The right to differ should not tear us apart

Recent events in the Avondale Mosque in Auckland have alarmed us all.

They reminded me a lot of events that I witnessed at the Canterbury Mosque between 2004 and 2005 or the notorious fist fight at the Hamilton Mosque in 1999.

We start as always with the Holy Quran which reminds us, ‘Truth stands out clear from error.’ ((2:256)

I would like to argue that the New Zealand Muslim community (including its internal controversies and ambiguities concerning the legitimacy and institutional form of its organisational structures) is best understood through two levels of differing analysis.

Firstly, there is the local grassroots level within the immediate geographic locale.

Secondly, there is the regional or national level that includes but also transcends the wider New Zealand population.

In relatively settled times, the local context of societal relationships characterised by traditional norms of good neighbourliness provided an environment for inter-ethnic accommodation and acknowledgment that served as a cushion against more exclusive nationalisms or ethnic identity polarisations – or indeed any potential conflict along theological or theoretical lines.

Evolving society

However the pattern across New Zealand is that of a constantly evolving society and economy that I believe conflicting interest groups within the Mosques have periodically found destabilising and have been unable to withstand at local levels.

At various points over the past 30 years, differing organisations and individuals have tried to present a ‘national leadership’ for the entire Muslim minority in this country – with varying degrees of success and failure.

Such highly stylised simulacra do not fool all. A Part of the challenge has been the inability or unwillingness to confront unpleasant facts directly and more importantly, to analyse historical events accurately.

The consequence has been a strong urge by Muslim ‘authorities’ to maintain the status quo (whatever that might be) however fragile or contested, as preferred to the alternative of public denunciations or fighting. Keep the peace!

This places an onus on Mosque managers, whether they are aware or not, or whether they acknowledge the point publicly or not, to take some degree of responsibility for their own actions and those of their supporters or (perhaps paradoxically) their opponents.

Quest for autonomy

I understand this to revolve around notions of recognition and autonomy for any collectively defined social or ethnic groups at the mosque level.

Essentially the more fragile and divided the local Muslim community, the more contested the legitimacy of the Mosque management, thus the grater the need for institutionalised forms of recognition and autonomy that will guarantee protection from undue uses of authority.

However, we must acknowledge that even autonomy and internal power sharing regimes are often at times inadequate for long term projects or successes.

The final element in the challenge is perhaps to make the porous boundaries between the differing ethnic, racial, linguistic and cultural groupings into virtues.

In other words, it would be desirable to transform these differences into bridges rather than retain barriers to integration between different Muslims.

Harness a problem into an asset. An opportunity to achieve this noble objective may be to emphasize and even institutionalise distinctions to some degree.

Regionalism rises

I suspect that regionalism within the growing Muslim population may increase rather than fade away anytime soon. Therefore, it is time to prepare for such slow but imminent social changes.

New Zealand Muslims have long since ceased to be a real fraternity of common Islamic brotherhood in any genuinely meaningful sense.

Yet we are united by a common faith and, ultimately, remain fated to be buried together!

The broader changes in New Zealand society are not leading towards a singular and unambiguous future but to a future that is a complicated compound of hybrid components and competitive influences, heavy with vicissitudes and contradictions – plural and yet related. It would be linked and inter-dependent future.

In the final analysis, the question that arises is, “What can we do to ensure that there is seen to be some sort of place for God in contemporary New Zealand society?

Honest introspection

We should continue to talk honestly, openly and above all respectfully with each other, and when in public we should present a positively collegial stance.

The general population should not be confronted by our many disagreements.

We cannot be sentimental about the urgent changes that we all need to acknowledge here.

The past was beautiful and had many merits but it is essentially a different country!

The New Zealand Muslim minority is both a microcosm of the broader international Muslim ummah but also a local product: it can be a paradigm of peaceful communal life in the South Pacific serving as a model for other conflicted Muslim societies.

It is often stated blithely that Hope is the main theme of Judaism, Love is the principle theme of Christianity, but Justice (Adl in Arabic) remains an important cornerstone of Islam. We must acknowledge that Tolerance is true Power whilst Intolerance represents insecurity and weakness.

Belief in God means also being prepared to believe in his timing and his providence – Insha Allah!

The striking central fact about the New Zealand Muslim community is that after all is said and done, the faith of Islam is still spellbinding and bringing in new conversions daily and still profoundly important in our era at so many levels.

Abdullah Drury is a regular columnist in Indian Newslink. He lives in Hamilton

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