“SHOCKING. SURPRISED. An attack like that in our peaceful country? Christchurch is such an open, multicultural city. How could that possibly happen? ‘The end of our innocence’. This is not NZ.”
These are the common reactions to the 15/3 terrorist attack in Christchurch. But like other stereotypes, they largely refer to myths. People want to believe that there is no far right threat in NZ, that this place is openminded and multicultural.
But racism is not new. This land is built on racism. It was annexed and taken through war. The NZ lawbook has been full of racist laws, such as the Suppression of Rebellion Act or the Chinese Immigrants Act that imposed an import tax on immigrants from China.
Islamophobia is also not new to this country. Most Muslims will tell you that they have experienced racial abuse at some stage. In the early 2000s in Christchurch, as well as in Wellington, Somali refugees have had credible death threats delivered to their homes by neoNazi groups. After 9/11 houses of Muslim leaders in NZ’s bible belt suburb of Mt Roskill were attacked.
And attacks on Mosques have also happened before. In 2005, windows were smashed at an Auckland Mosque. In Dunedin people have reported “eggs being thrown at the mosque, sometimes in response to events overseas.”
The existence of far right groups who terrorise the neighbourhood, especially in Christchurch, is also well known. Anyone who has lived there can attest to that. Radio NZ’s Guyon Espiner recently wrote in The Spinoff: “I remember the skinheads too. We lived in a six bedroom flat on Hagley Avenue in the early 1990s and they’d walk squat and ugly down to Addington. I have a vivid memory of them marching down Hagley Ave as I watched in silence from the top floor….Yes, Christchurch had a problem with racism even then.”
In the 1980s crosses were burnt outside leftwing activists’ houses, KKK style, in Auckland and Christchurch.
As recent as February, three Muslim women were attacked on the street by a group of skinheads in Dunedin. A witness said: “Two skinheads and a girl came up trying to rip their [veils] off their heads, saying: ‘Go back to your own … country!’…. A group of people stood watching the attack but did not step in.”
It is impossible to deny that there has been a rise in far right groups in the last couple of years. We all know about the National Front and its offsplits like the “Right Wing Resistance”. Recently, there has been the European Students Association at Auckland University who made headlines in 2017, because of their slogans that were borrowed from the Nazis. They were chased off campus but still exist.
Then there is the Wellington based Dominion Movement, an openly white supremacist group of young men who pose in macho postures with their faces pixilated. On their web site they say they are nonviolent but they do organise fight clubs. One day after the Christchurch massacre, they put up a notice on their website denying any connection to the perpetrator (had anyone suggested that?), and then immediately portraying them as the victims of persecution: “In light of the atmosphere which is emerging in the wake of these events, it will be impossible for the Dominion Movement to continue our work.”
Even more bizarre is the notice the National Front has put up: “At the present time, the events in Christchurch do not involve the NZ National Front or its members. The National Front does not condone or agree with this type of wanton murder.” At the present time? This type of murder – other murder is OK? WTF?
Both organisations are not distancing themselves from the ideology, just from the mass murder. Just enough to avoid prosecution, should terrorism charges be laid.
Sorry, but this is NZ. Not the NZ most of us want, but it is here. Stating that the mass murderer of Christchurch has an Australian passport is a convenient distraction. He lived in Dunedin, that’s where he got his guns, that’s where he practised shooting and that’s where he got his support.
The problem with these little ‘white’ lies is that they create blindness. The existence of extreme right groups and networks is simply ignored. A few commentators have raised the issue of why the SIS, whose budget has increased dramatically in the last 20 years, did not have this guy on their radar. Neither did the Australian ASIO. The problem is that these agencies are notorious for their tunnel vision. They have been monitoring Muslims and the left, but not the far right.
Unfortunately, this is not an oversight – they are biased from the top down.
Human rights lawyer Deborah Manning, who is on a government advisory panel for the intelligence agencies, says she has raised the issue of increasing Islamophobia before. Yet the SIS annual report does not mention a threat from the extreme right. It does talk a lot about Muslims, though. She also said in a Stuff article that questions need to be answered: “Why these attackers were not on the radar and why the community, which has been under the most suspicion, are the victims of this.”
More and more evidence is emerging that some agencies had been aware of the killer. He had come to the attention of authorities in Bulgaria in 2016 and 2018 because he did a tour of historic battle sites of Christians vs Muslims, which apparently raised alarm bells over there. It would have been normal procedure for the Bulgarian authorities to pass that sort of information on to the person’s country of origin. So did the ASIO or the SIS really not have any information, or did they just file it and forget about it?
What really needs to be addressed is the amount of space white supremacist and neoNazi ideas are given. Because the normalisation of this type of discourse is what encourages people to take action, or to egg each other on. And that is where we have to come back to a number of visitors we have had in the last year.
When Canadian provocateurs Stefan Molyneaux and Lauren Southern claimed that they were brutally oppressed by the Auckland City Council because it wouldn’t let them spread their racism in a council owned venue, a range of people came to their defence. The “Free Speech Coalition” was formed and organised several rallies up and down the country in support of these clowns. The spokesperson was Chris Trotter, who many people locate on the left. That gave the whole operation an air of respectability. It is no coincidence that the “Free Speech” people have been very quiet since Friday. They have a lot to answer for.
Former Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy was spot on in her piece for the spinoff immediately after the attack. She said to the “free speech” advocates: “do not write an oped today crying about how shocking yesterday’s murders were. Because you helped make it happen. You helped normalise hatred in our country. You helped those murderers feel that they were representing the thoughts of ordinary New Zealanders.”
Acknowledging that all this is NZ, that a terrorist isn’t someone from a faraway country but can be your neighbour, and confronting it would be a first step to undoing that.
(Originally published in aargh, #10, March 2019)