The warning signs for yesterday’s atrocity were everywhere, if only we’d looked – or listened to New Zealand’s Muslim community, writes former race relations commissioner Susan Devoy.
A few weeks ago a good friend rang me to say her family and friends had once again been threatened by racist, anonymous strangers. The fear in her trembling voice was something I will never forget.
But at the same time, it wasn’t new. Because Muslim Kiwis – everyday people, mums and dads, kids, teens, grandparents – have been facing hatred, abuse and extremists in our country for years. Most of us just pack our kids’ lunches as we prepare them for school. My Muslim friends prepare their kids for hatred before they step out the front door.
Every single Muslim woman I know has faced racist abuse of some kind right here in our towns, on Facebook, in the media. Over the years many of us tried to help raise their voices so other New Zealanders understood what was happening and what was growing. And yet, according to some media commentators, politicians and social media posters, these people were the extremists.
Police in our country do not record hate crimes. So when mosques or synagogues are attacked and defiled, those attacks are filed as property damage. For years we at the Human Rights Commission argued that they should be recorded as hate crimes so that we could measure and understand the scale of the threat. We argued that this is how we monitor the rise of extremism. But the answer from the government, as well as many hard right libertarians, was no. At one stage we had to publicly shame fascists wanting to march at a White Ribbon event protesting violence against women. They argued that it was their right to march wearing uniforms inspired by Nazis who had murdered millions of children.
If the police and other intelligence agencies monitored white supremacists as closely as they monitored other extremists or criminals, no one would be saying that yesterday’s murders came as a surprise. A few years ago I said people should be able to choose if they wanted to celebrate Christmas. Some media commentators began calling for my resignation. Some inflated and exaggerated and twisted the facts: “Susan Devoy and the Muslim migrants want to ban Christmas”.
If you were one of those commentators: do not write an op-ed today crying about how shocking yesterday’s murders were. Because you helped make it happen. You helped normalise hatred in our country. You helped those murderers feel that they were representing the thoughts of ordinary New Zealanders.
I and my staff received death threats during this time. People came to my home in the night to try to scare me. What I experienced was frightening, but it is nothing compared to the kinds of threats Muslim women and children face every day here in our whenua.
The fact that so many of yesterday’s victims survived ISIS, long treks to safety, and subsistence living in refugee camps only to die at the hands of a terrorist here in Aotearoa should shame us all. So do not tell me that March 15 was a surprise. Because hatred lives in New Zealand. And yesterday it walked around the streets of Christchurch with an automatic weapon.
I am devastated and broken for my good friends in the Muslim community. People who feed the homeless. Who raise money for cyclone victims. Who would get in touch with me if there was a terror attack overseas and say: let’s have a peace vigil. We will host it. Let’s gather together in peace.
When people ask what can we do today, the answer is the same as it was yesterday, last year and the year before that: we must never, ever let hatred and racism go unchallenged when we see it in our communities – on a bus, on Facebook, on the street.
Muslim New Zealanders have lived in dread that this day would come, praying that it never would – but here we are. Listen to the voices of our most vulnerable people who have been facing threats from the alt-right and other people for years. Stand up for human rights by letting Muslim Kiwis know that you’ve got their back, whether it’s on Facebook, at your kids’ school on Monday, or by writing to our government demanding that we start recording hate crimes.