief executive Marilyn Little bristles at the idea the council’s efforts to get help from her department basically floundered. “We suspect that you may be referring to approaches made to other government agencies,” she says in an emailed statement. “We’re happy to provide a summary of our work with the Islamic Women’s Council.”
The State Services Commission and DIA worked together to identify potential sources of appropriate funding across the public sector, she says. Asked how much money from DIA and Office of Ethnic Communities has been earmarked to help the Muslim community since the meeting with Hughes in January 2018, DIA sent Newsroom website links to its funding announcements.
“We didn’t have any government officials at our November 2018 advisory group meeting. So there was no one in the room to advise.”
After the initial May meeting, the Muslim advisory group scheduled another gathering for November last year, and government officials were asked to put the date in their calendars. One high-level official told Danzeisen she wouldn’t attend because, basically, she didn’t realise she was invited. This is despite being told to put the date in her calendar, Danzeisen says. She’d also paid for the other group members to fly in, and organised the catering. She clearly knew the meeting was on.
“We didn’t have any government officials at our November 2018 advisory group meeting. So there was no one in the room to advise.”
(DIA deputy chief executive Little says: “DIA had an attendee available at the venue in November but that person was not invited into the meeting.”)
The advisory group never met again. And the council didn’t hear from the Department of Internal Affairs or the Office of Ethnic Communities until after March’s attack.
When it came, Danzeisen says, “We were challenged, demonised and unsupported. And we were exhausted.”
Danzeisen expressed frustration at not getting meetings with State Services Minister Chris Hipkins and Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin. Their offices’ responses are perhaps symptomatic of the run-around the council has experienced.
Hipkins’ office says it has no recollection of phone calls and can’t find emails, but the Minister’s happy to meet next year. (Could she send an email?)
Martin’s office is more combative: “To be clear, Minister Martin has no responsibility for this work,” the reply says, noting that Government engagement with the Muslim community rests with Salesa and Christchurch’s Megan Woods.
“The Minister has said that she will meet the IWCNZ in Auckland when a day can be organised. If Ms Danzeisen wants that to occur more quickly she can get back in touch with the people in this office she’s been emailing.”
“What is ironic with our government engagement is that we found most of the doors closed were often closed by women in the public service.”
New Zealand is renowned for changes wrought by its strong wāhine.
It was the first country in the world in which women had the right to vote. Māori women had similar stories of success for their community – think Te Puea Herangi, and Dame Whina Cooper. The Islamic Women’s Council wanted to follow in their footsteps, particularly as a minority group facing racist attacks.
“Those are examples of people who, through their efforts, made progress for their community. And we thought that it was a natural transition for us as women to be the advocates, and that we could – as educated female Muslims – get our voice heard when we were facing challenges.
“We thought that we could make a difference. What is ironic with our government engagement is that we found most of the doors closed were often closed by women in the public service.”
“There’s a difference in treatment in how we were treated to other communities.”
Danzeisen only donned the hijab as an adult, so she can call on a different experience.
“Had I not had a hijab, I am confident that we would have been heard,” she says. “I just know in my heart.”
She’s not alone. Danzeisen says how Devoy said many times: “This is not how we do things in New Zealand.” In one meeting, she said if the council comprised pākehā women, without headscarves, “you would have been listened to by now”.
Devoy confirms the story: “Most definitely. And/or Māori and Pasifika I might add. Not that they wouldn’t be listened to, but the overarching problem in New Zealand is that we do not have anything specific for any of our ethnic populations.”
DIA didn’t respond to this accusation of discrimination.
There has been good work – such as a leaflet explaining Muslims’ rights on their return, or entry, to New Zealand (who were being detained for seemingly no reason) – but generally it wasn’t led by government agencies, Devoy says.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears to be trying her best, Devoy says, saying the right things at meetings she’s attended. But there doesn’t seem to be any sea change in what the Government’s doing – apart from the Christchurch Call.
It’s appalling, Devoy says, that nothing concrete, nothing substantial – as far as she’s aware – has come from all the Islamic Women’s Council meetings with agencies.
“What we’re seeing really is a little, mini version of what’s happened to Māori over years and years and years. This sort of disadvantage is continuing on, but it’s applying to a different population.”
Where is the apology, Devoy asks. “To say, look, we could have done much better, and we’re going to, and so we’re going to get you all back in the room and we’re going to say, what do you need immediately.”
“I would have thought, given what’s happened in Christchurch now, they would have scurried around and given them the earth.”
Asked if politicians failed the Muslim community, former attorney general Finlayson says: “The Royal Commission will look at these issues. I’m not going to opine on anything, I’m going to tell you what I did and leave it at that.”
At least the spy agencies appear to have changed tack. The SIS says in a statement that answers about the focus of intelligence agencies would come from the Royal Commission inquiry. But it adds: “Since the Christchurch attacks, the level of information NZSIS receives has risen and, unsurprisingly, an increasing proportion of these leads have related to right-wing extremism.”
On March 15 the Muslim community’s worst fears became reality.
Danzeisen told Minister of Ethnic Communities Salesa, when she called in the prime minister’s stead, “we warned you”. But that that wasn’t the time to have that conversation. There was a community to support in Christchurch.
Once Danzeisen got to Christchurch, it was clear the first responders were highly prepared. “They worked tirelessly and I can’t fault that.”
On a personal level that day was crushing, she says. The council’s national coordinator, Maysoon Salama, lost her son, Atta Elayyan, while her husband, Mohammad Alayan, was seriously injured.
When Danzeisen reached the hospital, Salama’s first comment was a personal one. The second was, “we tried to prevent this”.
Unbidden, Devoy wrote a piece for The Spinoff the next day. “You should read it,” Danzeisen implores.
The following day, Rahman wrote a detailed account of what had happened – of the warnings, the repeated pleas for help, and, in the wake of the attack, a call for accountability. “Why was she able to detail it so quickly? We actually were recording our encounters because we anticipated there was going to be something.”
And then, the wāhine worked with The Hui to tell their story visually, of what it felt like to be a Muslim in New Zealand.
What did it feel like? Getting back to Orwell, Danzeisen’s talk was titled ‘All women are equal, but some are more equal than others’.
“Several time over the last five years, even prior to the attacks, I felt like I was in the Animal Farm. And I think our community, at times, felt like we were in the Animal Farm.”
She tests several analogies on her audience.
Were they the hens from Animal Farm, trying to protect our clutches so that they could be born in the spring? The hens that went to the rafters to try and protect their community? “And yet, the hens, we lost our eggs.”
The next comparison to Orwell’s book is: All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. “Our voices were not heard, despite years of warnings,” Danzeisen says. “No action was taken to safeguard our community from risks.”
Being equal means, for example, having access to all information at the Royal Commission. Despite being on the commission’s Muslim reference group, some information is withheld because it’s classified.
Or is the Muslim community like Boxer, the farm’s hard-working, but naïve, cart-horse? Boxer worked so hard to build the windmill – like the Muslim community – only to see it destroyed. Danzeisen: “We’re turning around and we’re getting back to work, building the windmill again.”
But we all know how the story ends, she says. Boxer gets ill because of the lack of support, and is sold to the local knacker. She tells her audience at the University of Canterbury last week that they, as political scientists, are integral to re-writing the story.
“The horse slaughter and glue boiler van has arrived. If we look at democracy around the world, it’s here. Are you going to show a bit of concern and watch the van head off? Or are you going to stand in front of the vehicle, surround it, and ensure that it goes no further?”
This Orwellian story can have a new ending, and not just for New Zealand.
“This isn’t a story just for the Muslim community, it’s for all of us.”
*The Islamic Women’s Council was granted $55,000 in the Ethnic Communities Development Fund 2019 “additional fund” announcement. Danzeisen says it funded programmes in Christchurch over the school holidays that followed the attacks, with a team of high trauma Muslim experts and also the organisation’s national conference in Auckland where the Prime Minister spoke.