An 'all society' approach is needed to address conditions that led to March 15

An 'all society' approach is needed to address conditions that led to March 15

December 5, 2020

By Meng Foon, Race Relations Commissioner

This first appeared on December 5th 2020 in

My office meets regularly with many groups and individuals who make up the diverse community of Muslim people in New Zealand. I empathise with their consistent call for accountability and action from government in response to the 15 March terrorist attacks.

When the report by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch Mosques is publicly released on Tuesday, the Muslim community will know if their calls have been heard.

As a reminder, our nation expressed collective shock at the attacks, a horror shared with the world as we embraced the victims and their families. Many of us were in disbelief. Vigils were held to pay respects, while many of us asked “how could this happen here?”

Among the many groups that have engaged with Muslim communities since 15 March, (at their own expense, since they are largely volunteers), the Human Rights Commission keep hearing of the need for government to provide a strong, speedy response. We have heard from Muslim leaders who report their communities were unfairly treated and disproportionately targeted by our security agencies.

This experience resonates with the colonial experience of Māori, who were heavily impacted by the actions of security agencies as recently as the 2007 police raids. Taking this into account the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand recently called for systemic racism to be eliminated based on Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Twenty months after March 2019, which the Covid-19 pandemic has made seem like a lifetime, many are hopeful the report will provide a roadmap for action for government.

The “team of five million“ approach is one way to shape the response. In other words, an “all society” approach is needed to address the conditions that led to 15 March.

Under Covid-19, we went hard and we went fast because we understood the threat that the pandemic posed.

Like Covid, March 15 revealed the insidious and mostly covert threat of white supremacy to our country. This was not a new threat to brown lives.

Will the report say that government didn’t act quickly enough when they were given warnings about homegrown and other white supremacists? For context, white extremism is the younger cousin of white supremacy which has been an ever-present factor since colonial times.

This finding would confirm the need for the work of Muslim groups such as The Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand who have tracked and named white supremacy for a decade. Like other community groups they have set up these initiatives in the absence of support or equivalent tools by the government.

As such, the government must now develop and adopt tools to address racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and all types of discrimination.

Our own small contribution, the Voice of Racism campaign, draws a line in the sand by showing us what racism sounds like, what we can do about it, and outlines the harm that racism causes. Just this week, media company Stuff began to “reckon“ with its racist past and made a commitment to correct its wrongs. If a private company can do this, then we should expect the same and more from the government and public service.

During Covid, we employed anti-Covid strategies and tools including contact tracing and social isolation. Similarly, we need to develop an anti-terrorism toolkit for Aotearoa, which must centre the needs of Muslim communities in the first instance instead of making it the focus of their surveillance.

These strategies should include a robust system to monitor hate crime, and thankfully the Police have begun to take steps to improve data collection. Other tools include the Christchurch Call and responses to hate speech. There’s ongoing scrutiny of multinational social media giants around hate speech on their platforms and their responsibilities, and mitigating against hate groups being able to organise online, just like they did here.

Individuals, let alone governments, aren’t used to confronting racism head on, and white supremacy is another challenge altogether. We have large scale denial of it because the nation is prone to historical amnesia, like other settler-colonies.

A positive contribution by New Zealanders might be to increase our awareness about racism and its impacts. We should expect our government to support this process as well as to be held to account for curbing it.

The government must take a courageous anti-racism stance. It must commit to a nimble response to the report through legislation and other actions, in an acceptable timeframe. Accountability means taking swift action.

The attention of the world has turned often to Aotearoa since 15th March 2019, and again because of our response to the pandemic. How we respond now is important because the world will be watching.

Just as important to how the world sees us, is how we see ourselves. Will we be able to look in the mirror as a nation in six months and say, “we’re doing our utmost to prevent further attacks, and we believe it’s working?”

To get there requires an urgent Covid-like response from government, with the support of the broader population. We can and must do this, in honour of the victims of the terrorist attacks, and their families.

The ball is in our court.