Dismantling Islamophobia

On Friday the 15th of March 2019 a 28 year old, Australian, white supremacist, gunman entered the Al-Noor mosque in Christchurch and opened fire on people at prayer while live-streaming the attack on Facebook. He continued his deadly attack at the nearby Linwood Islamic Centre. The incident ended with the deaths of 51 people and the injury of 49 others. The massacre sent shockwaves across New Zealand and the world and led to much reflection on racism, the rise of the far-right and the worldwide phenomena of Islamophobia.

Islamophobia kills. Muslims have felt its pain for years around the world. Islamophobia is real. It is a targeted campaign to dehumanise and irrationally fear Muslims. To fear what we wear. The choice of food we eat. To fear the way we pray and the way we practise our faith.

Gamal Fouda, the Imam of Al Noor Mosque (2019)

The Council for Social Work Education in Aotearoa New Zealand (CSWEANZ) expressed our solidarity with the New Zealand Muslim community, condemned the act of white supremacist violence and committed to taking practical steps to share educational materials on Islamophobia. The resources below are the result of this commitment. They are not new resources but selected from a process of curation to collect reflections on the massacre, materials on Islamophobia and strategies to dismantle it.

The aftermath

Mohamed Hassan reflects on what the massacre meant to him as a Muslim New Zealander.

There were many articles in the national and international press after the massacre that attempted to make sense of the event and what it meant for Aotearoa New Zealand society. Joe Burton (2019) identified four important lessons to take away from the massacre: Firstly, in spite of popular stereotypes, Muslim people are by far the biggest victims of terror since 9/11. They have suffered between 82% and 97% of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years. Secondly, we need to understand the social processes that lead to violent extremism, and the growing problem of alienation for many young people in contemporary society. Thirdly, we need to recognise the role of social media and the ‘dark web’ in propagating hate speech, fake news and the propaganda that connects a global network of far-right extremists. Finally, we need to acknowledge that Aotearoa New Zealand does have a problem with right-wing extremists. They may be small in number but they exist and must be challenged.

However, we should be careful to avoid associating Islamophobia only with the activities of extremists. It has its roots in more mundane and everyday social processes. A recent report on Islamophobia in Australia (Iner, 2017) distinguished institutional Islamophobia – by politicians and the media – from individual acts of Islamophobia. Wajahat Ali (2019), writing in the New York Times, identified the roots of the massacre in the Islamophobic rhetoric of mainstream politicians and media personalities. He argued that white nationalism has been fuelled by political leaders, like Donald Trump in the US, and other leaders around the world.

Thoughts and prayers are not enough. These attacks are the latest manifestation of a growing and globalized ideology of white nationalism that must be addressed at its source — which includes the mainstream politicians and media personalities who nurture, promote and excuse it.

Wajahat Ali, New York Times (2019)

Politicians in Aotearoa New Zealand are also implicated in anti-Muslim rhetoric. In an article identifying the anti-migrant rhetoric of New Zealand MPs, Coughlan (2020) refers to a series of statements made by Winston Peters, Judith Collins and others, before the Christchurch attacks. That the massacre gave politicians and media personalities pause for thought is indicated by evidence of the deletion of many online Islamophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments (Grieve, 2019).

The problem doesn’t just lie with politicians, but also with the routine bias built into media coverage of Islam and Muslim people. A study of media representations of Islam and Muslim people in New Zealand media concluded that “…journalists generally lack knowledge about Islam and perpetuate the negative stereotypes mindlessly.” (Rahman & Emadi, 2018, p. 185). The dangerous consequences of such biased coverage are identified in another New Zealand study that found “…a clear association between
media exposure and anti-Muslim prejudice, which applies across the political spectrum”. The authors state that their study “…lends support to worries that media reporting…was tipping the scale toward anger.”

Who are the Muslim people of Aotearoa?

Nisa and Saenong (2019) offer a helpful overview of the history of the migration of Muslim people to Aotearoa New Zealand.

Muslims make up just over 1% of New Zealand’s population and one might assume most are new to this country. But historical accounts document that Islam first arrived in New Zealand in 1769, with two Indian Muslims.

Nisa & Saenong (2019)

The 2013 census recorded around 46,000 Muslims living in Aotearoa with one in four having been born here. Three-quarters of Muslim people live in Auckland where the first mosque, Al-Masjid Al-Jamie Mosque in Ponsonby, was opened in 1979. Of the total number of Muslim people in the 2013 census, 21% were born in the Pacific Islands and 26.9% in Asia, with only 23.3% born in the Middle East and Africa. Islam is estimated to be one of the fastest growing religions amongst Māori people and at the time of the 2013 census there were 1,083 Māori Muslims and 1,536 Pacific island Muslims.

What is Islamophobia

On of the earliest definitions of Islamophobia can be found in a report published by the UK Runnymeade Trust (1997) over twenty years ago.

The term lslamophobia refers to unfounded hostility towards Islam. It refers also to the practical consequences of such hostility in unfair discrimination against Muslim individuals and communities, and to the exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political and social affairs.

The Runnymeade Trust (1997)

The report of the Runnymeade Trust went on to distinguish open views on Islam from closed views with the latter being associated with a discriminatory and Islamophobic perspective. They identified the following eight characteristics of closed views on Islam:

  1. Monololithic: Islam seen as a single monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to new realities.
  2. Seperate: Islam seen as separate and other: not having any aims or values in common with other faiths and cultures, not affected by them or influencing them.
  3. Inferior: Islam seen as inferior to the West: barbaric, irrational, promitive and sexist.
  4. Enemy: Islam seen as violent, agggressive, threatening, supportive of terrorism, engaged in a ‘clash of civilisations’.
  5. Manipulative: Islam is seen as a political ideology, used for political or military advantage.
  6. Criticism of West rejected: Criticism made by Islam of ‘the West’ are rejected out of hand.
  7. Discrimination defended: Hostility toards Islam used to justify discrimianatory practices towards Muslims and exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society.
  8. Islamophobia seen as natural: Anti-Muslim hostility accepted as natural and ‘normal’

In a short article, published in the month before the Christchurch massacre, Amina Easat-Daas (Easet-Daas, 2019) described a toolkit developed by the European Union to summarise the best methods and tools being used to challenge Islamophobic thought and actions in Europe. The toolkit offers a four-step approach “…first defining, and second documenting Islamophobia, next deconstructing its narratives, and then reconstructing new positive and realistic narratives around Muslims”. The toolkit adopts a definition of islamophobia developed by the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims (2018) defining it as form of racism.

Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.

All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims (2018)