And the Imam says, “why the long face?”
Actually, the above didn’t happen. But I did visit New Zealand’s largest mosque the other day by tagging on to the coat tails of Spanish Bride who had contacted them in the first place. SB will have her own story to tell.
This is the first of mine.
We have covered Islam extensively on Whaleoil over the last 3 or 4 years, but never from a personal perspective.
At the Whaleoil end of year function, I actually spoke about this to SB and said I was keen to go do some “real journalism” and go find out some real stories about Muslims in New Zealand.
Up to the visit to the mosque, I had taken the opportunity to do clandestine interviews. As I ran into people in my daily life, and I could identify them as Muslim through dress or something they said, I would interview them about their life, their experiences and their thoughts.
As I did, I became increasingly frustrated about two things.
The collective attempt to educate ourselves about Islam on Whaleoil had turned into quite a single-sided story about terrorism and the complete irredeemability of Muslims and Islam in general.
We basically have taken our information from the world’s worst events, most of them international, added this to the worst possible views we could find on the Internet, and then proceeded to create our own feedback loop based on fear and ignorance.
Let me stop for a minute and tell you that terrorism is real. Radical Islam is real. Some of it exists in New Zealand. But where I know some of us have gone too far is by throwing all of Islam and all Muslims into the same category.
And if we are honest with ourselves, complete homogeneity is highly unlikely to be true about any large group.
I have a personal technique which is, somewhat ironically, a bible based test: by their fruit ye shall know them.
This is a technique that I use to assess people, groups and organisations. Most barrage you with what they want you to think and know. Add to that your own preconceptions and what the media feeds you on a daily basis, and there is a lot of information swirling around in your head.
One way to cut all that noise out is to look at what actually happens. What are the actual outcomes?
So I’ve been searching for Muslims that are a threat to our lives in New Zealand, and I’ve not been able to find any personally in my day to day dealings.
The Chemist that fills my prescription even wished me Merry Christmas as I collected my meds. And she is Muslim.
The two boys I spoke to at length on a school bus trip about life as a Muslim in a New Zealand public school were also impossible to fit into the one-dimensional all-Muslims-are-bad-Muslims picture we’ve talked ourselves into.
The Muslims that live in my street and do their daily walk past my home. They are friendly and don’t seem to carry any weapons or wearing suicide vests.
It became clear to me that Whaleoil readers have been done a disservice by our narrow and fear-based view of Islam. We have also attracted single-issue commenters that perpetuate the same damaging stereotypes.
Let me repeat however, that ISIS is real, suicide bombers are real, radical Islam is real, and Muslims that are a threat to our way of life living in New Zealand are real.
Spanish Bride and I were met by Shafiq ur Rehman whose business card claims he is “Missionary in-Charge”. Both of us were somewhat nervous. I can only speak for myself, but I am a true adherent of “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, so I was keen to be respectful, listen carefully, and try not to do something dumb while at the away game. I asked for guidance on protocol. There was no need for any as the visit was informal and relaxed.
Mr Rehman was very thorough and gave us an introduction to the functional areas of New Zealand’s largest mosque. I believe we got to see it all, including the ablution facilities. The building is fairly new, opened in 2013 in fact, and can fit up to 700 worshippers on two levels. Men upstairs, women downstairs. It’s all open, light, breezy and modern.
The prayer areas are large but basic. White ceiling, white walls, carpet. That’s it. The objective is to focus your prayer on Allah, so there are no distractions.
This particular group of Muslims, the Ahmadiyya, also introduced the first Maori translation of the Koran. Created over a period of 25 years, it has been written, checked and rechecked that it says exactly the same as the original text in Arabic. It was a 25 year labour of love to produce it.
After the tour, we sat down with the National President of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at New Zealand Inc, Iqmal Mohammed, and the General secretary as well as secretary External Affairs, Eqmal Khan for some tea and biscuits.
We talked about so many things, it is going to require a number of articles to touch on them all.
What I want to share with you today is that I still have failed to find Muslims that want to take over New Zealand and turn the country into a Islamic state. I have found Muslims that are actually just like you and me. The only difference is that they pray to Allah.
They too are disgusted, disappointed and fearful about the perversion of Islam through the actions of those who are essentially a few.
But writing this I can just feel your emotion rising. Surely they did a snow job on me? Surely I’ve been convinced and been told stories? Surely, as soon as I left the mosque, they opened up the gun safe and took out their Kalashnikovs and fired off a few rounds in pure joy?
One meeting doesn’t mean a lot. And yet it does. It is the beginning a relationship that I want to build between Whaleoil and the New Zealand Muslim community.
“Why is it”, Iqmal Mohammed said, “that every time I make public statements condemning terrorism and violence in the name of Islam, nobody in the media reports it?”.
And that is the pivotal point. Because I said “Why is it that every time something happens, we hear nothing from the Muslim community in New Zealand?”
Iqmal Mohammed doesn’t speak for all Muslims in New Zealand. But the objective was to find the Muslims that want to do us harm. They exist. We spoke of other mosques in Auckland, which for the purposes of not inflaming inter-Muslim relationships further, I won’t identify.
But Mr Mohammed does represent a voice of Islam that has the same objectives for New Zealand and New Zealanders that we share. He doesn’t want Islam to take over. He wants to live in peace alongside everyone. He operates an open community that welcomes and embraces everyone. And literally too. Some time ago he invited Jews to the mosque and they were physically embraced.
We need balance, we need hope, and we need to be honest to ourselves when dealing with Radical Islam. And from here on in, Whaleoil will do this through having open conversations with Mr Mohammed and his friends.
This is also an invitation for other Muslim leaders to approach me. We can not continue to live in fear and ignorance once we meet face to face, hold each others hands and look into each others eyes.
Isolating all Muslims and treating them poorly will in itself become a self-fulfilling prophecy where anger and resentment are allowed to build over time and generations. Those two boys on the school bus are burned into my mind. They go to a New Zealand school and they are constantly being called terrorists. As they told me, the tears welled up in their eyes.
Through our fear, our ignorance and our own behaviour, we could be creating the next generation of Muslims that will grow up resenting us.
Through the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at organisation we have opened a door and Whaleoil will give it a voice.
We can’t solve the world’s problems. But we can continue to work hard to protect our own way of life. One way to do that is to ensure that New Zealand immigration is tuned in such a way that we do not import the same problems as other countries have.
Also, we need to be smart enough not to treat the Muslims that are already living here, born here, and actual Kiwis in such a way that their anger and resentment builds against their own neighbours. Against you, and me. And our children and grandchildren.
There is no point allowing someone to come here who resents our way of life and there is no point in cultivating our own home-grown terrorists.
And that exact point is what we share with Shafiq, Iqbal and Eqbal.
And on that basis alone, we have common ground to work towards preserving a New Zealand way off life that we can be justifiably proud of.