Faisal Halabi – an Arab, a Muslim, as a gay man, and a New Zealander – reckons with what all those identities mean for him.
I’m sitting in my London flat, thinking about the distance between myself and New Zealand. It’s just over 18,000km.
I’m also thinking about the distances between the different identities I’ve balanced growing up in New Zealand: as an Arab, as a Muslim, as a gay man, and as a New Zealander. I’m wondering what will happen to New Zealand and what will happen to the distances between those identities – in particular, between that of being a New Zealander and of being a Muslim – in the aftermath of the attacks on the Al Noor and Linwood Mosques in Christchurch.
What does it mean to be a Muslim in New Zealand? To answer that, it’s important to outline the tenets of Islam and how they translate into the everyday lives of Muslims. Islam is based on five pillars: declaration of faith, prayer, pilgrimage, fasting, and charity. The latter two pillars capture the core values of Islam. The holy month of Ramadan, in which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, is based on the premise that to do so allows each Muslim to empathise with those who are less fortunate. That includes empathy for the poor, the disabled, the poverty, and war-stricken. Zakah – giving charity – is based on the importance given to sacrifice and selfishness. The term Zakah literally translates to “to purify”: the idea being that in charity one rids themselves of greed.
These two pillars capture the core values of empathy and humility that underline Islam. The declaration of faith, practise of daily prayer, and pilgrimage (being a journey to Mecca at least once in every Muslim’s life) are all actions that go towards putting those core values into practice. Understanding those pillars and their corresponding values sets the basis for a discussion about what it means to be a Muslim in New Zealand (or any other place). More often than not, conversations about Muslim communities are often footnoted by an awkward silence on the actual understanding of Islam.
Muslim communities in New Zealand have often sat in an awkward cleft between being welcomed and being absolutely misunderstood. As a young boy growing up in suburban Auckland, I was often quizzed about what meat I couldn’t eat, whether I was circumcised, and, wait for it: did I or did not believe that Jesus was the son of God? Despite the risk of becoming a distant outsider, I also regularly witnessed and took part in the assimilation of Muslim communities into New Zealand culture by applying the core values of Islam: love, empathy, and humility. That explains my mother bringing industrial sized kebab skewers to my shared lunches in primary school, practically opening up a stall in the middle of a Balmoral classroom to feed two dozen Pākehā kids.
Over time, being a Muslim in New Zealand meant we had assimilated into the patchwork quilt that is the culture of New Zealand. That assimilation took place in large part because of the application of the core values of Islam and New Zealand’s receptiveness to them. New Zealand complemented my upbringing and assimilation by inserting it’s own values: celebrating diversity, encouraging acceptance, and encouraging debate.
After the 9/11 attacks and during the War on Terror, Muslim communities went from being misunderstood to being feared. In early 2002 when I was in year eight, a family friend’s mother was encouraged by the school principal to change her son’s name from Osama. We became stereotyped as being the exact opposite of the core values we practise. As a result, Muslim communities have – to varying extents – grown a thicker skin and a mild distrust about uninvited interference in their usually empathetic and open lives. Assimilation suffered. Islamic extremism entered the mainstream. The stereotypes looped into a cycle. Still, during those years, I witnessed time and time again the Muslim community pushing through, always guided by the five pillars. But, as those stereotypes hyperinflated, somewhere along the way a small but very real distance between the identities of being a New Zealander and a Muslim formed.
Almost two decades later and we face a morbid by-product of the fear and xenophobia: right-wing extremism. What does it mean to be a Muslim in New Zealand in the age of right-wing extremism? More than the thick skin and the mild cynicism about being the punch line of an Islamophobic joke comes the infliction of outright violence on Muslim communities. It’s the murder of 50 in the streets of Christchurch on a Friday afternoon. With similar attacks in the US, UK and Canada spiking in recent years, we need to condemn and address the violence. Urgently.
A lot of discussions have been had about how the Christchurch attacks are simply examples of deeper racism in New Zealand that’s been brewing beneath a veneer of acceptance or ambivalence. That conversation is valid, but sits separately to the conversation to be had about the place of Muslim communities in New Zealand. The question to have at the forefront of our minds right now is how to prevent violence against the Muslim community and any other community that might be susceptible to extremist violence. The answer begins with acknowledging any more distance that might slowly creep back in, pushing us back into corners, until we’re too far gone to reverse it again. It begins by understanding how we have got here and by thinking about our next steps before we take them. It begins by keeping close to one another, both physically and emotionally.
I’m sitting in my London flat and typing these words down because I never want to forget how I feel today. I want Muslims in New Zealand to know the love and solidarity that New Zealand offers, and I want New Zealand to know that the Muslim community shares more in common with New Zealand than they realise. In a country of our size, we have no room for any more distance to get in between us.