Fighting, killing 'not the Muslim way'

NICOLE MATTHEWSON
Last updated 05:00 09/06/2014
christchurch mosque
RADICAL BASE? The mosque in Christchurch.

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Usman Afzali is one of just over 2600 people living in Christchurch who identify as Muslim.

He moved to the city from Afghanistan in 2011 to be with his refugee wife and became a member of the Christchurch mosque on Deans Ave.

"Our religion teaches us we should be very peaceful, with our neighbours, with all of our society," Afzali said.

It was at the Christchurch mosque that he met a man known as Saleem Khattab.

Khattab, born Christopher Havard, was killed during a US drone strike in Yemen last November, alongside dual Australian-New Zealand national Daryl Jones.

Authorities believed the pair, who reportedly met in Christchurch, had links to terror group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Havard's parents told Australia's ABC news last week that their son first encountered radical Islam in Christchurch.

The city's Muslim leaders vehemently denied the allegations, with many saying they were disturbed by the claims and the effect they could have on how people viewed their community.

New Zealand's Muslim population has grown consistently, climbing 29.6 per cent from 36,072 in 2006 to 46,149 in 2013.

Muslim people have lived in Canterbury since 1874, but it was not until 1985 that Christchurch became the first place in the South Island to open a mosque.

The Deans Ave facility, known to Muslims as Masjid Annur (the mosque of light), was funded partly by a $460,000 gift from the Saudi kingdom and was looked after by the Muslim Association of Canterbury (MAC).

The mosque now has about 550 members from 40 countries, while another 450 people regularly attend the weekly sermons, MAC president Mohamed Jama said.

Jama joined the Christchurch mosque 15 years ago after fleeing civil war in Somalia and became president of MAC in 2008.

He believed Islam was about peace first and foremost, encouraging its followers to support their families and neighbours. "No fighting and no killing anybody - that's not religion, not the Muslim way."

Former Christchurch imam Hisham el Zeiny was concerned that people who did not know much about the religion could take the claims made by Havard's parents as fact, believing all Muslims were "the same" as the extremists they heard about overseas.

"It will make them easy to think that many Muslims are radicals. There are some, of course, but not here."

Farid Amed, who delivered weekly sermons at the mosque, said the Muslim community wanted to "protest" against the claims of radicalism. "I'm quite disturbed; this is not fair."

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The mosque's members were "local people" who were "grateful because this country have opened their hearts" to them, he said.

Federation of Islamic Associations New Zealand president Anwar Ghani said he had taken multiple calls from concerned members of the Islamic community after last week's news. "They're very upset about the comments that have been made because there's nothing of that kind. They were very, very disappointed."

Many Muslims in New Zealand had fled conflict zones overseas where they had "seen the mayhem of political disturbances".

"They have chosen to come live in New Zealand. They are grateful that they are here and they do not want to get involved in any of these [radical] activities."

Richard Jackson, of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Otago University, said it was "far-fetched" to think Havard and Jones learned about radical Islam from people in Christchurch.

"Just because they were attending a mosque at the time, doesn't mean the mosque was connected," he said.

He feared such claims would "fuel Islamophobia" in New Zealand.

"I think it would be very, very sad if that mosque was to be tarnished with that."

Dr Zain Ali, head of the Islamic studies research unit at Auckland University, said Christchurch's Muslim community was small and if anyone was discussing radicalism, "everyone else would know about it".

"There's been a culture fostered here against radicalism," Ali said.

The city's mosque had made efforts to "reach out" to the wider city, holding regular open days and taking part in Islamic awareness events. Another open day was being planned for August.

Victoria University Professor Paul Morris, a specialist in world religions, said allegations of radicalism could affect those who already felt "alienated and persecuted".

He believed the country's mosques could transform the "paranoia" into something positive.

"It creates an opportunity for these issues to be raised and addressed - we aren't radical, this isn't what we do, this isn't what we're about," Morris said.

- The Press

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