Is Islamophobia Still Thriving in NZ?

First Published on RNZ

New Zealand is still being praised internationally for its heartfelt response to the mosque attacks in Christchurch. But as the months' pass are the commitments to unity and acceptance proving to be hollow words? For Insight, Philippa Tolley investigates.

“Who are the Muslims?” “Where are the Muslims?” Pakeeza Rasheed has had to answer both questions, time and time again, in the aftermath of the Christchurch terror attacks that killed 51 people and left dozens injured.

"We've been invisible for so long here in New Zealand that people don't actually know that we exist, what we do, what we're doing, who we are, and why we're everywhere,” she says. “We're doctors, we're lawyers, we're teachers, we're students.”

Rasheed is a lawyer and Chairperson of the Khadija Leadership Network, an organisation set up to help Muslim women develop the skills and confidence to take on leadership roles. She is a successful young woman in her own right, but even she feels she has to tone down her ethnicity and faith to be acceptable to those around her. "I can't walk into my job, I feel like I can't completely be myself and say everything that I have to say... I feel that people wouldn't necessarily be able to handle that,” she says. “I've actually got to almost tone myself down a little bit in order to be accepted and I think most people from minority backgrounds feel that way. Sometimes we have to make ourselves more palatable."

In the days and weeks after the shootings, New Zealanders turned out in their thousands to vigils and at mosques to show solidarity and support for a community that had suffered an unimaginable tragedy. People spoke of New Zealand never being the same again. There were also vows that evil wouldn't win, that “this is not us,” that this country would show that unity, acceptance and kindness would be the hallmark of the response to such evil.

But instead of a drive to really stamp out hate and distrust, Rasheed feels empathy fatigue quickly set in. She simmers with indignation over the thought that after the Christchurch attacks, New Zealand has made any progress in its attitude to its Muslim community.

"Everyone is shit-scared about the word Islamophobia. I don't understand it. It is an issue. Just because you ignore it, or you're scared of the word, doesn't mean that it's going to go away,” she says."It requires bravery. And I think it requires some admissions to be made - and I don't think there's an appetite for that.”

As the months roll on, so too do the incidents of Islamophobia. They range from public abusive rants to racist comments, taunts over clothing and sometimes threats of violence. Frequently women - most visible due to wearing a headscarf and sometimes long coats or cloaks - face the worst abuse. A verbal attack or threatening behaviour can happen on the bus on the way home or at the shops. Online vitriol invades people's homes through social media.

Leila Adams, whose family helped establish the mosque in Kilbirnie in Wellington in the 1960s, was one of those who travelled to Christchurch to help with washing and shrouding the bodies of the women who died in the shooting. She continues to hope the violence may result in people being "less judgmental, less stereotypical". But at the same time, "a small negative element" has upped its vocal and online attacks, she says. A Facebook user in the past, she now stays away from the platform, saying that's where the nastiness is worst.

It's not just at an individual level that Islamophobia raises its head, but within institutions, government agencies and companies. Dame Susan Devoy, who was Race Relations Commissioner for five years until the middle of last year, has been well aware of reports of Islamophobia and racial discrimination from around New Zealand. She doesn’t see either issue going away. "I've heard examples, many times, of young Muslims [in]schools, who when there is a terrorist event, are asked in front of the class to explain what is Islam and things like that - so inappropriate," she says. "I don't have all the answers and I don't know all the problems but I know not enough is being done."

Dame Susan says when she was in her official role she wrote to government agencies for years trying to get support for this "marginalised community" to address issues associated with countering violent extremism. "As we've known, or are now hearing, there was no action taken."

Ethnic Affairs minister Jenny Salesa has been trying to work out what needs to be done. In the most recent government budget, she put in a bid for more funding for the Office for Ethnic Communities, and received $9.4m over four years - a level of investment she describes as historic.