Reading the Royal Commission report into the Christchurch attack evokes memories of 1984 for Aliya Danzeisen

OPINION: Forty years ago, I was introduced to the works of George Orwell by my English teacher who required our class to read Orwell’s iconic novel 1984 about a dystopian world, where a government held almost all the power, controlled the actions and thoughts of its citizenry, and had technology including two-way screens, hidden cameras and microphones to surveil its people.

The state’s power was all encompassing. My naivete, lack of experience and then-limited technology made is seem preposterous. Yet those debates, the fears raised therein, and the lessons learned in that classroom have followed me my whole life.

Orwell’s novels scared me and inspired me; still, I never conceived his fears would play out in my life. Yet, in the last few years, I have had several Orwellian experiences. Previously I publicly discussed how the government engagement for the Islamic Womens’ Council of New Zealand had felt in many ways like novel Animal Farm.

Reading the report and recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques remind me of 1984. On behalf of IWCNZ, I was a “core participant” in the process giving evidence and also was a member of its Muslim reference group; but still I am surprised and disappointed in some of the conclusions.

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

The first impression as I read the report was the Party’s motto in 1984. New Zealand’s Crown Law drafted the terms of reference and publicly acknowledged it had not consulted the Muslim Community. By that drafting, the government framed the investigation’s parameters and limited significantly what the commissioners and their secretariat could do and look into.

By trimming the search and the time frames, the government has controlled the outcomes. Lots of questions remain unanswered and due to time delays of the Commission and lack of resources on the community’s side, we as a nation will likely not know the actual full story.

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth”

Another thought was how so much evidence went unchallenged and ignored. The Commission did not look into unreported knowledge. This would be like a jury not being able to consider the testimony of a neighbour that saw an accused murder load his gun into his vehicle the day before the event just because the neighbour didn’t report prior to the crime. In this case, for some reason, a lot of highly relevant information has been ignored or not even considered.

Likewise, conflicting evidence remains unresolved. While there were cases where people could not “recall” and some important testimony disagreed with each other. The Commission just went with the easiest testimony and conclusion. We at IWCNZ asserted and requested at the outset, we needed to be in the room to challenge testimony and evidence, but were prevented and thus such information appears unvetted.

“We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.”

There are significant recommendations proposed and some really good ideas—a large security agency is probably not one of them, and while within its recommendations there is a call for a “front-facing” government and direction that ministries work to develop a cohesive society using collaboration and co-design, the power remains with the agencies and the public servants that got many things wrong for communities, including the Muslim community in the past.

We will see how the public service reacts and which recommendations this Government addresses. It is always very hard to change the direction of a large bureaucracy. It will be up to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s leadership to try to tame that beast.

IWCNZ has shared its experience with the Royal Commission and made our submission public in July. We stand by our positions contained therein. I leave you with one final quote from Orwell’s 1984:

“Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”

Aliya Danzeisen has led the government engagement for the Islamic Women' Council of New Zealand for seven years and has played a key advocacy role in getting support for the Kiwi Muslim community.

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