A trans-Tasman conference is being held this Friday to discuss the cultures that breed racism and extremism in Australasia. Tayyaba Khan, founder of Khadija Leadership Network, and Farida Sultana, founder of Shakti New Zealand and Australia spoke to The Spinoff about why it’s so important to continue the discussion.
There was not much else on anyone’s minds in the weeks following March 15 2019. The New Zealand public rallied behind our Muslim neighbours, wearing hijab, laying flowers and attending countless vigils to push back against the racism and fear that the Christchurch terrorist had tried to stir.
But three months on, and it seems the momentum that was building towards closer relationships with New Zealand’s Muslim population has slowed. Farida Sultana and Tayyaba Khan are working to ensure the fight is ongoing, and say it’s crucial that Australia is invited to join in.
“The recognition that racial equity is a problem not just for us, but for our neighbours is super important. We’re now in this strange bind with Australia forever given the gunman came from Australia. So it was important for us to make sure both countries have the chance to speak to each other in a safe space,” says Khan.
Sultana founded Shakti International in Auckland 24 years ago to help ethnic women overcome the barriers that come with migration and cultural oppression. Through her work she has seen a lot of the negativity that the Muslim and immigrant populations face in Australasia, and says the Christchurch attack was “only a matter of time.”
“It would have happened at some point, whether to the mosque or the church, because there was so much tension already there.”
From outside the Muslim faith, the events of March 15 came as a complete shock, but for Sultana, Khan and many other Muslims, there have been clear signs of New Zealand’s racist extreme for years.
“Tensions have been building for years, people could feel that the world changed after 9/11. It will never be the same, and New Zealand thinks it’s too far away to feel the effects of things like the war in the middle east but we are close enough to feel its influence,” Sultana explains.
The terrorist attack on New York’s Twin Towers was 18 years ago, and Khan agrees its impact on the world’s Muslim population has been immense.
“We’ve known there’s been racial inequity for a while, and that doesn’t just apply to the Muslim community, but for us, post-9/11 there’s now a huge imbalance. We understand that ideologies can be extreme on any front, but what Christchurch has really shown is that for a while now, basically since 2001, the Muslim community has been under the scope, and we’ve been negligent in seeing other things that have been going on in the country.”
Khan notes the immense role the media has to play in how events like 9/11 and the Christchurch terror attack are remembered. She says New Zealand media covering the March attack deserved kudos for their efforts, but it seems to have slipped.
“The immense amount of respect I got from journalists from understanding when I wasn’t ready [and] when I was ready, to how they published the stories, all of that stuff has never been my prior experience. Since then I think we’ve dropped the ball around having the conversation with media about accessibility.”
Sultana agrees that the media could be doing a lot more to use their influence to create bridges, not barriers.
“Media has a huge role, and I think the media always wasn’t very kind to marginalised or minority groups especially. Media can play a huge role in bringing people together or dividing people and I think they can certainly do better at this. New Zealand has the opportunity to lead this charge, so why aren’t we?”
In May, Newshub reporter Patrick Gower conducted an investigation into white supremacy in New Zealand. He looked at 200 New Zealanders who display ‘extremist views’, concluding that the problem here was far bigger than some people realised.
Khan believes that reports like Gower’s are important to ensure people who may not have paid attention before, are becoming informed of the true nature of Aotearoa’s racism problem.
“There’s almost been this lid on a jar of ‘this happens, get on with it…’ and I think the opening of the lid has been great for all of us. That’s what Patrick’s investigation did for me.
“I go back to the number of times I’ve posted on Facebook saying ‘National Front has decided to post something else about me today’, and the number of people who would just say ‘oh, forget it, don’t even worry about it’ and within that the process for me was thinking I was overreacting.”
Green party MP Golriz Ghahraman was recently given a security escort after threats against her reached a tipping point. ACT party leader David Seymour called her a ‘menace to freedom’ on a talkback radio show, and various groups and individuals have been subjecting her to online and in-person abuse since she became a politician. She’s not Muslim, although she is mistaken as Muslim regularly, and Khan says her case is representative of the abuse that immigrants and Muslim people, especially women, face here.
“It’s really scary that we’ve got this underbelly in our society. All of the stories coming out about Golriz Ghahraman and the treatment she gets as a woman, and a woman of colour are scary, but some of us know that treatment, it’s not like we’re unfamiliar to it, we have experienced that. To be able to talk about it is really empowering now.”
Sultana says many female immigrants especially have a hard time adapting to the cultural changes in their new countries, and not enough is being done to ease this pressure.
“Muslim women have this idea that they need to carry the identity of Islam. You don’t see many male Muslim actually wearing Muslim dress, but Muslim women are wearing hijab and covering up and it’s really unfair to put that pressure on them.
“Women are not given the opportunity to adapt to the language, employment, many other relevant issues that settlement brings. If these women are not fully integrated then the next generation is also not integrated. Social oppression can grow when women are not integrated.”
This oppression also exists inside the faith. Khan says she’s constantly faced with the consequences of misunderstandings around women’s roles from an Islamic perspective.
“I think why women are important is that we’re missing out half the population if we’re not engaging them. Ideas of women’s rights within Islam now need to shift because there are rights that seem to be given to you under the religion but don’t seem to be visible in practice at all.
“Women taking the time to learn and grow and hold hands with other women who have been working in the space for a very long time, to shift the game, is going to be leading us to a better, more progressive society. Because if we can’t tap into the women and make them flourish, then we’ve lost another generation.”
In some parts of the world women are punished for speaking out, so Sultana is passionate about making the most of the freedom New Zealand gives for women to stand up and to lead, but she says often the patriarchal structures are hard to un-learn.
“We haven’t seen women able to stand up and disagree. In many countries where the Muslim community comes from, if women disagree or challenge anything, they’ll get killed. It’s the easy solution to silence them. I’m quite proud of being Muslim and knowing that the prophet’s wife was a businesswoman. He was her employee, and that’s the religion we come from so what happened to us?”
And post-Christchurch it’s become clear why integration is so important, as many families have been left without a source of income.
“We’re now seeing the amount of women who are now the sole breadwinner and there are language issues,” explains Khan, “how will they sustain the family now that they’re the sole earner? Because we’ve missed out so many years that we could have used to integrate them well as women in this society, now it’s this catch up game of chaos.”
That catch-up game will grow more and more difficult the longer people wait to create change. The government changing firearm laws in the days following the attack was a huge signal that they would be committed to change, but Khan says since then, our leaders haven’t done enough.
“The interest of the government, in terms of what happened, hasn’t diminished, but they haven’t really listened either. Where I sit, the inclusiveness of engaging the wider Muslim community and the government’s relationship with that community is still very much what it was post-9/11. They’ve got a set group of people they have a relationship with and those are the people that they engage with.”
Khan says the government needs to realise the diversity within the Muslim community, and work to engage more people in discussions.
“You see that in terms of how the royal commission of inquiry has been set up, who they’ve invited to engage in that. It certainly doesn’t represent the whole of the Muslim community, it represents a very small portion of the Muslim community, and that’s a failure waiting to explode in the immediate to long-term… we’ve got this group of people who are advising the government and they’ve done so for a while and the government thinks that’s sufficient. We’ve evolved well beyond that.”
While the government has the power to drive huge amounts of change, so does the rest of the population, and Sultana says it all comes down to the way we talk to each other.
“Unless we develop new dialogue, even though we live in the same country, side by side, we don’t really. We live in two different worlds. I don’t know about the other Muslims but I am also learning at the moment, the proper dialogue that we need to have around Christchurch. It’s all new.”
Khan says the most important thing is that we never stop learning about each other, because when we stop, we become unable to understand others’ motivations.
“Everything starts from learning first, and we want to be understood within a space of diversity, we want to be talking about racial equity and what that means in a New Zealand context, the impact it’s had in certain communities. If you hear that, and that might spark some sort of initiative for you, then that’s great. That’s our job done well.”
Registration is free, and still available, to Friday’s Let’s Deal With It conference, here.