As a rising Hindu nationalism exerts itself in India, online Indian communities in New Zealand are also seeing a growth in Islamophobic sentiment.
It was the scariest night of his life.
Mohammad still remembers hiding in a shallow ditch with his family. He remembers covering his one-year-old brother’s mouth each time the toddler cried out of fear. Just metres away his home was in flames. A furious mob with burning torches was looking for them – or any Muslim they could set alight.
The year was 2002 and the city was Gujarat, India. Mohammad and his family survived the bloody riots that claimed the lives of nearly 5,000 civilians. India was never the same again, Mohammad says.
An engineer by profession, he couldn’t get a job because no one wanted to hire a Muslim. So, he decided to move, first to Europe and then eventually to New Zealand.
But he could never escape Islamophobia.
On March 15 last year, he lost his cousin in the Christchurch mosque attacks; he was a young man who had just become a dad.
Mohammad was still reeling from the shock when, just months after the Christchurch shootings, he started experiencing a form of prejudice he didn’t think existed in Aotearoa. Indian immigrants, fuelled by recent political developments in their home country, started targeting Muslims with anti-Islamic posts in New Zealand based Facebook groups.
Memes poking fun at women in hijab, posts suggesting Muslims migrate to western countries only to take them over, comments calling Islam a “cancer”, asking Kiwi Muslims to return to where they came from, praising China for its treatment of Uighurs and even support for Hannah Tamaki’s call to ban mosques.
I’ve seen these posts. They’re not just offensive, but also disturbingly close to home, because these Islamophobes live in New Zealand. And in a small society like ours, it’s only too easy to find and harass those who speak out – which is why this piece is written by a migrant Muslim under a pen name, and Mohammad’s name has been changed.
The surge in anti-Islam sentiment started thousands of kilometres away from New Zealand, with the introduction in India of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and a proposed National Register for Citizens (NRC).
The act grants Indian citizenship to religious minorities from neighbouring countries – except Muslims
The proposed national register aims to document all legal citizens of India so those in the country unlawfully can be deported. For most of those whose homes were destroyed in incidents like the Gujarat riots, producing these documents is impossible: one of them is Mohammad’s sister, a woman who was born in India and has spent her entire life there.
There have been protests around the world, including New Zealand, against the CAA and NRC for their discrimination against Muslims. In New Zealand this seems to have incensed Kiwi Indian supporters of the hard right BJP-led government that introduced the law.
The uproar over the new laws has fomented a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment among some factions of the Indian community in New Zealand. At present it appears confined to social media, but it may be only a matter of time before it spills beyond the internet, says Radhika Reddy, a queer trans woman of Muslim heritage who actively campaigns against India’s anti-democratic laws.
Currently, Indian anti-Islam groups in New Zealand are in their formative stages, she says, but once they become more organised, there’s a danger they will do palpable damage to the local Muslim community and other minorities.
Reddy says the New Zealand public hasn’t yet grasped just how brutal the Indian government’s treatment of its Muslim minority is becoming. If the public was better informed, the Indian cricket team currently touring the country would be received not with cheers, she argues, but with protests.
Kiwi Indian writer and filmmaker Dr Sapna Samant says she is not surprised Indian Muslims are being targeted by Hindu immigrants. A self-professed “proud and liberal” Hindu, she says members of the Indian community feel there is substantial risk standing up against the anti-Muslim stance of the Indian government.
Samant says the emergence of Islamophobia among some Kiwi Hindu immigrants is fuelled by the views of the BJP government in India. Many of them are followers of the ideology known as Hindutva, which preaches purity and homogeneity, strict hierarchies and ethnic nationalism. Hindutava’s violent espousal of the cultural and religious superiority of Hindus has been described by some experts and academics as fascist – a characterisation they deny.
Samant says it is easy to ignore Hindutva in New Zealand because it’s hidden under a “cultural garb”. But once you know it’s there, it’s hard to miss, she says.
“You will see it in how Indians treat each other, you will see how [Kiwi] Indian organisations are exclusively upper caste Hindu male-dominated so they can shape the discourse of the community.”
It is this institutional power that gives free rein to the Islamophobia that is so common in online Indian communities, and which so shocked Mohammad.
“It is useless trying to logic with these people,” he says. “They hate us. Nowhere is safe.”
In the course of writing this article, I contacted one of the people writing anti-Islam posts on Facebook to ask for comment. In response I received messages full of hatred for Muslims, expressing ideas about the elimination of Muslims that were strikingly similar to those contained in the alleged Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto.
Islamophobia in New Zealand was not born with Christchurch terror, but it seems to be growing stronger in its wake.
Hatred like that takes decades to breed. It starts with keyboard warriors who test the waters with provocative posts, and it becomes stronger when authorities ignore red flags.
We already know Muslim leaders had been warning authorities about about rising intolerance and discrimination for years before March 15. The first anniversary of the Christchurch attacks is just weeks away and we’ll hear phrases like “you are us” once again.
But it’s also important to know the government is working to make New Zealand a safe place. And for the Indian Muslim community at least, that will require more than just messages of solidarity.