NEW ZEALAND: Asian Muslims Tell Their Own Stories

  • by Neena Bhandari (sydney)
  • Inter Press Service

'The Crescent Moon: The Asian Face of Islam in New Zealand' largely focuses on Muslims from the Indian subcontinent, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Fiji, with the aim to create a better understanding and appreciation of Islam and the various Asian cultures that have enriched New Zealand's socio-economic and cultural fabric.

The first Muslims in the country were 15 Chinese gold miners working in Dunstan on the South Island, according to the New Zealand government census of April 1874, and by 1950 there were still only 150 followers of Islam. The 1996 census registered a Muslim population of less than 14,000.

But since 2001, the Muslim population in New Zealand has increased by 52.6 per cent. According to the last census conducted in 2006, there are 36,072 followers of Islam, most of who hail from Asia, where more than half of the world's Muslims reside.

Author Adrienne Jansen and photographer Ans Westra travelled across the island nation for over two years to create the book that features disarmingly candid interviews and photographs of 37 Asian Muslims, hailing from ethnically, culturally and theologically diverse groups, who have made New Zealand home.

There is the halal butcher Yakub Khan, who came to New Zealand from Fiji in 1981 and whose sausages do a roaring trade among Muslims and non-Muslims alike in Wellington, and Mahmood Bhikoo's grandfather, Ismail Bhikoo, who was the first Indian Muslim in New Zealand.

Today, Mahmood and Fatima Bhikoo, whose grandchildren are fifth generation New Zealanders, own and operate the Hollywood Dairy in Auckland.

Another of the interviewees is Najib Lafraie, who served as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in the government of Afghanistan and now teaches politics at the University of Otago.

'The focus of this project was to represent that large group of Muslims of Asian descent who are part of the middle ground of New Zealand society – who are rugby players, farmers, IT trainers, artists, scientists - all of those - and just getting on with their lives', Jansen told IPS.

The book certainly doesn't cover the whole range of Asian Muslim voices in New Zealand.

As Jansen says, 'Well, it never could, they are very diverse. There are definitely some voices missing. The most conservative voice isn't there. But as a number of people commented during the project, when you are a minority in a country and you are on the margins of that minority, you are generally going to be very careful about what you say in public'.

While most people were very open, some were not so comfortable. 'When I took the photographs, I tried to get something that showed the subjects in their normal daily activities,' Westra, a renowned documentary photographer with a career spanning 50 years, told IPS.

'They often had great reservations about that and would only pose. So there is a great variety in the images, which perhaps tells us something more about the individual subjects,' she said.

'They thought the book and exhibition a worthwhile project enough to participate in this way. There were some restrictions of course. Photographing inside the mosque during a prayer session kept me as a woman for instance on the door step,' says Westra, who was born in the Netherlands and migrated to New Zealand as a young adult.

Alme Jacub was born in India, married an Indian man from New Zealand and followed him to the island nation in 1949. Her daughter Asmat Ashraf relates the story of her mother, who lost her husband early but didn't remarry.

Alme lived in the small town of Manunui for the next 23 years where 'it didn't matter what people's religion was, it was never really a topic of discussion and everyone just got along,' until the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States changed the way Muslims began to be perceived the world over.

Shegufta Molla, whose family had migrated to the United States from Bangladesh in 1973, said '9/11 was very painful because America had been my home since I was four years old, but I didn't want my kids growing up thinking they were bad because they were different, so we came to New Zealand.'

But New Zealand, like the rest of the world, was also deeply affected by the attacks. 'It was important to help build ‘mutual interest and mutual respect’ in this country, too,' Jennifer King, Director of Culture at the Asia New Zealand Foundation, which commissioned the book, told IPS.

'Following the London bombings (of the transportation system in 2005), there were a few anti-Muslim incidents here, so the book and exhibition project was designed to let participants open up a bit and tell their own stories. Participants were encouraged to say what they wanted - we never set out to create a ‘warm fuzzy’ book,' she added.

While interviewing, Jansen found many people commenting on the media's coverage of Islam and terrorism.

'When a young religious studies student (whose parents are from New Zealand and Malaysia) says 'I'm constantly having to tell people I'm not going to blow myself up' - although she's being tongue in cheek, there's a definite undercurrent of seriousness, of real concern about misrepresentation of Muslims,' says Jansen, who has been a long-time teacher of English to new migrants and was co-founder of one of the first home tutoring language programmes in New Zealand.

Tayyaba Khan, who was born in Pakistan, raised in Japan and came to New Zealand at the age of 10, says since the events of 9/11, 'young people have formed an identity of what it means to be a Muslim. Some went the other way and didn't want to have anything to do with it and others like me defined themselves more specifically as Muslim.'

Jansen says, 'Many of the people I interviewed made a clear distinction between Islam and ethnicity, and wanted that well understood. There were many comments that certain practices that are widely seen as Islamic are in fact cultural.'

Yoko Shafi, who was born in Japan to a Buddhist family and met her husband, a Muslim from Pakistan, while working in New Zealand, feels people confuse religion with culture. Despite 30 years of living in New Zealand, she says, 'I'm Japanese and Muslim.' Shafi had to convert to Islam to marry her Muslim husband. She feels religion is a personal thing and that no one should be forced to follow a certain religion.

Today, New Zealand is home to Muslim migrants from about 40 different countries, including 3000 Pakeha (European) Muslims and 700 indigenous Maoris.

There is a small but growing conversion to Islam among the wider New Zealand population, and Islam is the fastest growing religion amongst the Maori community. The 2001 census figures show the number of Maori Muslims increased from 99 to 708 in the 10 years to 2001.

Some of the people interviewed for the book are third and fourth generation New Zealanders, who regard themselves totally as 'Kiwi' while at the same time paying attention to their ethnic heritage.

Warning that there is always a danger that ethnic minorities will become isolated, Jansen says, 'There are also people in this project like Tariq Ashraf who so integrates his New Zealand life and his faith that he talks about how the design of mosques in New Zealand could show the influence of the Pacific fale (house) or the Maori wharenui (meeting house).'

Several people, including Mohammad Amir, who was born in Mubarakpur in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and is the imam of Wellington's Kilbirnie mosque, talk about how they need to accommodate the practice of their faith to the New Zealand context.

King feels most Muslim migrants have integrated well into the mainstream and that the mosques have become a melting pot. She is hopeful the exhibition that accompanies the book will travel to Islamic countries where New Zealand has diplomatic posts.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service