Most affected whānau, survivors and witnesses we met with moved to New Zealand from overseas. The length of time they have lived here ranges from a few months to decades. For some, this meant their experience of New Zealand was based on a comparison of where they had come from.
Many of the victims carry intergenerational trauma, from which they fled to New Zealand and have lost or left their loved ones behind and, relatedly, have reduced or no support systems to mitigate such trauma.
We spoke to some New Zealand-born affected whānau, survivors and witnesses members who were raised Muslim and as such did not have a point of comparison for their personal experience. We also spoke to people born in New Zealand who had converted to Islam.
New Zealand is generally viewed positively, but widespread racism, discrimination and Islamophobia exists
Most affected whānau, survivors and witnesses said their experiences of New Zealand and New Zealanders before the terrorist attack of 15 March 2019 were generally positive. They said New Zealand felt generally peaceful and safe, and they never thought such a terrorist attack could happen here. They felt that many New Zealanders were very accepting and friendly people. We heard of friendly and welcoming neighbours. We heard accounts of work places that were accommodating of people’s religious practices and needs, allowing them to take time off to attend Friday prayers and providing facilities for prayer during working hours.
Despite these positive experiences, nearly everyone we met with had personally suffered racist incidents or discrimination or knew of whānau and friends who had. One perspective shared with us was that the 15 March 2019 terrorist attack was:
…distinct from that of the mainstream in that the attacks are seen as a culmination of, rather than an exception to, the everyday lives of Muslims.
With the hijab being a visible faith marker, Muslim women often find themselves subjected to racism or discrimination, much more so than men. Many women in hijab to whom we spoke reported experiencing street harassment and some people said they are worried about their whānau and friends who wear hijab. Some women in their hijab said they felt more scared going out on their own. They told us that after the terrorist attack they avoided going to public places and doing things that used to be part of their daily routine, like walking their children to school or going on an evening walk. One woman told us that she now wears a hooded sweatshirt when out in public to hide her hijab.
Some parents told us about the bullying or hurtful comments that their children had been subjected to at school or while out in their neighbourhoods. Many people we talked to had been on the receiving end of racist or hateful comments yelled at them by people driving past. Some people put such experiences down to misunderstandings or misperceptions of the Muslim faith, although they nonetheless found them to be hurtful.
Some people reported experiencing discrimination at work, or in trying to find a job. People expressed frustration at being unable to find jobs, despite being highly qualified for positions they were applying for. They attributed this to them not having traditional English names. Some who had applied for a significant number of jobs for which they were well-qualified thought that the very limited number of interview offers they received resulted from bias. We heard from one woman who began to receive interview requests only after changing her name for job application purposes to a traditional English name.
A few people we met with said they had reported racist incidents to New Zealand Police, but had not felt that this had resulted in a positive outcome. Either the report was not formally recorded, or they felt New Zealand Police were not taking the incident seriously. They did not hear back from New Zealand Police about what had been done in response to their report. For some, this affected their trust in New Zealand Police, creating doubts that New Zealand Police would act when reports were made. Such experiences discouraged people from bringing further concerns to the attention of New Zealand Police. We were told that:
… both affected mosques agree that despite multiple reports of suspicious behaviour in and around the mosques, police paid insufficient attention… For people in the community, this is considered a dereliction of the duty to protect, as well as a failure to acknowledge that Muslims are and have been subject to discrimination, scape-goating, as well as far-right extremism and threats by white supremacists, and should therefore have warranted particular care, responsiveness, and vigilance on the part of the police.
In other cases, people said that they did not bother reporting racist incidents because they had seen others in the community do so, with no positive outcome. One person expressed it to us as follows:
… right now there is not that communication because we feel like we as a community are second rate. They give us that feeling, and we don’t get that trust from the police. There are only so many times you want to go to someone if they give you that feeling of mistrust. There comes a point where you don’t even trust them and you feel like there are things happening, what is the point of going to the police? That’s when it becomes very dangerous because you know there are things happening but because of that feeling and that mistrust between the police you have the big gap between the authority and you and you’re distancing yourself to the people that could actually protect you and prevent it. So how do we build that trust between them and bridge that gap of not feeling like second rate citizens?
Some affected whānau, survivors and witnesses reported that their experiences of New Zealand have changed since 15 March 2019. Although some people said New Zealand still feels safe, others said they feel less safe than they used to. Concerns over safety have led some whānau to feel the need for gated communities, increased safety and surveillance at their residences, and for New Zealand Police to be more active in building genuine relationships with Muslim communities. A few people said they had reported racist incidents to New Zealand Police since the 15 March 2019 terrorist attack and felt that these had been taken seriously.
The effect of bias (unconscious or otherwise), particularly in the media
For many affected whānau, survivors and witnesses we heard from, the terrorist attack on 15 March 2019 was not unforeseen. We heard that:
…the events of the day were presaged by so many tell-tale signs of its coming, all of which were evident and all of which were ignored by those who had power to act.
We were told that it took place in the context of a society, including Public sector agencies, that frequently misunderstands Muslim communities and cultural diversity more broadly. People felt that an unconscious bias was prevalent in Public sector agencies’ dealings with Muslim communities prior to, and after, the terrorist attack.
While it may not be obvious to others outside the community, the link between the general discourse of Islamophobia and the specific ways in which the Muslim community is engaged by government agencies is clear in the accounts of victims
Some people had noticed increasing racist comments on social media over time, particularly in recent years. We heard a general call to take online threats more seriously, and for these to be investigated. We were shown YouTube videos and Facebook pages that were premised on Islamophobic, racist or other hateful sentiments, and were extremely concerning to those reporting them. These videos and pages were all from New Zealand-based people. In some cases, New Zealand Police had been notified of extreme content, but people are seeing little action by social media platforms in terms of removing such content. Some people felt that, in comparison, websites containing Islamist extremist content are more readily taken down.
Affected whānau, survivors and witnesses shared their belief with us that New Zealand and international television and print media are biased against Muslims. We were told biased reporting appeared to have increased significantly since the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 in the United States of America. Many expressed their frustration at the role of the media in sharing misconceptions about Muslims and Islam, commenting that their reporting has contributed to increased anti-Muslim views in New Zealand and around the world. We were told that:
…the media has vilified or demonised Muslims, or at least has condoned such vilification by failure to provide critical counter-narratives, and this has resulted in the day to day racism they experience.
We heard of the real impacts of negative media reports on some people’s daily lives, including the misperceptions of Islam coming through in racist taunts that would be shouted at people in the streets. For some in the Christchurch Muslim community, the taunts were exacerbated from 2014 when a media story was published about radical Islam in Christchurch, and allegations were made that someone had been radicalised at a specific masjid in Christchurch. This media story had a significant and ongoing effect on Christchurch Muslim communities, with reports in the years following of ongoing incidents at the masjid, such as intrusion, harassment and burglary. When reflecting on the 2014 media story, one survivor of the terrorist attack spoke of finding themselves increasingly focused on issues of safety and security at the masjid from that point onwards.
There was also a sense that the media portrayal of the individual who undertook the 15 March 2019 terrorist attack was biased. Media articles questioned how a “good boy” could have “gone bad”? Affected whānau, survivors and witnesses felt that had it been a Muslim who had committed the terrorist attack, the media would have portrayed the person differently and would be unlikely to focus on them being a good person.