Is New Zealand discriminating against Muslims?

CHANGING TIMES: Muslims in New Zealand are reporting higher numbers of verbal attacks.

CHANGING TIMES: Muslims in New Zealand are reporting higher numbers of verbal attacks.

Is it coming to our shores soon? Not terror but its side effect, Islamophobia.

In Wellington on the last Friday of November, Anwar Ghani spoke emotionally about the effect of the Countering Foreign Fighters Bill during a select committee hearing.

The rapidly introduced bill is one of the Government's weapons in the fight against the terrorist group Islamic State (Isis) and its alleged local supporters, allowing for warrantless surveillance on private properties.

TARGETED: Federation for Islamic Associations of NZ (FIANZ) president Dr Anwar Ghani told MPs new anti-terror ...
Chris Hillock / Waikato Times

TARGETED: Federation for Islamic Associations of NZ (FIANZ) president Dr Anwar Ghani told MPs new anti-terror legislation predominantly targets Muslims.

It follows claims by Prime Minister John Key that up to 80 New Zealanders were being monitored due to links to Isis, with some fundraising for Isis or attempting to "radicalise" others.

Ghani, who is the president of the Federation of the Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ), said that while the legislation was technically "faith-blind and colour-blind", its introduction could alienate and stigmatise the small Muslim community in New Zealand.

The idea is that the spying legislation, combined with our contribution to military action against Isis in Iraq, would create a paranoid atmosphere in which ordinary New Zealand Muslims are perceived as a threat. In short, Islamophobia.

Ghani has repeatedly said that his organisation works closely with the police and would turn in any obvious extremist. He has also said that he has been frustrated at the lack of consultation from the Government.

In his submission, Ghani said that the Muslim community here has seen the early signs of Islamophobia, citing increasing numbers of verbal attacks.

The Human Rights Commission and Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy have made the same point. While avoiding the word Islamophobia, they condemned reports of racial abuse aimed at Muslim women and children on their way to and from school.

"We urge New Zealanders to stand alongside Muslim Kiwis in peace and compassion," Devoy said in a press release. "Those people terrifying other New Zealanders are bringing the hatred we loathe into our streets and suburbs.

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"When we bring the violence and the hatred we see on our television screens into our communities, when we scream hateful abuse at a woman in a veil and her children, we are the ones creating the terror."

FIANZ condemned Isis on behalf of New Zealand's Muslim community as far back as September.

Islamophobia has a longer history in Australia, where media coverage of sexual assaults in Sydney by Lebanese men and the problem of asylum seekers were tied in with the al Qaeda attacks to make the "Arab Other" the pre-eminent "folk devil" of modern times, according to a multi-author book titled Bin Laden in the Suburbs, published in 2004.

"The construction of the Arab Other as criminal incorporates the idea of Arab men as sexually violent, irrationally violent, lacking in civilised values, having a propensity toward terrorist action and so on," one of the authors, Scott Poynting, said.

Are the occasional would-be extremists who get covered in the New Zealand media, such as Aaron Tahuhu in Christchurch and Te Amorangi Kireka-Whaanga in Hastings, our versions of this Arab Other? And is New Zealand generating its own version of Islamophobia in response?

Anwar Ghani could not be reached for comment but Zain Ali, head of the Islamic Studies Research Unit at Auckland University and author of Faith, Philosophy and the Reflective Muslim, doubts that we are seeing an increase in Islamophobia in New Zealand.

Is someone who harasses an Islamic woman wearing a headscarf near a school an Islamophobe or just an everyday racist, he asks.

"I think there is an issue about being a visible minority in New Zealand." Ali says.

"If you see a woman walking around in a headscarf, it may bring out those prejudices.

"It may not be necessarily about Islam or the Middle East, but just a concern about minorities 'taking over'."

Ali says that if you saw him walking down the street, you would think he is Indian but not necessarily Muslim. To be Muslim is to add an extra layer of difference on top of ethnicity.

He recently gave a talk to the University of the Third Age in Browns Bay on Auckland's North Shore. About 100 elderly people came together, motivated by very earnest concerns.

"It wasn't Islamophobia," Ali says. "There are Muslims here. There are issues going on in the Middle East. Is it true that Islam is a violent religion?"

So he explained. He told them about the original community that formed around the prophet Muhammad 1400 years ago, how it wrestled with the treatment of children and the treatment of the elderly.

"It is really about getting people to see the values that underpin Islam. From my perspective, anyway, those values are not about beheading people."

Ali sees that there is a general lack of knowledge, which is understandable. The Muslim community has not been here in big numbers for long.

The Muslim population almost doubled between the 2001 census and the 2013 census, increasing from 23,631 to 46,149.

Just over a quarter (25.7 per cent) were born in New Zealand, while 21 per cent were born in the Pacific Islands, 26.9 per cent in Asia and 23.3 per cent in the Middle East and Africa.

It is still a new relationship and people are naturally curious. Nor it is easy to get clear answers. If you google Islam, results will range from a religion of the sword to a faith that promotes hospitality to Cat Stevens to Osama Bin Laden.

How many New Zealanders are aware that the vast majority of the Islamic world has condemned Isis, which is an abbreviation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, as unIslamic?

In the Sunni tradition, which is 85-90 per cent of the Muslim world, scholarly consensus carries weight. The majority of its scholars reject Isis.

In the Shia tradition, which is 10-15 per cent of the Muslim world, an ayatollah is the authority. He too rejects Isis.

Even al Qaeda distances itself from Isis.

It takes Ali only about a minute to explain all that but it is not an easy soundbite.

As far as local militants were concerned, Ali was bemused by one who reportedly claimed to support Isis' dream of creating a caliphate but denounced its atrocities.

"How does that work? Some of the thinking is confused."

For New York-based British writer Arun Kundnani, author of The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain and The Muslims Are Coming!, the two best films ever made about terrorism are The Battle of Algiers and Four Lions.

The first was a documentary-style account of street fighting in Algeria in the 1950s. The second is a British comedy about some hapless jihadists trying to stage a terror attack.

High-profile Western converts bragging about their support of Isis on social media will often have more in common with the second of those films than the first.

They are "unsophisticated in their ideological bearings", Kundnani says, putting it politely.

Arun Kundnani has argued that too much Western discussion of terrorism focuses on the "semantic register" of religion rather than politics. Commentators in the United States will take Islam as a motivating cause but rarely consider that US foreign policy in the Middle East might have at least an equal impact.

Kundnani has also argued that some of the young men who are "radicalised" have "merely wrenched the labels of good and evil from the official war on terror discourse and inverted their positions". In other words, the official line on terror can help to create terrorists of those who want to be oppositional for any number of reasons.

Knowing that radicalised young men use Islamic language does not get us to the "why", Kundnani has said in interviews.

Unlike al Qaeda, which was at war with the West, Isis is fighting a factional war within Islam. The West is secondary at best.

"The beheadings of Westerners are best understood as acts of revenge against the US bombing campaign, as well as propaganda designed to terrify outsiders and demoralise those fighting against it," Ahmed Rashid wrote recently in the New York Review of Books.

What will change when and if New Zealand troops or military trainers get their boots on the ground in Iraq for the fight against Isis? Attacks at home could not be ruled out, Zain Ali says.

Speaking of war rhetoric, Ali has been fascinated by the sudden appearance of Anzac symbolism in the war on terror. News broke first in Australia that the forces of both Australia and New Zealand could be branded under the Anzac banner in Iraq next year, in time for the Gallipoli centenary.

"The original Anzacs were fighting Turks, who were Muslims. There is a very strong parallel."

In New Zealand and Australia, the Anzacs helped to focus an idea of national identity. But the war also had an impact on Turkey, which went from being an Islam-focused state to a secular state led by Mustafa Ataturk, who had been commander of the Turkish Army at Gallipoli.

In another historical twist, the 2015 Anzacs would probably go through Turkey to get to Iraq.

For Ali, the long-term question is what getting into wars like these does to our values. That applies whether you are a Muslim New Zealander, a Christian New Zealander or an atheist New Zealander.

 - The Press


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