Kiwi Muslims: Suffering stigma for extremists’ actions

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SHAFAQNA – The members of the Wellington Islamic Centre represent 40 different ethnicities, but their common identity is Kiwi.

One woman at Friday prayers arrived in New Zealand from Egypt just yesterday.

She is introduced to a group of young women, who were showing each other pictures on their phones.

They say something to make her laugh, and tell her to come to their next social event – a picnic, on Sunday.

During the sermon, children dash from skirt to skirt. Their fathers are in the adjacent room, behind frosted sliding doors.

The sermon is full of energy and urgency. It conveys a message of love and mercy. It talks about the importance of smiling and being friendly not just to Muslims, but to everyone.

The women sit, bow, and prostrate. As one mother’s forehead touches the carpet, her young son pulls at her pink headscarf. He runs away, giggling.

This room represents the safe haven they were promised, but as soon as they step outside the illusion is over.

With rising global fervour against Isis, Kiwi Muslims are suffering marginalisation and abuse from fellow New Zealanders. This week has been particularly bad.

A 14-year-old girl ignores the taunts from her peers as she walks to class. She’s wearing a headscarf.

“Someone should check her backpack for bombs,” one kid says.

A founder of the Women’s Organisation of the Waikato Muslim Association (WOWMA) Aliya Danzeisen says these interactions are so common the victim doesn’t bother reporting it to a teacher.

SIS boss Rebecca Kitteridge on Tuesday revealed a rise in the number of young New Zealand women heading to Iraq and Syria.

Prime Minister John Key said New Zealand women were known to have taken part in “weddings” before heading to Islamic State (IS) stronghold Syria, which suggested they were going as jihadi brides.

Labour leader Andrew Little said he also understood a small number of New Zealand women had gone to Syria, and there were others who were “susceptible”.

The young women involved in WOWMA’s youth programme told Danzeisen: “Oh great, now we’re gonna get more harassment.”

Danzeisen says her community has “no idea” about the women at the centre of the SIS allegations. Other Muslim community leaders are just as perplexed by the allegations.

President of the International Muslim Association of New Zealand Tahir Nawaz.

KATIE KENNY/FAIRFAX NZ

President of the International Muslim Association of New Zealand Tahir Nawaz.

For eight years, WOWMA has been helping young Muslim women from refugee and migrant backgrounds become confident, productive members of society. “Every activity we do incorporates Islamic and New Zealand values, which are actually quite consistent,” she says.

The programme is beneficial for not just the participants but also their families.

“When there’s something negative that happens, we’re able to talk about that, but we also flip the conversation and talk about the positives.” Her students are “resilient”, realising they are fortunate to live in New Zealand.

“They love New Zealand. That’s why it hurts so much when they’re told to ‘go back home’.

President of the International Muslim Association of New Zealand Tahir Nawaz pulls out his phone and reads aloud an email he has just received from a concerned Muslim husband.

The man’s wife had been attacked by a stranger on Cuba Street, in Wellington. The family arrived in Wellington last year after fleeing Syria. They weren’t safe there, and now they feel threatened here, too.

That feeling is throughout his community, Nawaz says. “[The SIS announcement] has had a very big impact on our communities, and they are not feeling safe.

“The local Kiwis, their attitudes are changing towards us.

“I still believe this is a friendly nation. But if we don’t control these comments and the way the media portrays what’s happening around the world, it will start to change and have an even bigger impact on our community.”

Prime Minister John Key said the intelligence from SIS suggested New Zealand women were travelling to the Middle East to be jihadi brides.

KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ

Prime Minister John Key said the intelligence from SIS suggested New Zealand women were travelling to the Middle East to be jihadi brides.

He’s not aware of any Kiwi women heading to the Middle East to be with jihadis.

However, it’s common for Kiwi Muslims to travel to their homelands to visit family and friends.

“They still feel an obligation to return… and help those they left behind.”

In December last year, Parliament passed new anti-terrorism laws under urgency. The Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation Bill aims to tackle home-grown terrorism. It allows warrantless surveillance for 24 hours, and includes powers to cancel passports for up to three years, when authorities suspect terrorist activities.

In February, Key confirmed New Zealand Defence Force personnel would go to Iraq for a non-combat mission lasting up to two years. The mission would work alongside Australian troops and be based at the American-run Camp Taji, north of Baghdad.

“We stand up for what’s right,” he said at the time.

Head of the Islamic studies research unit at Auckland University Dr Zain Ali was “11 or 12” when the first Gulf War started.

“Before that, there was the Salman Rushdie affair.” In 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (legal decree) calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie over his allegedly blasphemous portrayal of Islam’s prophet Mohammed.

Ali’s point is that tension between between Islam and the Western world is nothing new.

Labour leader Andrew Little said he understood a "small number" of Kiwi women have gone to Syria.

ANDY JACKSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Labour leader Andrew Little said he understood a “small number” of Kiwi women have gone to Syria.

“The first major conflict between the Muslim Middle East and Christendom was, of course, the Crusades,” Ali says. “The difference now is it’s not really Muslims versus Christians. It’s a small group who have mastered the art of social media and have this very… evil, dark, ideology.”

There are always issues with minorities fitting into Western societies, but there are more factors at play when it comes to Muslims in New Zealand, he says.

“The political circumstances have allowed [Isis] to be on the front pages, to capture land, territory, money, to get recruits.

“I think we have got accustomed to having to respond to things that don’t really happen here in New Zealand.

“The media has been pretty good about this, in allowing people in our community to have their say.”

Most of the time, that’s “drawing a line between themselves and what else is going on”. Muslims leaders in New Zealand work hard to maintain this transparency, and speak out when given the chance.

Even New Zealand is vulnerable to terrorism, he says. “There is a vulnerability and the best thing to do is acknowledge it and be open about it and take steps to reduce the risk.

“Muslim leaders… are making it clear this particular ideology is not mainstream.”

Syria has become the pre-eminent global incubator for a new generation of militants, according to New York intelligence consultancy The Soufan Group.

Anjum Rahman would once again like to invite Key to engage with her community. She has issued public invitations previously.

CHRISTEL YARDLEY/FAIRFAX NZ

Anjum Rahman would once again like to invite Key to engage with her community. She has issued public invitations previously.

It estimated between 27,000 and 31,000 foreign fighters from 86 countries have travelled to Iraq and Syria. That’s double the figures published by a similar study last year.

Between 5 and 10 are said to be from New Zealand.

Waikato researcher Abdullah Drury has found Muslim presence in New Zealand dates back to the 1800s.

The country’s first Muslim refugee is likely a man named Sali Mahomet, nicknamed “Ice cream Charlie” for his ice cream business in Christchurch, who arrived at Bluff in 1896 after his family fled the Russian invasion in Turkmenistan.

The New Zealand Muslim Association, the first of its kind, was established in Auckland in 1950. There were just 200 Muslims in the country at the time.

Now, more and more people who live in New Zealand are affiliating with the religion. The numbers jumped about 28 per cent between 2006 and 2013 – from 36,072 to 46,149, according to Census data.

Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand spokeswoman Anjum Rahman says working to build Muslims’ ties with New Zealand reduces their chances of identifying with extremist organisations.

Rahman’s children’s experience growing up in New Zealand has been very different from her own, and it gives her hope for a more positive future for Muslim Kiwis. “I can think of days in the past decade where if I didn’t have a job, I wouldn’t have left the house.”

Muslim women tend to “bear the brunt” of abuse because they stand out in a crowd and are perceived as vulnerable.

Hela Rahman snuck a photo while driving through Iraq on a trip to visit her family.

Supplied

Hela Rahman snuck a photo while driving through Iraq on a trip to visit her family.

“We’ve got this whole generation now who are born New Zealand Muslims, and they may well have gone to visit their parents’ home country but this is their home, this is where they feel comfortable, they’re very much Kiwis.

“So to then be treated as though they don’t belong here, and to be told to go back to ‘their country’, becomes really problematic and to me that’s where the pressure point is.”

Political leaders have a responsibility to tell the full story, rather than release tidbits of information, which can lead to speculation and fear, she says. The latest revelation about so-called jihadi brides, without any real evidence, was “unhelpful”.

“So much of this is speculation and we don’t know anything about what kind of women are going.

“It just creates general fear.”

Returning to New Zealand after visiting Iraq, 25-year-old Hela Rahman was confused when airport security staff took her aside.

This was November, and although it upset her at the time, she didn’t dwell on it.

After hearing about the so-called jihadi brides, Rahman clicked.

“I didn’t make the connection until this week,” she says. “At the time I thought it was odd my mother wasn’t also stopped, but I let it go.”

When questioned, she explained she had been visiting extended family in the Middle East.

“The whole situation made me feel like I’d done something wrong.”

Rahman has lived in Auckland for 20 years, and describes herself as a Kiwi. “You go over there and you feel like an outsider, and then you come back here and you’re made to feel like an outsider.”

In her day-to-day life, she says she rarely encounters discrimination. “I don’t wear the headscarf so I’m not visibly Muslim.

“But when stuff like this happens, I think, oh great, another thing to apologise for, another thing to explain.”

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