Evicted mufti threatens halal cash-grab

Javed Khan.

Expelled preacher Ishak Koshiya’s conservative brand of Islam clashed with the modern form espoused by many of New Zealand’s Muslim leaders. But was he a threat to society, or to their power? Tony Wall investigates.

It began with a wedding. The daughter of Javed Khan, a leading figure in New Zealand’s Muslim community, was getting married. Invitations were sent out, including one to Ishak Koshiya, New Zealand’s first mufti, or Islamic scholar.

Koshiya said he could not possibly attend. As the daughter of a leader of the Sunni Muslim community, it was wrong she should marry a man from the rival Shi’ite sect, Koshiya believed. It would be against sharia (Islamic law). Moreover, men and women would mix at the wedding, which was also against sharia, Koshiya said.

Koshiya’s job as mufti, based at the West Auckland Islamic Centre in Ranui, was to interpret Islamic law, and he was known to do so strictly.

Koshiya believes Khan, president of the influential Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ), turned against him because of the perceived snub.

“In the beginning he was my friend,” Koshiya told the Sunday Star-Times as he caught a train between the Indian province of Gujarat and the capital Delhi last week. “He invited me to his daughter’s nikah (wedding ceremony) and I said `I can’t come in (sic) Shi’a nikah’, so he got angry, he started against me. I’m a moderate Muslim, but he said to be a modern Muslim.”

Khan was shocked by Koshiya’s claims, denying there had been a falling out. He said the fact the mufti did not attend the wedding, with more than 1000 guests, was hardly noticed.

“We invite all the religious leaders. If they come or not come is their prerogative. It was absolutely no big deal at all.”

Koshiya graduated from the Islamic university Darul Uloom Falahe Darain in Gujarat in the mid-90s. When headhunted in 2002 by the FIANZ-affiliated New Zealand Muslim Association to work at the Ranui mosque, he was believed to be the highest qualified Muslim scholar ever to work here.

He began to attract large crowds to his lectures and spoke at mosques all over Auckland. But his conservative teachings clashed with those of the community’s more modern-thinking mullahs; he says he ran into trouble with FIANZ over two other issues: halal meat and Muslim banking.

As a member of the FIANZ Ulama Advisory Board, which makes fatwa (decisions) on religious matters, Koshiya visited a Tegel chicken factory in New Plymouth to determine whether it could be certified as halal. The halal meat export industry is worth $250 million and FIANZ issues certificates, making a commission each time.

Koshiya rejected the plant because it was using mechanical blades instead of Muslim slaughtermen, and because the speed of the conveyor belt meant the prayer “Bismillah Allahu Akbar” (“In the name of God, the greatest”) was being said over only every second chicken. Koshiya says pressure was put on him to approve the factory because of the money to be made.

Koshiya also disapproved of plans to introduce Muslim banking, and says he was pressured to relax his ruling on the charging of interest, or ribah, which is outlawed under sharia.

Koshiya’s immigration problems began when the Immigration Department invited him to apply for permanent residency. He failed the English language test, but Associate Immigration Minister Clayton Cosgrove agreed to extend his work visa for six months to give him time to improve. He failed a second time.

Normally failing the English test on its own would not be an impediment, as Koshiya had worked in the country for years in a skilled profession. But he and his supporters believe that behind the scenes, opponents were lobbying to have him removed, with words like “terrorist” and phrases such as “threat to New Zealand” bandied about.

Khan confirmed he was contacted by immigration authorities about Koshiya. “He may have put on his application form that he is the mufti of New Zealand, which is a total lie. When I was contacted by the immigration authorities to check that, I told them there is no mufti of New Zealand.”

Koshiya denied he called himself the mufti of New Zealand, but said he was the first mufti in New Zealand.

Khan said he had never accused Koshiya of being a radical or a threat, or lobbied to have him removed, but he conceded he did have “some difficulties” with Koshiya’s conservative teachings.

“He was not willing to change anything. I said to all the scholars, `we have to adjust ourselves when we are living in a western society as a minority, you have to adjust… so long as you do not compromise the minimum standard set by the sharia. You cannot live like you live in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan’.”

When Koshiya was arrested in September, 50 haji (those who have travelled to Mecca) gathered at the Waitakere District Court and many wept in the street when he was released on bail, his lawyer, Marcus Beveridge said. About 150 supporters were at Auckland Airport to see him off.

Having had a removal order served against him, Koshiya cannot legally return for five years, but legal moves are afoot to challenge that.

Who did evicted mufti really threaten?