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Cultural Conversations: Asking awkward questions about Islam following the Auckland supermarket atta

Following the Auckland terrorist attack Nelson-based Muslims Mohammad Aboubakr and Sadia Tahir wanted to have a conversation with the community about their faith and the effects of the incident and to foster understanding. Matt Lawrey facilitated the Cultural Conversations event. Sally Kidson reports.

Mohammad: First I want to say it takes open-mindedness, humbleness and vulnerability to put everything from the mainstream narrative about how Muslims are perceived and put that aside.

Also, I want to emphasise the easiest way to find out about Islam is not through Google – it’s not through going online and typing; ‘Why do Muslims think like this?’

What’s the point of learning about Islam through the lens of someone who is far, far away?

The easiest way is to get in touch with your local community and start asking any awkward questions you might have. “We’ve heard this and that. Do you guys really think this?”

I’m not a scholar, I’m not an Imam (a person who leads prayers at a mosque). I can’t say I’m representing Muslims in New Zealand. I’m an average Muslim, a practising Muslim. I don’t like the way Islam is perceived in general, and I feel it is my duty to see if there is anything I can do to enhance understanding with my limited knowledge.

This conversation is a start. It's important, as people who might have awkward questions, can sleep on them and might end up talking to the wrong people, and it can build into hate in their heart, minds and souls. Instead, talking to a Muslim in your community could be a better starting point. They will be able to clarify misconceptions or at least point you in the right direction.

We all saw hospitality in the face of hate through the lens of the Christchurch shooter – while he was full of hate when he entered the mosque the first thing said to him was; “Welcome” and I guarantee you that in any mosque and in any Muslim community in New Zealand if you have the most awkward question, and you ask it at a mosque you will be safe there.

Another point I want to make is there are 12 or 13 cultures or nationalities in the Muslim community just in Nelson. So saying that Islam is a culture it is quite problematic, as it transcends culture.

For example, when you go to a certain country and see that the people there have horrible eating habits, that they eat too much, they waste food and their neighbours are starving in famine. You see it and think is this Islamic? Is this really what Islam teaches and preaches?

You’ve got to take a step back, that is culture.

How did you feel when you heard about the terror attack in Auckland?

Mohammad: My first reaction was, I was hoping let it not be a Muslim that did the attack, but it was. We were all feeling the backlash. The second thing was, I hoped no one was killed.

We believe as a Muslim that the ending of your life is the most precious moment. You can be a very good person your entire life, but you end on a bad note.

In my perspective he lost his life for stabbing little old ladies in the supermarket, and what did he achieve – nothing. He actually created more hate and got us fearful for our own safety.

Even the Christchurch shooter who killed 51 people. From our theology if he dies in a state of repentance and is sincere, he still has a chance – he will be judged on his final intentions.

I think the perception of a lot of people was that after March 15, through that terrible, terrible trauma New Zealand became a more understanding nation in that people got a better understanding of what life is like for Muslim people in Aotearoa. Do you think what happened in Auckland undermined that?

Mohammad: I think people in New Zealand are very aware, and I like how on the day Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: “This is a person. It’s not a faith, not a culture. It's just an individual.” I believe that Kiwis have that distinction.

Sadia: I had a conversation with my friend, what would be the outcome of this incident, and we came to the understanding that a normal Kiwi person would maybe not be changed by this attack. Only the people who already have something in their heart, that already have the hate, it would just increase their hate. A few days after the attack I was in the mall, and a guy said to me; ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum’, and it increased my confidence. Wearing a hijab, I stand out, everyone recognises us instantly.

How do you think New Zealand compares in the way it treats Muslim people?

Sadia: I’ve lived here for 12 years and before coming to New Zealand I was very conscious of coming to a culture, where I wasn’t sure if I would be welcome. At that time things were happening in France and other countries that were not very welcoming to women if they wore hijabs. I thought if I come here, and they say: “We don't accept you in the university because you are wearing a hijab, I would give up”. But that didn’t happen. They were very welcoming.

Mohammad: I believe that by far in Western countries New Zealand is the most welcoming. When I lived in another country, when I went through the airport, even though I was married to a citizen of that country, they looked at my passport and name they would say: “What are you doing here? ‘You keep coming in and out.” There is suspicion. You are put in a box. Whereas when we landed in New Zealand, I remember I got goosebumps; the lady looked at our passports and saw we were residents she said “Welcome Home”. She didn’t have to say that.

An awkward question that comes up when you think about Muslims and the West is around the role of women and how they are treated. What do you say when women ask you about the rights of women?

Mohammad: Again we’ve got to make the distinction between culture and religion. When we are talking about women’s rights in different countries; I 100 per cent agree in some countries the culture is not the best towards women. But that is culture, it has nothing to do with religion.

The very first verses that revealed back in Mecca 1400 years ago in a society back then because of the harsh conditions they used to celebrate boys, but leave girls to die, to be buried in the sand. One of the first verses revealed was: “What crime did she do to deserve to be buried?”

It just shattered the stereotypes; that it was okay to have a baby girl.

In the prophet's farewell speech when he talks about women in general three times he said: “Treat your women with respect.” And that was in a society when at that point in time women not allowed to inherit.

In a Muslim family all a women’s earnings are just for her – she does not have to put a penny in the house, she has no obligation to.

Sadia: Women are not required to contribute to the house. But if they are contributing that is their own wish and that is a charity to the family. For men, it is a responsibility, for women it is not a responsibility.

What about Islam’s attitudes to homosexuality?

Mohammad: When we talk about homosexuality, much like alcohol and pork, Islam does forbid the act and the majority of Muslims do not endorse it but have nothing against the human being doing it per se.

We interact and accept every human being and we do not dehumanise anybody. When it comes to homosexuality we are not here to judge who does what, again much like we don’t go around chasing anyone who eats pork or drinks alcohol.

Even if someone in our faith is homosexual, we can't just say they are no longer a brother and no longer one of us. No – it is between them and their lord.

This topic is something that has been a red-line for Muslims since 1400 years ago and just because it is legalised in the West a decade or two ago as Muslims we can’t just ignore our theology and everything we hold near and dear and say: “Alright, I approve of everything”. Just like we are accepted regardless of our views regarding alcohol and pork, true open-mindedness is to accept each other, regardless of our differences. Live and let live.

What are some everyday and helpful things people can do to make their Muslim neighbours feel comfortable in our community?

Mohammad: What would be really helpful is calling out racism and calling out hate in general. This is the biggest thing you can do.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in Nelson?

Mohammad: Finding a job. While New Zealand is very open, sometimes it is a challenge to find work.

I was looking for a job, sending resumes left, right and centre and had absolutely no response. I went to a recruitment centre and the recruiter said to me: “You have a really impressive resume, you’ve worked in different places and have all this experience. I’m surprised you can’t get a job. He said: “Can I suggest something. Can I send your profile without a name? I’ll just remove Mohammad Aboubakr from the top.”

And I found a job in two weeks. Two weeks.

What racism or ignorance have you experienced in Nelson?

Sadia: I think in Nelson business or industry they should have more cultural competency to seek to understand other people’s cultures so everyone feels included. Sometimes you don’t feel very included in a setting where people are sitting and talking, and you can not be a part of that conversation. They just talk among themselves.

Mohammad: Honestly myself, nothing.

If you could help Aotearoa understand one thing about the Muslim faith what would it be?

Sadia: What is the most appealing thing for me about my faith is accountability. I have to live my life that I’m responsible for my actions and being a better version of myself and that my parent’s actions are not dictating me and no one is responsible for anyone else’s actions. Everyone is responsible for their actions and God will hold them accountable.

Mohammad: It’s simple, it's logical. What we believe as Muslims is that every person that is born, regardless of whether he is black, white, yellow, red, whether he’s grown up in a Buddhist, Catholic or agnostic house, it doesn’t matter that every baby that is born we believe it has that fitra in him or that instinct or innate inclination towards doing good, towards being good.

(Fitra is an Arabic word meaning the state of purity and innocence Muslims believe all humans to be born with.)

Once you are curious about the truth and get to know a little bit about Islam it just immediately appeals to your instinct – it appeals to that feeling I’m a good person, I was born a good person – I have the capacity to be even better, I have that purpose in life where I can be better I can help others, I can understand, and I can clarify. And that is a beautiful thing.

How do you feel about future for Muslims in Aotearoa?

Mohammad: If these conversations keep happening then this will be a healthy place for both Muslims and all other faiths as New Zealand has this inclusivity. I believe that New Zealand is on the right track and can set an example for other countries that have lost the plot.

Sadia: For me, it’s very important for more people to have awareness and acceptance that differences in a different culture are not to be feared. If they are migrants or refugees or have different skin colour or food or drink or dress differently they are not to be feared, just to accepted. I think as a minority we feel like we always have to reach out, and for us to feel included, accepted by the majority is the most important thing.

  • Mohammad Aboubakr is an engineer living in Nelson with his wife and two children. He is originally from Egypt.

  • Sadia Tahir has lived in New Zealand for 12 years and works as a new product development technologist for a contract manufacturer in Nelson.

  • Cultural Conversations is a Nelson community arts based hub in a former retail space brokered by Make Shift Spaces which involves empowering and building relationships with former refugee and migrant communities. It will be holding two Q and As with the Indian community over Diwali.

Do you have a question about Islam you would like answered? Email

Source: Sally Kidson05:00, Oct 02 2021, STUFF



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