Muslims in New Zealand: Part two

Extracts from a paper by Dr William Shepard, Associate Professor of Religious Studies (Retired), University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.
[Article written & published in the late 1990s]

SB challenged us all: “What are you willing to do to prevent New Zealand from going down the same path as the UK where criticism of Islam is suppressed and those who speak up are harassed by the police, have their families members targeted in an attempt to silence them and are even sent to prison where their lives are put in danger?”

Before speaking up it is good to be informed so this two-part series of posts will hopefully assist in this education.

Indian Newslink

The recent immigrant character of most of the community is reflected in the fact that only about 20 percent of Muslims have been born in New Zealand (as compared to over 80 percent for the general population).  There is a preponderance of males over females, although it is less than it was earlier.

According to the 1996 census 55 percent of Muslims were male, as compared with 49 percent for the New Zealand population as a whole. The Muslim population is also younger than the population as a whole. Almost 60 percent of the Muslims were under thirty years of age while in the general population the percentage is about 45. The numbers over 65 years old are particularly low, 1.5 percent compared to 11.7 percent. The Gujeratis who came early in the twentieth century were almost all small shopkeepers, and many Muslims are still owners of small businesses. Some of these are doing quite well. A larger proportion comes in the category of unskilled or semi-skilled labourers, particularly in Auckland, but there are also a fair number of professionals, as already indicated. Those raised in New Zealand often have gained tertiary qualifications that have led to good jobs. The 1986 and 1991 censuses reported a median income for New Zealand Muslims only slightly below the average for the country as a whole and the unemployment rate, among men who had settled in, did not seem much different either.

For those who have come in the last decade or so the situation is generally more difficult, but this varies with ethnic groups. Fijian Indians on the whole have probably had the least difficulty since there was already a strong community here. At the opposite extreme are the Somalis, who have suffered particularly severe trauma prior to arrival, and have a high incidence of health problems and gaps in education for the young people. Moreover, the gulf between their culture and the Pakeha culture is greater than it is for most other Muslim immigrants. Very few of them have been able to gain employment, even though they generally come from well educated middle or upper class background. Added to all this is the high cost of bringing their relatives in.  In between are groups such as the Bosnians and the Kosovars, who have some countrymen here and whose culture is European. Those professionals who have come in under the “point system” have very often found that their qualifications are not recognised here and have had to earn their living in some other way, e.g. ethnic restaurants, or rely on unemployment benefits while they seek to pass the necessary professional exams (which often require levels of English or local knowledge not relevant to their skills as such) or train for some other occupation. For both them and the Somalis, the loss of status has been hard to bear. One Somali has commented, “Somehow you can turn from a hero at home to a fool here. I mean I was a very important man in my village at home and here I cannot get a job.” It is thus not surprising that the relative median income for Muslims in the 1996 census is considerably lower that in the previous two.

Muslim women who are not recent arrivals appear to be employed in the labour force in fairly large numbers though at a rate somewhat less than that of the general population. Allowing for family responsibilities and cultural traditions, women among the newer arrivals may not be too much worse off than the men, but the Somali women are generally less willing or able to work than those from other groups. Due to the circumstances that brought them here they have a high proportion of families headed by women.

In moral and cultural terms, Muslims have some problems adjusting to a society that has traditionally prided itself on “rugby, beer and racing”. Beer and racing clearly run counter to Muslim moral values. Few Muslims relate to rugby, but other sports such as cricket and soccer do appeal to many. As is true elsewhere, clothing and particularly women’s clothing, has been an issue. Many but not all Muslim women wear distinctively Islamic garb or at least a headscarf in public, and this makes them quite noticeable. Informants differ on the degree to which this makes it harder for them to get jobs, but it surely does to some extent. School uniforms for girls are skimpy by Muslim standards, but to my knowledge state schools have been for the most part reasonably accommodating at this point, allowing headscarves and variants to the uniforms and even to bathing suits. It has been suggested that the problem of getting Muslim girls to wear headscarves is greater than the problem of getting schools to allow it. On the other hand, I have also been told that some second-generation Muslim girls have had the cultural confidence to be quite assertive on their right to wear Islamic garb in school and on other matters. Schools also appear to be accommodating on matters of diet and allowing time for salat. [Five daily prayers] There are at least a few schools that set aside space for salat. They do not, however, provide any specifically Islamic education* and they perforce reflect the general community mores. There have been some problems for Muslim workers getting time to perform salat, or attend Salat al-Jum’a, but mainly in assembly-line conditions where one person stopping stops the whole line. I am told that office workers rarely have problems today.

* There are now three Muslim schools:  Al-Madinah School, Mangere; Haleema Kindergarten, Lower Hutt; and Zayed College for Girls, Mangere.

Matters of this sort are usually handled in an informal and low-key manner. An example of the low-key approach is provided by the issue of female genital mutilation. With the arrival of the Somalis, New Zealand Health authorities became concerned about this and it was made a criminal offence at the beginning of 1996, but this was done with virtually no publicity or media discussion and the emphasis has been on education more than prohibition.

Racial and religious discrimination is illegal in New Zealand, but New Zealanders on the whole are not well informed about Islam and therefore prejudice and negative stereotypes do exist in the minds of many people. This is partly because the media, drawing heavily on overseas sources, tend to stress violence and extremism in the Muslim world. There has sometimes been local resistance to granting building permits for building mosques. In 1990, during the Gulf War, graffiti was sprayed on the Islamic centre in Wellington, but the Muslims received considerable support and sympathy from the local churches, a Jewish congregation and other agencies.

Muslims do suffer occasional discrimination, harassment and violence. For example, Somalis have suffered personal assaults in several cities, in Christchurch a group of Egyptian Muslims were harassed while picnicking and in Auckland a Fijian was badly bashed. Incidents of this sort, however, are isolated and result more from racial than religious motives. They are generally downplayed by Muslim spokespeople and are handled in a very low-key manner, both by the Muslims and by the local authorities.

The most serious incident took place in Hamilton in 1998 and shows New Zealand at both its worst and its best in this respect. There had been considerable resistance to the building of a mosque in 1997 and about six months after it was opened it was burned and gutted in an arson attack. The city was deeply shocked by this event and people rallied to assist the Muslims. The City Council provided space for prayers while they were rebuilding and donations from the community, spearheaded by some church groups and the local Jewish community, assisted them in building a protective fence and installing a security system. One Muslim leader has commented that the whole event showed them how many friends they have.[…]

There is another possible explanation for the arson, that it was sectarian rather than anti-Muslim?

March 1998 [five months before the arson on 6 August] saw one of the most peculiar incidents in the history of the Waikato Muslim Association. On Saturday, 28 March 1998, the Auckland based Milad Committee and three busloads of Auckland Muslims descended on the Hamilton mosque with the intention of observing their Jalsa (Urdu: gathering). The event had been promoted on Hindi radio, with flyers distributed and special announcements made at Auckland mosques and Islamic Centres. The buses arrived after midday but were informed that the event had not been formally approved by the mosque management. In fact the majority of members of the Association were specifically opposed to the plan and on the spot asked the visitors to desist. Sadly an argument evolved all afternoon and ultimately descended into a fist fight that necessitated police intervention.   Source

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WH is a pale, stale, male who does not believe all the doom and gloom climate nonsense so enjoys generating CO2 that the plants need to grow by driving his MG.

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