Muslims in New Zealand: Part one

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 short series of posts will hopefully assist in this education.

A Muslim and mosque


The Muslim community in New Zealand is small, [as at 1990], remote and relatively new, but in the last quarter century it has become an effectively organised and has grown vigourously.[…]

All New Zealanders, or Kiwis, as they commonly call themselves, are in a sense immigrants. Even the indigenous inhabitants, the Maori, now about 15 percent of the population, see themselves as having came from elsewhere some five hundred to a thousand years ago. […] In the last decade New Zealand has given greater encouragement to non-European immigration than in the past and is beginning to see itself as a multicultural society, but the dominant discussion is about biculturalism, relations between Maori and Pakeha, which sometimes detracts from multiculturalism.

The Muslim community in New Zealand is rooted in South Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Fijian Indian) immigration, with Fijian Indians being particularly prominent. It now includes, however, some 35 nationalities and among these are Arabs, Malaysians, Indonesians, Iranians, Somalis, people from the Balkans, and some Pakehas, with many others represented in smaller numbers. It has increased numerically almost ten-fold in the last twenty years and more than doubled in the last five. According to the latest census, that of 1996, there were 13,545 Muslims in New Zealand, representing 0.37 percent of the population. Muslim leaders today estimate a figure of 20,000, which is not unlikely in view of the most recent growth. The majority of Muslims live in the Auckland area, while most of the rest live in Wellington, the nation’s capital, or four other major cities. Of these, up to a thousand are overseas students who will mostly leave after completing their studies, but many of whom contribute significantly to the community while they are here.

The number of Muslims in New Zealand according to the 2013 census is 46,149, up 28% from 36,072 in the 2006 census.  It will be interesting to see the numbers once the 2018 figures are released.

History of the Community

The census records report small numbers of Muslims from 1874 on, but those that came before the early twentieth century have left no further record. Some may have been Chinese working in gold fields in the south of the country. The continuous and remembered history of the present community goes back to a handful of Gujarati Indian men who arrived from about 1907 and opened small shops, mainly in towns south of Auckland. In time they brought their sons to New Zealand to help in the shops, while their wives, daughters and younger sons remained for the most part in India and the men would visit them with some frequency. They do not appear to have viewed their stay in New Zealand as permanent. In 1920 the government adopted what amounted to a “White New Zealand” immigration policy which precluded further significant Asian immigration and the Muslim population of New Zealand remained at less than a hundred until after the Second World War.

In the early 1950s, however, the children of the early arrivals did bring their wives and children and settled in on a more permanent basis. The third and later generations of these families have been raised in New Zealand although they appear to keep in close contact with members of their extended families elsewhere in the world. At about the same time the government accepted a limited number of war refugees for immigration and among these were some Muslims from Turkey and the Balkans, including perhaps twenty to thirty who came to the Auckland area, where the resident Indian Muslims helped them to settle in. This group appears to have been more inclined to assimilate into Pakeha society and attenuate their Muslim identity. Some, however, have remained active in Muslim and ethnic matters and have publicly expressed their concern in the recent crises in Bosnia and Kosovo. The censuses of the1950s reported about 200 Muslims in the country.

Further significant but limited Muslim growth began in the mid-1960s when a period of liberalised immigration policy opened the way for a small number of mainly South Asians and Fijian Indians, including some professional and white collar workers. A few overseas Muslim students also came to the universities. The number of Muslims reported in the census between 1961 and 1971 trebled, from 260 to 779. Rapid growth in relative terms continued in the 1970s and 1980s with Muslim numbers, as recorded in the census figures, reaching 2500 by 1986, while the actual number may have been higher than what the census indicated.  The years from 1977 to 1980 saw major Muslim organisational developments, including the establishment of a national federation, which will be described below.

Since the late 1980s numbers have risen dramatically, partly as a result of political events elsewhere and partly as a result of changes in the government’s immigration policy. The 1987 coup d’etat in Fiji caused a considerable influx of Fijian Indians, many of them Muslims, particularly to the Auckland area. Since 1993 at least two thousand refugees have come from Somalia, and Somalis currently form the single largest Muslim ethnic group in at least two centres, Christchurch and Hamilton.

It would be most interesting to know what the current situations is in this regard.   “Somalia comes dead last [in the international corruption index] (once again) and yet we encourage Somali immigration into NZ. Why?”

Smaller numbers of Bosnians, Kosovars, Kurds and Afghans have also come as refugees. Apart from refugees, new immigration regulations put in place by the government in November 1991 established a “point” system that favours immigration by wealthy or well-educated people from any ethnic background. Under this system a number of Muslim professional people have entered, especially from the Middle East. Unfortunately, many of these have found that their qualifications are not recognised here and some are likely to move on to places where opportunities are better. According to the census figures the number of resident Muslims stood 5772 in 1991 and 13,545 in 1996, and they may now number as many as twenty thousand, as indicated above.

The are also a small number of Kiwis who have become Muslims, often in the context of marriage to a Muslim. They are probably less than five percent of the community but some have made significant contributions to it.

Further comments from a 2013 article by Ann Beaglehole from as reported in Stuff

Among the newcomers were Somali refugees who arrived in the early 1990s. Staff at the organisation then charged with settling refugees recalled the debate about their acceptance. There was anxiety about their being Muslim. What if they are fundamentalists? What about female circumcision?

There were concerns about the group of 50 Muslim refugees from Saudi Arabia New Zealand accepted in the mid 1990s after the Gulf War.

According to some people involved in refugee resettlement at that time, the issue was not religious bias against the Muslim faith but ease of settlement in the community. If the cultural differences were too large, the community wouldn’t cope. If the community couldn’t accept the refugees, their chances of having good settlement outcomes were poor.

The Immigration Profiling Branch (IPB) was set up then to deal with visa applications from potentially “high risk”; countries, including Muslim-majority countries.

“Some countries have a higher risk profile in terms of the people they send here and the immigration profiling group within the Immigration Service assesses the risk of individual applicants from those countries,” said David Cunliffe, Minister of Immigration in the Labour-led government.

“I don’t want people coming who repudiate our key values,” leader of the National Party Don Brash was reported to say in 2006, identifying these as religious and personal freedom and sexual equality. Brash was reluctant to be explicit about who he wanted to keep out of the country, but was reported to say: “Some Muslims believe strongly in the establishment of an Islamic State and that’s not consistent with bed-rock values.”

[But] “that doesn’t mean we exclude all Muslims”. In his view, ideal migrants were British, Australians and others “who fit in very well in New Zealand”.

Another critic of government policy was Winston Peters, Minister of Foreign Affairs in Helen Clark’s administration. He said that New Zealand’s policy did not deal adequately with immigration from “high risk”  countries. An auditor-general’s report in 2007 had also highlighted the “fragility” of the immigration system, focusing on the inability of officials to detect fake identities and fraud.

Policy changes reflected the new security concerns. Responding to criticisms that New Zealand was not doing enough to stop “dangerous terrorists” entering New Zealand, both Labour and National-led administrations sought to tighten border security, focusing on so-called “high risk” countries. They also assumed greater and more flexible powers to enforce immigration law.

In 2016, migrant profiling and vetting was handled by visa services in partnership with the NZSIS.

It is unlikely that New Zealand would turn back the clock to making decisions about immigration and refugee policy on the basis of ethnicity and religion. “Terrorism is not a Muslim issue,” director Rebecca Kitteridge said last year.

Yeah right, Rebecca. “Religion of Peace” – sorry forgot.

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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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