The Christchurch mosque shooting of March 2019, which claimed 51 lives, left Aotearoa’s multicultural fabric blood-stained.
But the message of hate still resonates, according to rights activist Anjum Rahman.
There are government initiatives that are under way, such as hate crime reporting by the New Zealand Police, the social cohesion framework put in place by the Ministry of Social Development, the strategic framework for preventing and countering violent extremism, and other measures.
Even so, “we now have an environment where there is a lot of malinformation, the spreading of hate, the denigration of science and fact checking, the messaging around women politicians or activists,” Rahman said.
Hate directed against one community impacted all communities because it made hate acceptable, she noted. “The Christchurch mosque attacks were the ultimate act of hate.”
But every day there were small acts that made the environment hostile for particular groups, Rahman added, citing the recent arson attack on the Rainbow Youth Centre in Tauranga, which followed the vandalism of a ‘pink’ church in Greymouth.
“People are feeling bold enough to commit these kinds of acts,” Rahman observed.
Rahman said there were still acts that were making the Muslim community feel unsafe. The stereotyping that hijab-wearing women like herself face is still ongoing. Access to housing and employment remains problematic.
“All of this was happening well before the Christchurch attacks,” Rahman pointed out. “And they are still happening.”
Yet Muslim women who wear the hijab have been active within their families, communities and professions, Rahman stressed. “But their work is seldom noticed.”
“That’s also part of the stereotyping that when we are doing good work, it is never seen or talked about,” Rahman lamented.
“The question is always around how we must always be victims, rather than what our achievements are.”
Rahman was scathing on the portrayal of Muslim women in the media. Ethnicities or religion tended to be identified whenever the portrayal was negative.
“But when it was something positive being spoken about, then this was a New Zealander who had done something really well. Then the identity of that person was left out.”
She cited research to show that the more media a person consumed in Aotearoa New Zealand, “the more negative the perception they would have of Muslims.”
Rahman had experienced this first hand.
“I did an interview on the AM show on TV 3. I highlighted a nice, positive story. They put it up on their Facebook page. Within 24 hours, they took it down because the comments were so bad,” she recalled.
Rahman’s experience would suggest there was no audience for the positive stories put forward by Muslim women.
“The story that is usually told and that everyone wants to hear is what discrimination Muslim women face,” she noted. “Yes, we want to make people aware of the discrimination we face, but that’s not the only story about us.”
Rahman wanted the rights upheld that are “already enshrined in law” – the rights that other communities take for granted, such as the freedom of association, freedom to practise one’s faith, the right to safety, employment, education and housing.
As the Co-Chair of the Christchurch Call Advisory Network, formed in the aftermath of the mosque shooting, her role is to deal with the “terrorist environment and extremist content” online.
It is particularly focused on things like the viral video that the shooter involved in that attack had run, and which a few had followed. The recent Buffalo, New York, attack video showing the shooting in a supermarket was reportedly sent to the victims of the Christchurch attack.
“The Christchurch victims were being targeted with that video. These people were being targeted again and again, and deliberately so. It’s all pert of the environment of hate.”
But Rahman is mindful of painting everybody with the same brush.
“I honestly don’t believe the majority of the community would support any of this. They either don’t see it, or they don’t understand it or they feel powerless to do anything about it,” she said.
In 2013, Rahman made an unsuccessful bid for Council. It inspired Muslim women to step up and be leaders.
Currently, her energies are focused on leading her pet project – Inclusive Aotearoa Collective Tahono – that aims to bring communities together around a common platform. In 2020, the Collective visited 46 towns and cities and “just talked to people.”
But were hijab-wearing Muslim women fighting a wider battle within their own community against male orthodoxy?
“It’s an interesting question,” Rahman conceded. “I don’t think it’s any different from women in other communities.”
But the struggle for gender equality within the Muslim community was more nuanced.
“One of the concerns that we have as Muslim women is that if we raise any of our issues publicly, it adds to the stereotyping and the hate campaign that says Muslim women are oppressed and are second class citizens,” Rahman explained.
“People will use it to attack us rather than looking inward at what is happening in their own communities, or rather than asking what can we do to help or support. This dissuades you from speaking publicly.”
But in the eyes of many across communities, Anjum Rahman is a role model for hijab-wearing Muslim women across Aotearoa and beyond.