OPINION: Once again, the New Zealand Muslim community is in the limelight as victims, receiving sympathy and compliments for their bravery and their patience. Once again, the messages of support for the Muslim community flow in.
As I was reading newspapers, watching TV and browsing social media, I was asking myself these questions: what if after March 15 there had been a reaction from the Muslim community? Would then the wider NZ society had responded in the same way?
What if this incident had triggered other incidents? What if this had been used politically, by other terrorist groups? What if right-wing extremists, who shared the shooter’s ideology, had taken it further?
There are many of these ‘what if’ questions that we need to bring into ongoing debates within our families, workplaces, neighbourhoods and friendship circles.
If we wish the rhetoric of ‘we are one as a nation’ to stay forever, we need to engage with uncomfortable and unpleasant ‘what if’ discussions.
Not all white people are white supremacists – but then not all Muslims are terrorists either. This is the right time to decide if we want to live as one nation, in harmony.
Having said this, I want to make the point that whatever terrorism has happened in the past, normal people had nothing to do with it.
The 9/11 incident was as sad and dreadful for ordinary Muslims as for any other people. However, after this and other terrorist events, where terrorists identified themselves as ‘Muslims’, a vengeful emotional reaction awoke within the global public. That emotional reaction was anti-Muslim.
This time, that reaction has been pro-Muslim, Muslims were the victims. In previous events they had been accused.
In these incidents, however, ordinary Muslims suffered.
After 9/11, Muslims in general and hijabi Muslim women, in particular, remained the target of Islamophobic harassment. They were even targeted in New Zealand – a place that had no history of modern terrorism – although incidents from the past and ongoing Māori and Pasifika experience of colonialism could be interpreted that way.
I have been researching Muslim women’s experience of Islamophobia in New Zealand.
My interviewees have often told me that they have always wondered why New Zealanders accuse them of terrorist tendencies when nothing had ever happened here.
One of the women reported that ‘I was sent threats and hate messages from an anonymous person’. Many of the women had their headscarves snatched at in public places and were yelled at for being terrorists, some had eggs thrown at them and were spat upon.
Almost all the women I spoke to said they constantly try to prepare themselves with answers in response to questions posed by Kiwis, after a terrorist incident anywhere in the world.
After the Lindt cafe attack in Australia, one of my participants was faced with the comment at her workplace: ‘Look what your friends have done in Australia’. She said it took her a while to process what was said.
Ordinary Muslims become targets of hate and discrimination for sins they had never committed.
A terrorist is one who tries to embody all the fears from an ideology, a culture, an ethnicity they feel is a threat.
If March 15 has not shaken anti-Muslim views across New Zealand and challenged perceptions about ordinary, everyday Muslims, then what will?
Just two days after the Christchurch attack, two Muslim women were harassed at an Auckland train station. A man wearing a Nazi sign on his singlet was walking around the Manawatu Islamic Centre. A group having an ideology similar to that of the terrorist was identified in Wellington. A group of men yelled at Muslims at the Hamilton Islamic Centre, saying ‘It’s your turn next.’ A letter containing a hate message was received on Race Unity Day in Nelson, and endless anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim debates were on social media.
Perceptions can only be changed through an ongoing process of education and dialogue. We need to speak out our fears. We need to air them – respectfully.
If we don’t, they burst forth, unpredictably, hurtfully – and maybe violently.
It is okay to have different views, but we need to develop active acceptance of other views, to solve issues of difference with dialogue. This needs to be done within all Muslim communities and minority groups, and across our broader society. No-one is exempt.
All of us have a duty towards an inclusive Aotearoa, not only government, police and agencies. This should be a bottom-up approach, coming from the hearts of ordinary people.
In the words of a less-often sung verse of the national anthem:
Peace, not war, shall be our boast,
But, should foes assail our coast,
Make us then a mighty host,
God defend our free land…
Some of the foes we confront are already here – inside us all.