Māori Muslims face tough scrutiny from security, public and Māori
A Māori sovereignty flag flies over Mina in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
It’s estimated less than one per cent of the population, or just under 50,000 people, are Muslim in New Zealand.
They’re a mix of ethnicities including an estimated 1300 to 1500 Māori. One man, Tyrone Smith says people like him have been under a lot of scrutiny in the past.
“There’s no doubt Māori Muslims throughout New Zealand were suspects [thought to be] connected to some type of terrorism,” says Smith.
“They’ve been under investigation, many of them, including myself. I don’t think I’ve come across a Māori Muslim who hasn’t had a visit.”
Every time he travels overseas Smith is questioned by customs officers, here and in other countries. But says he’s got nothing to hide.
“We’ve got plenty of Muslims who’ve converted from gangs,” he says. “Guys who are into hunting, they’ve got knives and guns. When they become Muslim they’re under the spotlight.”
Smith is a youth mentor helping kids keep out of trouble. He was in his office around the corner from the Linwood Masjid when the terrorist attack began last Friday. In lock down, he watched the terrorist’s video online.
“I was broken after that. I was crying. I had to do a karakia [prayer] afterwards.”
Smith says he relied on both his religious and cultural practices to cleanse himself and deal with the trauma of watching his Muslim brothers and sisters being slaughtered.
He’s become a connection between the Muslim community, authorities and local Māori from Ngāi Tahu and Ngāi Tūāhūriri. They will go through a Māori and Muslim process of blessing the mosques, land and burials.
Smith was inspired to try Islam after his mate was converted in prison.
“I actually thought he was going to a dress up party,” Smith laughs. “It sparked my curiosity.”
Twelve years ago Smith walked into the Masjid Al Noor on Deans Avenue in Christchurch to learn more and never left. He and his wife, also of Māori descent, converted and are now raising their children as Muslims.
“This is my local,” he says.
Smith spent the first four years intensively studying Islam. During that time he was part of a programme to actively promote Islam and convert other Māori.
“My nannies gave me bit of grief and my aunties,” he laughed. “It doesn’t worry me if they make jokes about Muslims or jokes about me. It’s all good. I know where I stand with my creator, I’m solid as.”
He admits there is some tension he has to deal with being Māori and Muslim, but “we don’t really care what anyone thinks. We know where we stand with being tangata whenua.”
Noeleen van de Lisdonk agrees. Māori have their own unique way of being Muslims.
She converted to Islam when she was a teenager. “I’ve studied the faith, it sat really well with my wairua [spirituality] as a Māori,” she says.
Van de Lisdonk says she’s had to deal with a lot of discrimination. People have driven past yelling at her to go back to her own country. Others have mocked her hijab, the way she dresses to express her modesty and respect for herself as a Muslim woman.
“The racism isn’t just from the wider community but from my own people too,” she says. “It’s taken me a lot of years to be really confident in myself as tangata whenua, wahine [female] Māori and wahine Muslim.”
She says once she found her confidence as both she was able to help other Māori converts.
“I, as Māori, have a history of my tupuna [ancestors] suffering from racism and colonisation. I’ve experienced that as a child. Now I’m a Muslim woman I experience Islamophobia and racism.”
Van de Lisdonk believes the 15th of March changed New Zealand. When she heard the news about the terrorist attack on the Christchurch mosques she left work and went home.
“It’s so surreal. Never ever did we think or want to believe this was going to happen here,” she says. “But I’m not surprised.”
Van de Lisdonk appreciates the show of appreciation and aroha [love] in the community since the attacks. But she says some people are starting to get angry.
This week she was trolled on social media by other Māori. She defends free speech, but will no longer tolerate hate or racism towards her.
“I was challenged about my religion. ‘I am disloyal. I am racist against Māori because I’m Muslim. I am disrespectful to our ancestors, to our tupuna,'” she was told.
“I’m inspired to push back, and that means me battling back against my own people,” says van de Lisdonk. “It’s what we need to be doing even though it’s challenging.”
Teacher Brent Strathdee-Pehi converted to Islam in December last year.
The terrorist attack and discrimination experienced by other Māori Muslims hasn’t deterred him from his new religion.
“I’m gutted, shocked,” he says. “I was deeply hurt, confused, mainly sad.”
Strathdee-Pehi says despite his whānau being Catholic he was influenced to join the Muslim faith when he visited Indonesia.
He felt drawn to the religion. But before committing, he returned back to New Zealand to test if it the novelty would wear off.
He made a shahada, a declaration of faith, three months ago.
“You simply declare yourself to be a Muslim,” he says. “It’s a religion of action, you have to do good deeds, charity and actively be the best person you can be. It’s part of the lifestyle.”
He was nervous about telling his friends and whānau but they’ve supported his decision.
In the wake of the terror attack Smith is hoping Kiwis will be more understanding.
“Anyone can become Muslim. It doesn’t belong to an ethnicity, it belongs to the world.”
Van de Lisdonk believes New Zealand needs to be honest about what why the terror attack happened.
“When this has calmed down and the burials have taken place we need to start having conversations, which have already started happening, about the racism in New Zealand, the white supremacy and hate groups sitting around quietly looking for opportunities.”
To help ease Islamophobia she encourages everyone to visit mosques and learn more about Islam.
“They should not fear people because they dress differently, look differently. This is a country where we should be able to live freely and cohesively.”