The murders at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques in Christchurch on March 15, 2019, made a profound impact on New Zealand and the world. The report of the Royal Commission of inquiry reminds us what life was like for our Muslim community before they suffered the cruel, cowardly massacre in the country where they perhaps least expected it.
The commissioner heard that women in hijab were harassed on our streets, and that reporting it to police wasn't taken seriously. The commission heard of discrimination in employment, women being advised they would not be hired if they went to an interview "dressed like that". Secondary school students reported scarves being torn off and fights resulting.
Terrorism seemed almost exclusively an "Islamist" threat in Western countries until March 15 last year. Western security intelligence agencies were as blinkered as the rest of us by the bombings and carnage in Europe sometimes committed by alienated second-generation immigrants. New Zealand's Muslim community had harboured no known threat of that nature.
Nothing the mosque killer did could have alerted the security agencies, the commission concludes, but it finds the agencies' general surveillance of white extremism to be deficient. It recommends a new national security and intelligence agency to lead the existing agencies and develop "a public facing strategy that addresses extremism".
The Government also proposes to create a ministry of ethnic communities and a university-graduate programme for ethnic minorities and a centre for research on the causes of violent extremism and terrorism. It also recommends stronger counter-terrorism laws and making hate speech a criminal offence. The crime's definition will include inciting racial or religious disharmony "based on an intention to stir up, maintain or normalise hatred through threatening, abusive or insulting communications with protected characteristics that include religious affiliation".
Islamophobes might not be the only Kiwis challenged by stronger protection of religion from expressed antagonism. We need to understand religion goes deeper than an ethnic or cultural identity. Even the commission failed to fully see this, said the Muslim Association of Canterbury and the Linwood Islamic Centre Trust yesterday.
"The report does not go far enough in recognising that as a faith-based community, being treated through an ethnic communities lens fails to do justice (to) the uniting and strength-based elements of our faith," they said.
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Not all Muslims find New Zealand a more compassionate place now. Some women told the commission they felt scared going out alone wearing hijab. They avoided public places, taking children to school and evening walks.
Muslims had raised concerns about Islamophobia and right-wing extremism. Nothing was done. We thought this could not happen here. We ignored the concerns of people who came here for refuge.
We failed. We cannot fail again.