March 15 anniversary: Racism, religion and hate in New Zealand

The events of March 15, 2019, sent shock waves through our country, forcing Kiwis to question if New Zealand had a festering underbelly of hate which had been ignored.

Two Christchurch Central mosques became sites of violence aimed at the local Muslim community going about their normal Friday routines. The horror that unfolded before them was allegedly committed by a man with hate-fuelled, white supremacist views, now awaiting trial on terrorism, murder and attempted murder charges. 

Immediately after the shootings, the public was confronted with countless stories about the often abhorrent way some from minority communities were treated in our country. Many New Zealanders realised their understanding of the Muslim culture was limited.

"The attacks highlighted a complacency in New Zealand towards important human rights issues and sparked a strong desire by many New Zealanders to build a more inclusive and safe society," the Human Rights Commission said in its 2019 annual report

But for all the talk and reflection that resulted from Aotearoa's darkest day has anything actually changed in the year since the tragedy for those at the centre of it?

The overwhelming view from members of the Muslim community Newshub spoke to is that more tangible action is needed. But at the same time, expressions of compassion shouldn't be discounted as meaningless. 

Love and immediate action

It's clear March 15 changed our society, says Dr Mustafa Farouk, the President of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand. 

The reaction from Kiwis of all walks of life showed the world, and the more than 60,000 Muslims in New Zealand, that hate wouldn't be tolerated.

"It was overwhelming from every facet of life, from every ethnicity, every group, everybody came and shared the grief we suffered and made it a New Zealand grief rather than just a Muslim grief," he says.

Those Newshub spoke to say it's difficult to describe the heinous nature of the shooting, which left 51 dead, 49 seriously injured, a local community grieving, and a country searching for answers. The sheer magnitude of such a tragedy in a nation where everyone feels interconnected can't be understated.

How Kiwi reacted is a "little silver lining", Dr Farouk says. Although the degree of aroha shown may have gone down in the weeks following the shootings, "there is a heightened interest in society to learn more about Muslims," he told Newshub.

"We see that by people still visiting our mosques, organisations asking Muslims to go talk to them so they can be enlightened, schools sending kids to come to the mosque. This is good, this is still happening."

Dr Mustafa Farouk (right) at the National Remembrance Service.
Dr Mustafa Farouk (right) at the National Remembrance Service. Photo credit: Getty.

That explosion of interest in Muslim culture was unprecedented, says Anjum Rahman, co-founder of the Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand.

"A lot of people just hadn't interacted with the Muslim community. We know that for many thousands of people it was the first time they had been near a mosque or interacted personally with people from the Muslim community and that was great. That was huge."

She says kindness was exuded by everyone, from first responders, to health professionals, to the Prime Minister with her now-famous "they are us" message. The Government quickly turned compassion into action, Rahman says, mentioning gun legislation reform and the Christchurch Call. She says the Call became the first step on a long journey to fight back against online extremism.

Among other measures the Government implemented in response to the attacks was lifting the Ethnic Communities Development Fund to $4.2 million each year. The Office of Ethnic Communities has also seen increased staff numbers, including in Christchurch. 

While Azad Khan from the Foundation Against Islamophobia and Racism (FAIR) wants to see more action, he praised both the Government's work so far and New Zealanders' increased awareness of the struggles Muslims often face. 

"When I am walking out in the public, I feel very comfortable. I feel very much at ease. People are a lot more visible in showing their love," Khan says.

"I don't feel afraid. I feel quite at ease now because there is a lot more tolerance now. Maybe not before, but now, people are ready to call out racism when they see it.

"If a lady in a hijab was walking down the street and a random person called out and made a verbal remark, I am quite confident with the level of awareness we have now, there would be someone ready to come to her defence."

Jacinda Ardern's 'they are us' message has been praised.
Jacinda Ardern's 'they are us' message has been praised. Photo credit: Getty.


Increased awareness of the Muslim community doesn't, however, automatically mean Aotearoa has been rid of discrimination or othering.

In fact, New Zealand's Race Relations Commissioner, Meng Foon, believes discrimination remains at "similar levels" to before the shootings. It's also not just towards the Muslim community, but members of different races and faiths. 

Rahman is concerned if we don't continue to push for change, nothing will get better. 

"I think there is a little bit of complacency and that scares me," she says.

"Fundamentally, things haven't changed. If you are not in the middle of it and not experiencing it, you don't realise what is going on."

Less than two weeks before the March 15 anniversary a threat was made towards Al Noor Mosque - one of the targets of the shootings - prompting a police investigation. Rahman has heard of various incidents since the shooting she says prove our nation still has far to go in fighting discrimination. They range from verbal abuse all the way to physical violence.

Muslim women are often unfairly targeted as headscarves worn in public pronounce their faith.

"We are visibly Muslim and seen as vulnerable. For people who are inclined to bully, we are a safer target I guess," Rahman says.

That was something identified in Conversations with Aotearoa New Zealand's Muslim communities, a report released earlier this year by the Office of Ethnic Communities. It examined themes brought up across 13 meetings with more than 250 Muslim women, youth, Imams and community leaders last year.

"Those who wear hijab or burqa explained that they felt even more visible following the March 15 attacks, and this affected their sense of safety and wellbeing," the report said.

I think there is a little bit of complacency and that scares me.

Dr Farouk told Newshub a lack of acceptance of the headscarf, especially in the workplace, was an example of ongoing casual racism.

"There are areas where people may not offer them employment because of the way they dress… that is not an excuse to say as they're dressed in the way they are dressed they will not be able to do their work or they will distract everybody.

"That is simply again one of those unconscious biases… [Muslim women] suffer most of this harassment and bias and biggotry because you can see them a kilometre away."

Anjum Rahman.
Anjum Rahman. Photo credit: NZHistory / Screenshot.

One Kiwi who believes he's been racially targeted since the shootings is Bilal Barekzai. He migrated to New Zealand from Afghanistan in 2003 at the age of 13.

After a several thefts at Barekzai's Milton business, Kiwi Auto Parts, last year, the car parts site was also allegedly the target of arson in January.

"They tried to burn the whole business down… It was very disheartening," he told Newshub.

Barekzai believes the business was targeted because he's Muslim, something he says was confirmed when he began receiving racially-charged messages and threats at the same time. It's disappointing, Barekzai says, that such incidents are still happening after the shootings.

"It is really upsetting and also alarming... although some of us may think March 15 was just an incident that occurred and will never happen again, [or with the attention the Muslim community received that] that's the end of Islamophobia, but that's not the case," he told Newshub.

He says people who fit a stereotype, have the name Muhammad or are a person of colour with a beard, are still frequently targeted in Aotearoa.

Barekzai believes many from the Muslim community are "suffering" but won't speak up as they are scared or in a vulnerable position. His message to authorities is to take any complaint from any minority group seriously.

It is really upsetting and also alarming.

He doesn't believe that was the case when he first reported incidents at his business to police. Barekzai says officers initially took little interest and that whoever was targeting his business became emboldened by the alleged lack of action.

"The law has clearly failed. We told police from day one, but nothing was done about it. We would give them a call and they would turn up after five days."

However, once the incidents began receiving more attention from the wider community, Barekzai felt police became more interested and he's now actively working with officers.

Police confirmed to Newshub two reports were received of "dishonest offending" last year and one in January about property damage. 

"Police are still actively investigating these matters and working with the complainant on a range of crime prevention initiatives."

National Remembrance Service.
National Remembrance Service. Photo credit: Reuters.

Online abuse 

While the fight against discrimination continues in Kiwi towns, a key battleground is also social media platforms. Although companies like Facebook and Twitter have boasted of their community standards and work to create safer online spaces, Rahman says minorities still find themselves under attack.

"Some of these online campaigns seem relentless in terms of their negativity. But that isn't just a Muslim issue, that is a wider issue as well," says Rahman.

Netsafe said in December a survey of more than 1160 Kiwis conducted in June 2019 found 15 percent reported being personally targeted with 'hate speech' in the year prior, up 4 percent on the previous survey. 

Of the hate speech reported, over one third happened after the Christchurch attacks, with half of Muslim participants feeling targetted. Netsafe fielded just under 600 enquiries and complaints in the days following [March 15]. 

"Netsafe's Call Centre registered a spike in the number of people reporting hateful speech incidents around the same time. 

"While further research is required, the insight suggests that in the aftermath of a sensitive social or political event, such as the Christchurch shooting, the occurrence of online hate victimisation can, paradoxically, increase despite the unequivocal and widespread public condemnation of the attack."

Many from the Muslim community continue to be subjected to online abuse.
Many from the Muslim community continue to be subjected to online abuse. Photo credit: File.


The discrimination Muslims and other minorities continue to be subjected to shows the importance of campaigns reminding Kiwis of the need to combat hate, Foon says. But not just one campaign will do the trick. Resourcing Kiwis with a diversity of ideas is crucial. 

"There are a hundred things that are happening and everything is important. Sometimes one thing may seem important to one person and they may comprehend it, but then there are other campaigns and other material," says Foon.

Although people with hardcore views should concern authorities, Dr Farouk wants substantial effort directed towards educating those who may not be aware how their actions or words could be perceived. 

One of the campaigns looking to increase awareness about prejudice in society is the Human Rights Commissions' Give Nothing to Racism. It began in 2017 and uses well-known Kiwis to send the message that we can't excuse casually racist messages or expressions. 

A post on the Commission's Facebook page about the campaign after the shootings went viral, reaching two million people and being engaged with by 35,000. The Commission, as well as the Teaching Council of Aotearoa New Zealand, also wrote to 130,000 teachers promoting the campaign's messaging as a "useful teaching tool to combat racism and promote exclusivity".

Shakti New Zealand, an organisation which helps migrant and refugee women from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, has launched Lets Deal With It to encourage dialogue about forms of discrimination faced.

Events are planned across New Zealand and in some Australian centres to let people come together, sit down, and chat about their stories. Information gathered from those meetings and challenges identified will allow the group to create resources to better fight discrimination. 

Farida Sultana, who founded the Shakti New Zealand branch, told Newshub the campaign, supported by mosques and multicultural groups, isn't just about helping one group of people. 

"It is not just about one community, it is how we see each other in the New Zealand community, how do we interact with our host country and how does that host country interact with us," she says.

"We often choose not to talk about, but we need to talk about it. We have one piece of land here between all of us… If we talk about it, then we can all look out for each other.

Other initiatives include the Green Square and Meet a Muslim campaigns.

Farida Sultana.
Farida Sultana. Photo credit: Newshub.

What next?

"We haven't really seen many actions. There has been a lot of talk," says Khan.

While the Royal Commission of Inquiry into March 15 is focussed on what could have prevented the attack, he hopes the Commission's recommendations inform future work to identify and combat discrimination against the Muslim community.

There are two avenues of action that the Muslim leaders Newshub spoke to want considered.

The first is in education, where Khan wants to see more resources created that engrain within children that New Zealand is made up of many different cultures. He said FAIR has already begun creating these resources and has run workshops at schools that have had positive feedback. 

"Very welcoming [feedback], very promising and I think the schools also realise, after what happened on March 15, the education institutions have a very important role play and they do acknowledge that education will go a long way in eradicating those problems," he told Newshub.

Expressions of aroha shouldn't be disregarded as meaningless.
Expressions of aroha shouldn't be disregarded as meaningless. Photo credit: Getty.

One of those resources could also be about dealing with conflict, something Foon says is an area Aotearoa is "lacking in". While professionals can take courses in conflict resolution, he wants to see something accessible for "the average person on the street".

"How do we deal with conflict, what do we say, who do we go to if need to go somewhere?

Dr Farouk hopes creating a culture of inclusiveness will have a flow-on effect to the workplace, the second main avenue of development.

"In every activity that is going on right down from kindergartens right up to the highest level of Government and institutions… we would like to see some representation," Dr Farouk says.

"We would like to see our people represented. That is the only way we will know we are included. We have been included by the general society. We know we belong here."

We haven't really seen many actions. There has been a lot of talk.

Khan and Dr Farouk believe this could be ensured by introducing targets in public agencies as well as in corporations.

"The Government has to actively create equal opportunities… we have highly qualified individuals. In every sector in New Zealand you will find there are Muslims that are highly qualified. There are no shortage whatsoever of Muslims that can present and do very well in all these levels of parasotals," he says. 

Creating those education resources and exploring avenues for Muslims to get more experience and opportunities in the workforce were among actions the Office of Ethnic Communities promised in its report to undertake.

Whether that will eventuate in a way that reduces bias, othering and discrimination in our society is up in the air, but Dr Farouk is optimistic. 

"I think we have a good thing in New Zealand, but we need to make it better."

Ethnic Communities Minister Jenny Salesa decided not to be part of this story.