Surrounded by eloquent journalists and a volley of tired jokes about the whereabouts of my yashmak and when was I off to a Taleban meeting, I felt very much in the vulnerable minority.
A few weeks after the horrors of September 11, when I was lining up for a security check before a flight to Dunedin I realised I was standing behind a group of Arabic-speaking people – predominantly young males. My mouth went dry and I was relieved to see the group move off to another departure gate.
Then I felt ashamed and ridiculous. Here I was, a middle-aged New Zealander, who had just been dropped at the Auckland Airport by another young male who looked very like some of those Arab youths – my own son. He has an Arabic name and is Muslim. In fact, I have two sons that could have blended into that group and both fit that description.
And I have a husband who reads the Koran, fasts Ramadan and goes to pray at the mosque in flowing robes. The same man who has lived in New Zealand for 28 years, loves this country and rugby, but is also proud to identify himself as an Arab and a Muslim.
All 19 hijackers in the September 11 attack on New York were young Arab men. And back then in 2001, of the 22 most wanted men in America, more than half of them had the name Mohammed – which of course, is given only to Muslims.
The American Secretary of Transport pointed out then we shouldn’t be singling people out because of their race, ethnicity or religion. But, the horror of Twin Towers lives on and the subsequent attacks have definitely fired up some fierce anti-Islamic and anti-Arab emotions. I know because – surrounded by those guttural sounds of Arabic - I was cringing at Auckland Airport. And once again in October this year on a train in Britain I became extremely agitated because an olive-skinned man seemed to be taking a hellishly long time in the toilet.
The poor chap probably had a bad curry the night before while in my mind he was saying his last prayers and preparing for martyrdom. But, more significantly I’m still ashamed at the way I was thinking. Although I have never converted to Islam, I have been part of a Muslim Arab family for 32 years and I respect their religion. Yet I had automatically assumed this man was terrorist material.
My 25-year-old son was furious when it was suggested that he really should change his name if he wanted to enhance his career opportunities in this country and I know both boys have been subject to some heavy heckling.
I also met with some stinging prejudice from a most unexpected quarter – at a reunion of ‘mature’ journos in Dunedin. In a well-lubricated atmosphere of raucous goodwill, a writer I had worked with in the 70s turned to me with a curled lip and with distaste said: “You’re a Muslim” …as if it was the ultimate insult.
With the marvellous benefit of hindsight, I wish I’d replied that no, that wasn’t the case but I am very proud of my husband and kids who are.
But, surrounded by eloquent journalists and a volley of tired jokes about the whereabouts of my yashmak and when was I off to a Taleban meeting, I felt very much in the vulnerable minority.
Five years on and prompted by my irrational fear on the train I have started to think about my own reactions. I guess it’s because I really do attempt to straddle both worlds. I’m the perennially naïve middle-aged Kiwi who grew up on a sheep farm. I’m also the wife of a moderate Muslim who appreciates being part of that huge international family of Islam – being called “sister” by people I’ve never met before.
The scenario surrounding our grandson’s birth in April 2004 probably encapsulates this. My husband was absolutely distraught about the baby’s spiritual welfare because my son and his partner would not agree to a Muslim marriage. In a meeting of both families, this Presbyterian-by-name was there fighting for the Islamic cause because I understood how much this simple religious blessing (which is not legally binding) means to the child’s extended Egyptian family. At the same time I could also relate to the fear on the other side. Here was this good New Zealand family struggling with the prospect of the ogre of Islam encroaching on them.
We all know how the world has changed since 2001 and most appreciate how the western media has manipulated our minds to equate Islam with terrorism and fear. I know that on those two occasions I have fallen back on racial clichés, when of all people, I should have known better. Mea culpa. Should I feel surprised then that others do the same. Well yes – surprised, because many seemingly intelligent New Zealanders suddenly morph into true red-necks whenever I mention the Arab world or Islam; hurt for my family; saddened because I understand too well this reaction born of ignorance and propaganda.
There’ll always be heated discussions on religion in our particular extended family, but as an individual I feel really fortunate to be part of this large strident group (my husband is the eldest of five sons who all moved to this country with his parents) with Islam at the core. I enjoy the benefits of wonderful kindness and absolutely unconditional support without having to fast or forgo Sauvignon Blanc.
It’s a tired old cliché, but don’t feather and tar the Muslims of New Zealand – or the world for that matter – for the fanaticism of a minority.