I Grew Up as a Muslim in New Zealand. I Want You to Know I Belong.
There were times, growing up, when I feared for my life.
On March 15, a terrorist stormed into the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, and opened fire on Muslims worshipping, killing at least 50 people.
New Zealanders watched the news unfold in horror. For Kiwis and much of the world, New Zealand had seemed to be a safe country where people lived in harmony.
Many people have said that this is not New Zealand. But despite being a “multicultural” society made up of Indigenous peoples, New Zealand Europeans, and immigrants from all corners of the world, New Zealand still has a problem with racism. In New Zealand society, immigrants are often regarded as forever-foreigners who could never fit the racialized image of the true New Zealander. Further, the political and popular discourse in New Zealand has tolerated hateful speech against New Zealand’s Indigenous and immigrant people of color for decades.
I was born in the United Arab Emirates to an Iraqi father and an Egyptian mother. Like many migrants, my parents moved to New Zealand to secure a better future for their children, to build a home for us. I write about New Zealand today because it's my homeland.
I attended primary school in Auckland, where "Kiwi" came in different colours, tongues, cultures, and packed lunches. People come to New Zealand from all over the world hoping for a better future, making it a place of cultural diversity and social mobility.
While New Zealand welcomed my family, I experienced crude racism, like most Muslim immigrants living in a western country. People called me a “terrorist” and demanded that I go back to my “own country.” Teachers would interrogate me for speaking Arabic: "You’re in New Zealand now, and in New Zealand we speak English.”
People would make racist and bigoted assumptions and ask, “Where are you really from?” A friend deceived me into eating a pork dumpling because “it would be funny to watch.” A friend once asked that I refrain from telling his parents that I was Muslim. I was advised to add a headshot to my resume to show that I do not wear a hijab, to avoid discrimination. In many ways, I normalized the racism that I endured.
There were times when I feared for my life. A few years ago, a stranger approached me at a bus stop to have a conversation. He asked, “Where are you from?” followed by, “Are you Muslim or Christian?” I remember taking a step back before answering “I’m Muslim,” in fear that he might stab me after learning that I was indeed Muslim. It might seem irrational to most, but Islamophobia is a real problem in New Zealand. There is a certain tolerance for such hatred in our culture, and among politicians who use Islamophobic rhetoric to win elections.
Hate does not occur in a vacuum. Everyday casual racism, while seemingly banal, enables extreme forms of hate to thrive. It normalizes hate groups on university campuses, at the workplace, and in other public spaces in the country. Until recently, it enabled us to condone a Nazi-themed company that openly advertised their business alongside neo-Nazi ideals.
As such, racism in New Zealand extends beyond everyday “micro-level” racism enacted by individuals. New Zealand lawmakers have shied from censuring racist speech, and have helped embolden notions of white supremacy. Simultaneously, New Zealand lawmakers failed to grasp the gravity of Islamophobia. When mosques are attacked or defaced, these attacks are filed as property damage rather than hate crime. Caught up in fighting Islamic terrorism and obtuse to our society’s problem of racism, lawmakers often have failed to see the growing danger of xenophobia and right-wing terrorism.
On More FM Radio Network, former prime minister and leader of the National Party, John Key, fanned the flames of islamophobia when he claimed: “In New Zealand, there are people who are in –– who have been trained for Al Qaeda camps who operate out of New Zealand and who are in contact with people overseas, gone off to Yemen and other countries to train.”
In 2016, Key continued to conflate Islam with terrorism. He argued that Muslim women were leaving New Zealand to join terrorist groups and become "jihadi brides." His comments helped stoke fear and suspicion of the Muslim community and implied that we were living among Islamic terrorists and sympathisers.
To combat the threat of Islamic extremism, New Zealand enhanced its surveillance and expanded its security apparatus. In its effort to protect New Zealand, Muslim communities were policed and scrutinized. New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Services asked Muslim worshippers to “spy” on fellow worshippers in their community. Like other western countries, New Zealand failed to pay attention to the rise of right-wing terror, instead redirecting its resources to the threat of Islamic terrorism.
Thus, it was not exactly a surprise when Chris Cahill, of the New Zealand Police Association, admitted that before the Christchurch attack, police thought an attack in the name of Islam was more likely than that of a white extremist.
On one of New Zealand’s darkest days, we saw an attack on the ideals that we hold so dear to us. It was an attack on modern values of pluralism and multiculturalism — values that are worth fighting for. This was an attack on our soil and on our Muslim Whānau. Incredible love, support, and collective grieving reverberated throughout New Zealand. But for our country to heal and come to terms with its pain and grief, we need more than thoughts, sympathies, and prayers. We need to honour the lives of the fallen by taking action against racism, Islamophobia, and hate.
I support the government’s efforts to conduct a high-level inquiry into whether our intelligence agencies failed to address the threat of right-wing extremism. I am proud that our government stepped up and banned assault weapons in less than 10 days after the tragic mosque shooting.
We, as Kiwis, have an obligation to challenge hatred and racism, whether we witness it on social media, on the street, or on the bus. We must hold our elected officials accountable when they inflame the racist subcultures of New Zealand. We must denounce hate speech in all its forms. When we call out our politicians, our communities, our families, and our friends, we are calling on them to do better. We want New Zealand to do better and we can do better.
Watching Kiwis paying tribute and performing the haka for the Muslim men women and children who died in the attacks show that we are a nation capable of tolerance, aroha, and compassion. I am moved by the outpouring love and support. People stood outside mosques, shielding Muslims during prayer. Communities opened their marae, homes, synagogues, and churches to Muslims.
I am proud of our leader, Jacinda Ardern, who has offered those in distress financial support and a shoulder to cry on. Her sincere and genuine empathy in response to the tragedy has given New Zealanders the strength to rebuild and unite.
To the victims, the heroes, the survivors, the families, and the first responders, migrants, Muslims, people of color, Whānau, and friends: You belong. We belong. Aotearoa, New Zealand, is our home. And in the words of Hati Mohemmed Daoud Nabi: Welcome, brother.
Maori to English Translation:
Aotearoa = New Zealand
Aroha = Love
Whānau = Family/friends
Marae = Meeting ground for Maori communities