That swift action won praise from experts and the Muslim community, as the country reeled from the massacre.
At the hearing, the court heard that Tarrant had begun planning for the attack in 2017, and that he had intended to “kill as many people as he could.” He also planned to burn the mosques to the ground, and was on his way to a third site in Ashburton when police arrested him, said the prosecutor.
Victims shared personal testimonies in court, some breaking down in tears, and others directly addressing Tarrant. He appeared to show little emotion as they read out their stories.
Many of the Christchurch victims were migrants or refugees, and dozens of survivors and support people received special permission to travel to New Zealand for the hearing, where some are expected to give statements on how the shooting mpacted their lives, according to non-government organization Victim Support.
All that may bring some closure to the victims and their families. But an official inquiry into the attacks remains undelivered 18 months later, and some say the underlying Islamophobia that the government was warned about before the massacre hasn’t been addressed.
For five years before the shooting, the non-governmental body Islamic Women’s Council New Zealand (IWCNZ) held a series of meetings and regularly communicated with multiple government agencies about physical and verbal abuse toward Muslims, particularly against women who wear hijabs.
“IWCNZ estimates there would not be a Muslim woman in New Zealand who wears the head scarf who has not been abused in public at some time,” the submission stated.
To complicate matters, there was no comprehensive data collection of hate crimes in New Zealand, unlike other OECD countries, according to Zain Ali, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Auckland who teaches a course on Islam. “We’re not completely in the dark, but it’s not as good as it can be.”
When the gunman opened fire on two mosques, New Zealand security forces were largely focused on the potential of violent terrorism by Muslim extremists, despite multiple attacks by white supremacists overseas, according to IWCNZ.
“While little might have been able to be done when the gunman opened fire, there was a multiplicity of actions that could and should have happened, but were not taken, in the years prior to the attacks,” IWCNZ said. “Had they been taken, the gunman is likely not to have got to the door of the mosques.”
In statements to CNN, the New Zealand police, the NZSIS and the Public Service Commission — which oversees the public sector — all said it was inappropriate to comment on the ongoing inquiry which was delayed due to Covid-19.
A police spokesperson said it remained “vigilant” to extremist rhetoric, and an NZSIS spokesperson said the agency had already made changes to how it operates since the attacks, without specifying what those changes were. “We look forward to receiving the Royal Commission’s findings to give us further insights on how we can improve,” the NZSIS spokesperson said.
According to Joe Burton, a senior lecturer at the New Zealand Institute for Security and Crime Science at the University of Waikato, if Tarrant hadn’t been able to get a semi-automatic weapon, the death toll of the Christchurch attack would have been far lower. A semi-automatic gun automatically reloads bullets to allow a shooter to quickly fire again, while a manual gun requires the user to reload the bullets themselves.
Aliya Danzeisen, who leads IWCNZ’s government engagement, said the gun restrictions had a big impact in giving the Muslim community a sense of security. “It’s certainly making it harder for someone to kill multiple people quickly and easily,” said IWCNZ’s media spokesperson Anjum Rahman.
Spoonley, the demographer who has spent 40 years researching far-right groups, says there are limits to what individual countries can do on international platforms. In a statement to CNN, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which oversees the Christchurch Call, said there was still more to achieve.
And as more platforms introduce restrictions, extremist content is being pushed onto encrypted platforms such as 8chan, where it may be harder for authorities to track.
After the attack, many New Zealanders were horrified that such extremism happened in their otherwise relatively progressive country. In many ways, it was a reckoning, a chance for the Muslim community to finally talk about the racism they had experienced for years.
The way that Ardern expressed kindness and compassion struck a chord with New Zealanders — and the event helped bring racism more into the public eye, said Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon.
“Racism was hidden in the closet,” he said.
Gamal Fouda, the imam of Al Noor Mosque which was one of the mosques targeted in the attack, said New Zealand is “not paradise” — there are still ignorant people who hold extreme views. But he said no one expected a white supremacist to do such a thing in New Zealand.
After the attacks, restaurants gave the Muslim community free food, taxi drivers provided free rides and the public sent messages, cards and flowers to the mosque. The Prime Minister and the local hospitals also provided support, he said.
“The support never stopped,” he said. “New Zealand before 15 March is different to New Zealand after 15 March.”
“The terrorist wanted to divide our community. But instead we are now back, we are together and we are standing for peace.”
Since the attacks, Fouda and other Muslim leaders have been working closely with police and security forces to allow them to easily report any racist activity. He says there are still shortcomings — but he believes the government is trying its best to make sure that the community is safe.
Spoonley thinks there has been a shift in New Zealanders’ awareness of the Muslim community. “I think most people wouldn’t have understood either that we had an important Muslim community in our midst, or that we had extremist terrorists who were prepared to articulate and to attack on the basis of extremist views,” he said. “We were very complacent on both scores.”
Danzeisen agrees that New Zealand’s population has been “very inclusive in their approach since the attacks.” “There’s a warmth amongst people, a recognition that we’re just like everyone else, because it wasn’t there before,” she said.
What more needs to be done
But that doesn’t mean the Muslim community feels safe — or that the changes have been adequate.
When Danzeisen took a Muslim youth group on a ski trip following the attacks, for instance, she advised police they were going. Last year, she says she told the authorities about a threatening message telling her that she was being watched.
Spoonley estimates there are still about a dozen extremist groups active in New Zealand, based on his monitoring of extremists online. And he warns that economic problems caused by Covid-19 could generate more anxiety, leading more people toward far-right thought.
“There’s a tendency to dismiss (the Christchurch attack) as a one-off event,” Spoonley said, adding that there was the potential for it to happen again. “I still think there are major gaps in terms of how the public service operates.”
Spoonley said it was important that people in power reiterated the message of being kind to other another, as Ardern has done. “Once you get a degree of agreement, and once you get public figures saying what you believe, then you get that mandating of that more extreme behaviors,” Spoonley said.
Danzeisen says agencies appear to be waiting for the final report from the Royal Commission — which has been delayed until November — before they push through any more changes. Ultimately, Danzeisen wants to see the country take the threat of extremism against Muslims as seriously as it has coronavirus. She thinks authorities still don’t have systems in place to identify potential risks, and aren’t working together enough to share information that could highlight potential problems.
“Hate is a virus, it needs to be treated in the same way that we are tackling Covid,” she said. “Aggressively and with a very strong approach to make sure that it doesn’t spread and wreak havoc and death.”
Fouda says it’s important for all communities to work together to prevent anything like the Christchurch attacks happening again in New Zealand and elsewhere. But that won’t take away the damage that his community has suffered, he said.
“The children who are younger than five, when they become 60 they will still remember this tragedy in our city,” he said. “We will continue carrying the pain for the rest of our lives.”
Donna-Marie Lever reported from Christchurch, New Zealand.