What is Islamophobia?
Islamophobia is a closed-minded hatred, fear or prejudice towards Islam and Muslims that results in discrimination, marginalisation and oppression. It creates a distorted understanding of Islam and Muslims and transforms diversity in name, language, culture, ethnicity, and race into a set of stereotyped characteristics. As such, Islamophobia is a system of both religious and racial animosity. (CAIR, 2019) Islamophobia is not something that just happens on a personal level between individuals. Islamophobia is also perpetrated by organisation and the government.
Islamophobia in Aotearoa New Zealand
Islamophobia in Aotearoa New Zealand is not new. Sadly it has been a feature of media, politics and social life throughout New Zealand’s settler history: keeping the country white and of British descent were the goals of immigration policy until the early 1970s. When the War on Terrorism began in 2001, politicians sought to demonise all Muslims for easy political gain. Some will remember Winston Peters’ speech The End of Tolerance in 2005 in which he accused law-abiding Muslims of serving as a cover for terrorism. In 2015, John Key painted young Muslim women as “Jihadi Brides” in a crude bid to secure support for the Islamophobic Countering Foreign Terrorist Fighters legislation. Recently Hamilton City Councillor James Casson was exposed as having called for violence towards Muslims in Europe, demonstrating that Islamophobia permeates all sectors of government.
Islamophobia & the Media
The media, too, has been complicit in spreading hatred and fear of Muslims. A 2017 study (pdf) of more than 16,000 New Zealanders linked news consumption directly with Islamophobia. New Zealanders—whether liberal or conservative—show both increased anger and reduced warmth towards Muslims if they are more avid news consumers. The study showed that it wasn’t because of particular bias on the part of individual media outlets (although there is evidence of that (pdf)), but rather, the overarching portrayal of Muslims which tended to focus on violence overseas with little or no context. Much more recently, social media has been the wellspring of Islamophobia and hate speech directed at Muslims. In particular, fascist elements have promoted a number of conspiracies about Muslims in order to spread hate and promote violence. Bellingcat’s Robert Evans says specific websites such as 8chan are essentially “24/7 neo-nazi rallies, with someone occasionally going off to commit violent hate crimes.”
What we know about recorded incidents of Islamophobia in New Zealand
The Human Rights Act in New Zealand does not protect religion or religious belief (or gender or sexuality) against hate speech, meaning that verbal attacks on Muslims (or any religion) is not defined as a violation of the act. The number of complaints, prosecutions and convictions relating to hate-motivated crime is not systematically recorded in New Zealand and police do not record hate crimes. So when mosques or synagogues are attacked and defiled, those attacks are filed as property damage. In the absence of robust data on hate crime, information about when and how this is occurring is available only in an ad hoc way from localised studies and media reports. In response to the March 15 terrorist attack, the Human Rights Commission compiled It Happened Here: Reports of race and religious hate crime 2004-2012 (pdf). This research report uses mainstream media reporting as the primary source material. This report reflects only a tiny fraction of actual racist and religiously motivated hate crimes. What cases are reported makes for grim reading indeed. What we do know is that in 2017 the Race Relations Commissioner said she was “seeing and hearing every day from people in the community that are talking about the racial attacks on them,” and that “Women who wear a hijab talk all the time about being racially abused at bus stops and schools and in their communities… and what is sad about that is nobody comes to their defence.”