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The Work Towards Healing Begins Now…

For 18 months now, I have had a tape over my mouth to avoid sharing any form of thorough analysis related to pre and post Christchurch Terror Attacks. As the report of the Royal Commission Inquiry into Christchurch Terror Attack releases today, I feel a grave sense of responsibility to take the tape off. In all fairness, I needed the tape to recover and build my own mental resilience. I still suffer periodically with the vivid imagery of the video I unfortunately watched because it came in the raft of messages from a friend overseas frantically bombarding me to check in. Though I did not know anyone who passed too intimately, I cannot forget the community events where I met Linda Armstrong. She really was a friendly kuia who walked amongst us.

Many in the Muslim community have been waiting for this day, expecting some form of justice for the loss of life of 51 New Zealanders. Some have sat on the fence whilst others like me; those who can understand feeling like a dismembered limb remain in the constant struggle to reattach. The thing is I was never the dismembered limb of my community. I thought it best that I take my time to deeply study what the actual experience has been for the Muslim community in this country since the attacks. My study hiatus has taken me to a place I always knew existed even prior to the attacks. The mosques shootings have simply exacerbated the otherness of being Muslim in this country. The nuanced shift being that many Muslims have also whether consciously or subconsciously become complicit in the process of othering their own as they assimilate into structural norms in the hope of belonging and getting justice. This trend of distrust, an utter breakdown within a community is not unique to us but also a global experience of Muslims today.

I was invited to join the Muslim Community Reference Group, an offer I politely declined to stay true to my ethics and principles. I was also not keen to be embroiled in more public oztracisation from my own having experienced the unfortunate impact of such influence in my last public service role. I learnt very quickly that the Public Service Act cannot protect you from undue influence, and opinions, and nor will your employer. I do however take my hat off to some in the advisory who braved the attacks towards them in the group setting they found themselves in. I am sorry I couldn’t stand by you, but I hope my listening was an act of solidarity and seen as my expression of gratitude towards you for being courageous to be involved in such a volatile process.

I do not know about you, but over the last year, I have obsessively logged in to read the updates and minutes of the Royal Commission. I could understand why the survivors or the victims’ families were not immediately approached, the intention being one of care and to afford them the time to process their loss. However, I like many others questioned why the wider Muslim community was not made the top priority for immediate engagement. Many will argue that this error has since been rectified. Few will stop to reflect what the error signified. For me the beginning signalled the lack of importance placed on genuinely engaging an extremely diverse faith community and instead falling back on old patterns of liaising with those most visible, loud and accessible. I think of those who I personally know who have fallen prey to the harassment of our intelligence services and whether they got their time to speak. I think of how we have all failed those most affected by not creating room so they can safely engage.

In August this year, I was forced out of my hiatus as the Islamic Women’s Council made their submission public, and proactively engaged the Royal Commission. Going into my oral submission I knew I was struggling mentally, and coming out of it I had found myself back in the place of trauma and isolation I experienced weeks after the terror attacks. This was in no way a fault in how the team at the Commission handled their hui with me. In fact, they offered such words of empathy as they heard my truth, that even I was unexpectedly surprised. I came out promising that I would also submit a written account, and then as time passed wisdom took over and I chose to hold my written piece for the moments when it would have most impact to share the history, facts, and analysis.

As you read that report today, most of it likely to be unsurprising, I want you to consider whether approximately 1100 submissions that do not breakdown how many were from the Muslim community of approximately 60,000 could thoroughly reflect not only the struggle of being Muslim in Aotearoa, but more specifically responding to the scope of the inquiry. I want you to think back and reflect on how many voices of the community, and their stories have you actually heard that would make you feel we all leaned in to ensure a community that was sent a strong signal that they didn’t belong here, felt that they belong here.

What happened here was not an act of violence in isolation. What happened here was the rise of anti-Muslim sentiments, and Islamophobia globally. It was always going to be a matter of time before we were physically impacted. After all, we have been mentally impacted over decades in how we view Muslims even prior to 9/11. China, France, Austria are but some countries who continue to perpetuate the ‘war on terror’ narrative and implement policies that breach basic human rights of their Muslim communities who have been living amongst them for generations. The immediate kind response of all New Zealanders post a terror attack does not mean it indicates our future on this land will be better than the countries I mention.

The report will tell you part of a story. I ask that as you read it knowing it is simply a part of the bigger story to tell. There is nothing more heart breaking then being a public speaker in the post March 15 context hearing members of your audience tell you that we should not keep discussing the terror attacks – that he was Australian so New Zealanders do not need to own this. There is nothing worse, then when you start hearing your fellow Muslims also say this. I cannot blame them though for I get the fear we live in as migrants or former refugees constantly paranoid about being stripped of our citizenship for thinking differently.

As I take the tape off, after having been punished for using my voice amongst my own, what I have learnt is that silence is also a mask that will not make you feel any safer and that you can quietly belong. Silence means you witness the complicity of upholding existing structure that were not working to begin with. The report was never going to be the answer for everything, and it was naïve to think it would be. However, I hope it is a starting point for my own faith community to feel empowered that they no longer need to be overly thankful for a place they have been given here. That our children born here can fully participate, have a voice, and offer constructive critique like every other citizen of this nation. For me the actual work to deconstruct begins now.

Tayyaba Khan is the founder and CEO of Khadija Leadership Network, the NZ Ambassador for Peace of the European Muslim League, and sits on several not-for-profit boards. She continues to advocate against ‘war on terror’ policies affecting Muslim communities globally.

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