Al Noor mosque under armed police patrol on March 22, 2019 (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)
Al Noor mosque under armed police patrol on March 22, 2019 (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

SocietyJuly 7, 2020

‘Everything was in place to ignore us’: Officials ‘uninterested’ in Muslim community’s pre-March 15 warnings

Al Noor mosque under armed police patrol on March 22, 2019 (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)
Al Noor mosque under armed police patrol on March 22, 2019 (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

The Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand said it repeatedly warned the government an attack like that on March 15 last year was possible. Today, it released the evidence.

Within days of the March 15 mosque attacks, while the names of the dead were still being recorded, Anjum Rahman of the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand wrote an impassioned and chilling article. The violence in Christchurch was not a surprise, she said. Her organisation had been warning of it for months, for years. “We begged and pleaded, we demanded,” she wrote then. “We knocked on every door we could, we spoke at every forum we were invited to.”

Today the council detailed just what it knew, and when. At a press conference at Al-Masjid Al-Jamie mosque in Ponsonby, Auckland, the IWCNZ revealed its submissions to the royal commission of inquiry into the attacks on Christchurch’s Al Noor and Linwood mosques, when a single gunman killed 51 people and injured 49 others. The group’s national co-ordinator, Dr Maysoon Salama, lost her son in the attack.

The IWCNZ’s submissions, now public, detail how it repeatedly and with increased urgency warned the New Zealand government that there was a “rising temperature” of white supremacy and Islamophobia in New Zealand. It describes civil service officials as “poorly trained, unprofessional and uninformed”, and agencies involved as “unmotivated” and “uninterested”.

Aliya Danzeisen, who continues to lead the IWCNZ’s government engagement efforts, spoke to the crowd gathered at the Al-Masjid Al-Jamie mosque in Ponsonby, Auckland, about evidence she presented to the government in an attempt to warn them about potential terrorist actions against the Muslim community.

The IWCNZ said it made efforts to engage with the government in the five years prior to the Christchurch mosque attacks, and warned of increased urgency and risk in the three years leading up to it. “We expressed the urgent need for support, and that we needed them,” she said. “The public service was uninterested in solving the problem.”

Flowers and messages of condolence outside the Al-Masjid Al-Jamie mosque in Ponsonby, where this morning’s press conference was held, the day after the attacks last year (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Danzeisen said minutes were not kept at some meetings she had with government officials. At one meeting at which she spoke at length on the IWCNZ’s concerns, the minutes didn’t reflect that she spoke at all.

She said members of the Muslim community, in particular women and children, were regularly harassed in public and in schools. “Our own prime minister at that time, John Key, reinforced this othering by asserting that jihadi brides were leaving from New Zealand.” This was not true, but Danzeisen said this resulted in Muslim women experiencing related harassment from the public afterwards. 

In the lead-up to March 15, the IWCNZ informed officials of evidence that white supremacy was present in New Zealand. The submission even details how social media was involved in harassment, including the lack of adequate monitoring of what was uploaded to social media platforms. “We specifically raised that lack of monitoring was hurting New Zealand’s brand as a welcoming and open community,” said Danzeisen. 

“The public service was uninterested in solving the problem,” she said. “We knocked on every door, we offered solutions, and were basically dismissed.”

“When I received a threat on Facebook on February 20 everything was in place to ignore us again,” she said. The message in question threatened to burn a Qur’an outside a mosque in Hamilton on March 15 of last year, but the IWCNZ noted the user was in Christchurch.

“It is our opinion that the attack was preventable,” she said. “Had our warnings been heeded there would have been support on the steps of the mosques on March 15.”

Anjum Rahman, media spokesperson for IWCNZ, said public policy needed to focus on the prevention of violent extremism, not countering it. “Prevention means empowering communities, fostering belonging, valuing and celebrating difference,” she said. Countering can mean heavy surveillance, a technique the IWCNZ believes isn’t done well. “If you’re going to surveil a community, then you should be engaging with that community, and working with them to solve the problem.”

“We know that three young Muslim men were arrested, charged, convicted and imprisoned in New Zealand as the result of sharing an Isis video,” she said. It’s also understood by IWCNZ that no one sharing white supremacist videos or inciting white supremacist actions in New Zealand was surveilled. “There was an over-reliance on Five Eyes,” she said of the imbalance in surveillance. “New Zealand is a world leader in so many ways. We get so many things right, why look overseas for policy and practices that are often clearly biased?”

The IWCNZ said further policy should take people’s histories of harassment into account when considering gun ownership. The submission states that gun owners making threats, online or offline, of harm either direct or indirect, should be penalised. Rahman said mass killers overseas leave a trail of evidence including abusive behaviour online and violence against intimate partners. The IWCNZ recommends that members of the public should have the ability to report death threats, rape threats, or other threats of harm. “Those [threats] should be checked against the firearms registry, and licences revoked,” said Rahman. “A genuine and legitimate gun owner would not be making these kinds of threats”. 

The SIS in particular came under criticism from Frances Joychild QC, who represented IWCNZ before the commission.

Joychild is critical of the SIS because she’s aware the IWCNZ told the director general of security, Rebecca Kitteridge, and relevant ministers repeatedly and personally about the urgency of their concerns. “Yet we still see, in a speech by Rebecca Kitteridge around that time [of the IWCNZ’s warnings], she’s talking about the terrorist threat from Muslims. There’s no one turning and looking the other way.”

“If citizens are required to be loyal to the state, then the state must be loyal to its citizens,” said Rahman. “This includes not sending troops to fight illegal wars. This means applying policy fairly. This means speaking out against human rights abuses, even when committed by allies. This means being honest in the telling of our history.”

The royal commission into the events of March 15 is still under way, with a report due out at the end of July. The IWCNZ’s recommendations are publicly available here.

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