The legacy of 15 March - one year on

6:24 am on 15 March 2020

By Pakeeza Rasheed*

Opinion - The events of 15 March 2019 undeniably changed New Zealand. The attacks on two mosques in Christchurch opened the eyes of the world to white supremacy and what happens when hate is left to fester. After a year, it is timely to reflect on what has come out of the senseless and tragic deaths of 51 Muslims.

Al Noor Mosque is strewn with flowers and offerings honouring the victims of the terror attack there.

Flowers and offerings outside Al Noor Mosque. Photo: RNZ / Alex Perrottet

A common reference point when talking about the Christchurch massacre has been the September 11 terror attacks in the United States. Following 9/11, people expressed a heightened sense of fear, anxiety and suspicion, the same feelings many of us dealt with after 15 March. For some of us, however, that anxiety and fear continues.

Simply put, September 11 was framed as a terror attack committed by 'the other', Muslims - and the March attacks were not. For decades now, the dominant public discourse has vilified Muslims and anyone else considered 'the other', such as indigenous people and immigrants. Racist ideologies are in the mainstream and have increased at an alarming rate from politicians and pundits through to movies and the news media. It has been too uncomfortable for western nations to grapple with a creature of their own making - white supremacy. New Zealand is no different and was quick to distance itself from the alleged attacker. Muslims and other minorities, however, have never been afforded the same luxury; any negative action by a Muslim is a reflection on the collective yet the same never seems to apply to Pākehā. That is the privilege colonisation continues to bestow. Since the Christchurch massacre we can clearly see the machinery of our nation's post-colonial and racist systems working hard to extend control and preserve power. I have seen it develop through several acts and I have sat rooted in horror, watching it unfold almost like a theatre production.

Act One - Pākehā framing of terror

The solidarity New Zealand showed after the attacks was lauded globally. However, our Prime Minister and this nation reacted as should be expected. It was a reaction that should have been normal, given the scale of the horror. A human response to a human tragedy. Was it because the victims were Muslim and the accused perpetrator Pākehā that the world was stunned by the humanity shown in Aotearoa?

Muslims everywhere were touched by the outpouring of aroha, there is no doubt, but how long would that solidarity and understanding last? Over the last year I wondered whether Jacinda's empathy would translate into operational transformation. I am not convinced it will.

It wasn't long after the massacre that the focus shifted to a Pākehā narrative of the tragedy and we were inundated by the glowing international reviews of the country's reaction.

Straight after the attacks we started seeing Jacinda's face across the world. Pictures of our Prime Minister in a headscarf embracing nameless, and at times faceless, Muslims was prominent across the world. The lasting global image of the Christchurch attacks is of her face and the back of a nameless Muslim woman's head. We had swiftly and successfully moved to a global Pākehā narrative where the focus shifted away from Muslims and became about white New Zealanders and, in particular, Jacinda Ardern. It is no wonder then that it is her face and her story that is featured in the Time magazine cover to coincide with the anniversary of the massacre.

News outlets sprinkled in the possibility of "Muslim retaliation" in Christchurch straight after the attacks and we returned to the comfortable narrative of Pākehā vs 'the other', good vs bad, saviour vs victim. Nobody would ever justify the attacks, but there is power in the silence that continues. Jacinda never responded to the Muslim community's pleas to address the Uyghur crisis, this nation barely spoke about Islamophobia and twelve months later we have not even adequately acknowledged the racism that is rife within this nation. Thanks to the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus, xenophobia against our Chinese community is prevalent. Immigrants are somehow blamed for the water shortage in Auckland. None of it makes logical sense yet here we are, looking for non-Pākehā scapegoats.

Act Two - Token gesture(s) to quell dissatisfaction

After the framing was successfully implemented, the second act started with the announcement that there would be a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Attack on Christchurch Mosques - a mouthful with narrow terms of reference and an insultingly short time frame.

Unsurprisingly, it was announced the Inquiry would be done in secret and there would be no public accountability, perpetuating the same unfairness as the system it was purporting to scrutinise. Muslims in New Zealand have been targeted and surveilled for decades with little recourse. It is unlikely the Inquiry will change anything. I was invited to be on the Muslim reference group and spent several months engaging with the Inquiry to get some answers about the function, make up and deliverables of the group. When I finally got answers it became evident that any Muslim involvement, including the reference group, was going to be nothing more than lip service for the community and the victims of the massacre.

Like many marginalised communities, Muslims in New Zealand are kept disenfranchised, divided and unable to access the resources needed to understand, much less challenge, systemic injustices. It is a shrewd strategy that colonisers have long used to keep minorities distracted and vulnerable. The Inquiry must be seen for what it is. Nothing more than a token gesture that keeps the Muslim community busy and feeling like they have a voice in the process while also making the rest of Aotearoa feel as if there has been a national response to the tragic loss of 51 lives. Looking at the lack of meaningful engagement with victims or credible experts; as well as the makeup of the different groups within it (including the Muslim groups); we see the Inquiry has been carefully designed to protect the intelligence agencies and government processes. To understand the intricacies of the post-colonial system in which we exist in Aotearoa is to realise that institutions such as the Inquiry are set up to protect the status quo.

Similarly, while the Christchurch Call is an effective exercise in public relations for New Zealand, I fear it will ultimately be equally as ineffective as the Inquiry in changing the dangers associated with hate and calls for violence online. It is a violence that is rooted in the real world and is the type that led to the loss of 51 lives. It is a violence that doesn't just exist in an internet void and we need to realise that the internet is a reflection of our society.

I won't even bother to address the non-existent work being done on overhauling our hate speech laws.

Act Three - Accumulating power and enforcing greater social control

This involves a move to secure greater social control and the use of insidious means to extend power. It started with the Terrorism Suppression (Control Orders) Bill which is now an Act. The purpose is supposedly to monitor a "small number of people" who are "not able to be criminally prosecuted for their activities due to difficulty gaining evidence". Its creation was in response to Mark John Taylor - nicknamed the "bumbling jihadist". Our response to his possible return to New Zealand has been to put together a clumsy and larger than life sledgehammer. The Act allows secret evidence and does not impose a duty to inform the alleged perpetrator of the proceedings, with low thresholds to easily allow the court to issue orders. All the intelligence agencies have to do is decide that there is a possibility of "terrorism", (a word that remains poorly defined), that it wants to take this course of action over prosecution; and they can use secret evidence to establish their grounds.

This triggers a process that could lead to a control order being issued. An order that would include 24/7 surveillance, taking away freedom, limiting movement and access to information. There has been little public awareness or debate on the Act but terrorism laws have allowed governments to have sweeping control and allowed them to act with impunity, as these types of mechanisms have all been used against larger portions of their citizenry than initially claimed. "Terrorism" has been used as a guise to target aid workers and human rights defenders across the world, environmental activists in the UK and immigration advocates in the US. It allows mass internment camps to exist in places such as China and allows India to target its Muslim minority populations. To add insult to injury, this Act would not have allowed intelligence agencies to identity and "control" someone like the alleged Christchurch shooter. So once again, we see that government response is swift against "Muslim threats" but slow moving when dealing with the so-called complex problem of "white threats".

That is because white supremacy is a symptom of a deeper problem, a problem that no one is interested in understanding or fixing; especially not our government. That is because our nation's entire architecture is based upon a white colonial system that is rooted in racism and is one that encourages political violence against minorities such as Maori, Muslims and migrants. It is a system that will hold on to power by any means necessary and will not stop at violence, intimidation or coercion to ensure control over its citizens.

It should come as no surprise then that the crescendo of the last 12 months are police forces armed with guns patrolling the streets of Manukau, Waikato and Canterbury. We are told that armed police will prevent an event like 15 March from happening again. We are told that it is meant to make us feel safer. The evidence is clear that such measures do not work to protect minorities but instead to brutalise them.

After 15 March Ngai Tahu stood beside Muslim communities and we stood next to tangata whenua at Ihumātao. Given past research in New Zealand and the US on policing, we know these armed police squads, purported to have been established to prevent further harm to Muslims, will disproportionately target Māori communities. I do not want our Māori whānau to be ensnared in nets set up purportedly in response to our tragedy but with the true intent of capturing us and our allies. It does not make me feel safer. I stand with Māori activists in calling for the immediate disestablishment of this violent programme. Armed police roaming the streets cannot be the solution to a gun massacre. Introducing more guns as the solution to gun violence is standard practice in the US and it appears that we are now using that logic here. This cannot be the legacy of 15 March.

The erosion of human rights and the growing control over citizens in New Zealand echoes those of the US in the wake of September 11. The aftermath of those changes is still felt to this day. I now live in the United States so I see it and feel it now on a daily basis. Do we want the same fate in Aotearoa?

* Pakeeza Rasheed is a Kiwi Muslim lawyer who has worked on human rights issues globally as well as litigation and public law in New Zealand for over 10 years. She now resides in the United States.

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