“Terrorist” slur made against victim of the Christchurch terror attack and her children. David Williams reports

Fearfully, her children cleared up the confusion.

A Muslim woman, a New Zealand resident who has lived in the country for almost 13 years, was dropping her children at their Christchurch school on a Tuesday morning last September when she was confronted by an angry Pākēha woman.

“Go f****** home! You shouldn’t f****** be here!”

Initially, the hijab-wearing victim, originally from the Middle East, thought she was being verbally attacked for using the Ministry of Education-owned car park, shared by the primary school and a pre-school.

She told her assailant the pre-school manager had given her permission to use the car park whenever she wanted. This was because one of her children lives with a physical disability.

But her children quickly understood the racist, xenophobic message the abusive woman was shouting, despite New Zealand being their home.

“Mum, she’s calling us terrorists,” her eldest explained. “She’s calling us killers.”

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The disgraceful encounter and its aftermath have left the Muslim woman – we’ll call her Shula – let down by authorities: the police, the school, and pre-school.

She’s also disillusioned with the idea of justice, after her assailant was spoken to by police but not arrested or charged, apparently because of a lack of evidence – something the Muslim mother disputes.

“She’s swearing [at] me. She’s broken my heart. She’s broken my kids’ heart. She’s scared my kids. How can [there be] no punishment for that?”

She told police she was being treated differently to a white, Kiwi person. “If that happened from [a] Muslim, the police, in a minute, will be there.”

Once Kiwi culture crosses with another, in the case Muslim culture, Kiwis protect each other, Shula believes. “They tried to push this story [about] fighting for parking.”

The school, which Newsroom has chosen not to name to protect the identity of the victims, urged us not to publish the story, saying it will cause more harm than good.

But Shula feels strongly: “People have to know.”

She adds: “We don’t like this. I’m here [in New Zealand] because I feel safe.”

The 2019 terror attack sparked an outpouring of public grief and support. Photo: David Williams

Muslims are regularly subjected to hateful physical and verbal attacks.

Last month, a woman and her 3-week-old baby were assaulted at a Christchurch park. An 18-year-old has been charged with assault.

Two Otago Girls’ High School students were expelled in March last year after a racially motivated attack. After video emerged, the story which spread around the world, prompting condemnation and support for the victim, Hoda Al-Jamaa.

The following month, Aliya Danzeisen, national coordinator of the Islamic Women’s Council (IWCNZ), told Newsroom: “It’s not by any means the only one.”

An Australian report, published in March last year, said Islamophobia quadrupled after the Christchurch terror attack.

The Royal Commission into the terrorist attack released its recommendations in December 2020. A recommended overhaul of hate speech laws is yet to happen. A national action plan against racism is still in development.

“He came out looking and then he killed the people.” – Shula

Shula and her family are not terrorists but they have certainly been the victims of one.

On March 15, 2019, Shula was driving to Christchurch’s an-Nur Mosque for Jumu’ah, Friday prayers, when she witnessed people running for their lives.

An Australian terrorist shot dead 51 people that terrible day – 44 of them at an-Nur, and seven at Linwood Islamic Centre – with 40 more were bullet-injured, and dozens more left traumatised.

The fleeing survivors urged Shula to leave – “Go, now!” – saying the police were inside the mosque, shooting and killing people. (The gunman wore military-style camouflage clothing, a tactical vest, and helmet.)

As she drove slowly past the mosque gates, she saw the gunman, who was aiming his rifle. She thought he was a police officer, and parked.

“He came out looking,” Shula said, “and then he killed the people.”

The sound of gunfire caused her to scream, and she froze. A group of women were outside the mosque, with her friend at the forefront. She wanted to pick them up, but her husband urged her to drive off, to protect their daughter, and pick up their other children.

She drove.

It was the first time the mass murderer emerged from the mosque. Her car was visible in the terrorist’s livestream. He didn’t see anyone inside her car because it had tinted windows.

“I believe if he saw me, he will kill me,” Shula says.

After she drove off, the terrorist grabbed a new gun from his vehicle, and continued his murderous rampage.

Her daughter not only saw the gunman, she saw blood on the steps of the mosque.

After the attack, the children, especially her daughter, were more comfortable if their mother was nearby – at the mosque, and even at school.

“If not, they feel worried and scared.”

Shula adds: “For me, I try to forget, but this [was a] bad experience.

“If I hear ambulance or police sirens I flash-back, directly.”

The school car park incident last September has been a huge setback for her children.

“It’s a flashback for everything for them not trusting [people] again. For me, I [don’t] trust the law.”

Two months in limbo

With her social worker as a support, Shula made a police complaint on the day of the incident. She then took her frightened children out of school pending the outcome of the investigation.

Every day, her children asked when the police were coming, and if the woman had been arrested.

After two months, having heard nothing, she asked a support worker to contact the police, and a meeting was arranged with a female officer.

The news was not what Shula wanted. While her assailant admitting using the f-word and b-word, the assailant denied saying “terrorist” and wasn’t charged. There wasn’t enough evidence, she was told. (Her children weren’t accepted as sufficiently independent.)

What it boiled down to, according to Shula’s account of the meeting with the female police officer in November, was an angry woman having a bad day. But, the officer assured, if she did anything like that again – presumably with evidence, this time – she would be arrested.

Shula prickles at the idea evidence was lacking.

She shows Newsroom two security cameras in the school car park, and mentions there were other witnesses: a woman in a nearby car; two neighbours over a fence who also swore at her (one of whom jumped the fence to demand she stop recording on her mobile phone), and the pre-school manager who watched through a window and ultimately intervened.

We asked police if they’d viewed the camera footage or interviewed other witnesses but the questions went unanswered. (Shula said the female officer was unaware security camera footage existed.)

In an emailed statement, Acting Inspector John Daunton, of the Māori, Pacific and ethnic services group within Canterbury police, said Shula’s complaint was reviewed by his group.

“Police have spoken with all parties involved, including the school, the other party, the complainant, and their family, and advised that any further safety concerns be reported to Police.”

Police recognised the “significant distress experienced by the complainant and their family”.

Daunton said police were committed to identifying and tackling hate crime.

“Violence or threatening behaviour including any involving hate, hostility, or prejudice regarding race, faith, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or age is not acceptable.”

However, last September, RNZ reported police still couldn’t accurately record hate crimes.

Police wouldn’t confirm to Newsroom if a potential case lacked evidence, but a person from the Police Media Team at national headquarters said: “Can confirm no one charged.”

Incident ‘resolved’

The school washed their hands of the matter, saying it didn’t happen on school grounds and didn’t involve a parent. This overlooks the fact it happened at a joint car park owned by the Ministry of Education.

To the school’s credit, they’ve let the mother onto school grounds during the day but they also set a deadline for the children to return, after which they would have been un-enrolled.

The school’s principal/tumuaki said: “This specific incident has been resolved, and we are continuing to provide ongoing support alongside external agencies. We believe there is a high risk that publishing an article on this matter would be damaging to the family, and request you take this into consideration.”

Nancy Bell, Ministry of Education hautū (leader) Te Tai Runga (south) confirmed the carpark is ministry-owned land. “The incident was not reported to us. If schools or early learning services need support they can contact us, and we will assist them.”

Shula wanted her assailant banned from the pre-school, but the general manager – who intervened on September 20, and asked her assailant to leave or discuss it inside the building – refused. She wouldn’t call the police, either.

Newsroom has seen a message in which the general manager said, “I don’t have the capacity to put time into this”, but she wanted the Muslim mother to be assured the facility was helping her assailant with “some strategies to manage her behaviour”.

The pre-school general manager told Newsroom: “I can assure you [we have] taken this matter seriously and can confirm that all appropriate actions in relation to this incident, including co-operating fully with external agencies as required. We consider the matter to have been resolved and have no further comment to make.”

Shula feels let down because the school had been so supportive after the attacks; they felt like family. She thought they, and the pre-school, would do “the right thing” to ensure there were consequences for the abusive, angry woman and adequate protection for her children.

Now, she’ll be quick to pull out her phone and start recording if she, or any other member of the public, is being abused.

“Where’s the law here?”

Dr Eddie Clark, of Victoria University of Wellington’s law faculty, thinks the scenario isn’t likely to meet the threshold of hate speech, as the law stands – or the Government’s proposed narrow expansion, or the broader changes proposed by the Royal Commission.

“Without more evidence about the mental state – i.e. intent – of the pretty nasty heckler here, just the words themselves would not seem to be aimed at inciting hatred or ill-feeling against Muslims as a group. It is the group aspect that is the key element of hate speech laws that’s often forgotten (along with the intent requirement).

“This just sounds like nasty personal abuse targeted at someone because they are Muslim.”

There is, however, a longstanding offence of “offensive behaviour in a public place” in the Summary Offences Act, he says.

“There certainly is an argument that the behaviour you describe would be caught by s 4(1)(c) here. But there are also quite a few important court decisions over the last 20 years that say, when the Bill of Rights right to free expression is taken into account, that the bar for prosecuting under this section is a fair bit higher than the bare words of the statute would suggest.”

Ultimately, the decision not to proceed comes down to whether the police thought they could secure a conviction, rather than legal uncertainty.

“The police may have made the wrong call on that, but unfortunately we can’t really know because the case (because of that police decision) won’t be tested in front of a judge.”

“These are not the values that should be promoted in Aotearoa New Zealand.” – Meng Foon

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon also raised the Summary Offences Act, under which “the police can investigate and prosecute instances of offensive behaviour or language in a public place that threatens, alarms, insults or offends another person”.

Infamously, in April 2019, less than a month after the terror attack, a man wearing a Trump T-shirt was arrested for calling Muslims “terrorists” and saying “they need to leave” while outside Masjid an-Nur. He pleaded guilty to disorderly behaviour.

Foon says the Human Rights Commission doesn’t determine what speech is unlawful, it can receive complaints and provide support.

“These are not the values that should be promoted in Aotearoa New Zealand, we live in a country where everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Everyone has the right to express their culture and practice their religion. I know what it is to feel abuse in this way so my aroha goes out to the recipient of this unacceptable behaviour.”

He notes: “The Government’s proposed hate speech law change will extend protection to religious groups against hate speech.”

The most telling part of this incident are the words of Shula’s children.

In the November meeting, her disabled son asked the female police officer to look at his hands. “How can I be a terrorist? I’m very young.”

Told by police that the woman was sorry – although, in truth, she never apologised – he turned to his mother and said: “Don’t believe that. She said sorry because she knows she’s in trouble. But she had hate in her heart.”

He was strong in front of the police, declaring he doesn’t have to change schools, but if the woman did something wrong there should be consequences. In private, he admitted to his mother he was very scared. “I’m watching all the time to see if she’s coming or not.”

When the police officer told Shula’s daughter that the angry woman had the right to go to the preschool, she turned to her mother and said in Arabic: “Mum, she can kill us anytime.”

In English, she told the police officer: “We don’t have the money now but when we have the money, we will go … and never come back here.”

  • Victims of hate crime can contact police on 105, or, if they’re in immediate danger or a crime is happening now, they should call 111.

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

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