WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Ten days after a gunman killed dozens of people at two Christchurch mosques, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised answers.
Her government, she said, would commission an investigation into the concern haunting every New Zealander, but especially the country’s Muslims: Could the terrorist attack have been prevented? The inquiry, she said, would make a priority of consulting with the Muslim community, long overlooked and now desperate for assurances about their safety.
But halfway through what is expected to be an eight-month investigation, Muslims appointed to advise the inquiry say they have been sidelined. They describe a process flawed from the start. The parameters of the inquiry were set by officials. They said they had no way to request that the inquiry look into certain issues, like their treatment by law enforcement agencies.
Several Muslims say the inquiry has prioritized evidence from government officials — who they say were negligent in the lead-up to the massacre — over the testimony of Muslims. The investigators were more than two months into their work, they said, before they convened the first meeting of a 35-member Muslim advisory panel. And participants said that meeting was virtually devoid of substance.
These perceived missteps, combined with a rush to finish the inquiry by year’s end in a largely closed-door process, has led Muslims to fear that they will be denied justice and that the government will sidestep full scrutiny.
“Not only has this man attacked and killed our people, it’s also making us feel like we have no power, no control over the outcome of this process,” said Sahra Ahmed, a nurse and member of the advisory panel.
Shayma’a Arif, an advocate and lawyer who is also a member of the panel, described a deficit of trust. “It seems like a very whitewashed and tokenistic process,” she said.
The 46,000 Muslims in New Zealand make up just 1% of the population, and they have not traditionally been represented in politics or public life. That has made the inquiry even more critical — and more challenging to conduct, as officials try to work out how to communicate with people who speak more than half a dozen languages and come from dozens of cultural backgrounds.
Spokeswoman Sia Aston said the inquiry welcomed “victims and their families to meet with us on their terms.” The advisory group, she had said, was just one way the commission was consulting with the community. Memos released by the commission show that the inquiry has heard from few Muslim organizations. The list is made up almost entirely of government officials, security figures and academics.
Sondos Qur’aan, a law student and advisory group member, said, “They keep telling us that this is for us, but I haven’t seen that yet.”
Ahmed, Qur’aan and Arif all said they wanted to remain in the group because they felt a responsibility to other Muslims. But Guled Mire, a refugee advocate, was so dismayed by the first meeting that he resigned. He said, “This isn’t an inquiry that was created to seek justice for us.”