When things seemed to be getting ever worse in the Middle East — as they always seemed to, and still do — we’d look at each other and say, wistfully, “There’s always New Zealand.” New Zealand, for us, was the image of peacefulness, where nothing ugly ever happened. We didn’t enquire too closely.
But of course even New Zealand has its bigots. Like Richard Prosser, a Member of Parliament from the right-wing New Zealand First party, who two days ago published an ugly Islamophobic rant suggesting, among other things, that Muslims be banned from air travel.
So an Auckland Muslim sat down and wrote an open letter in response, and today it appeared in The New Zealand Herald. I”m running it in full here because I’m bowled over by the wisdom and grace of it, and because it gets better and better as it goes on:
Dear Mr Prosser,
Unbeknown to myself, I am your enemy.
I consider this strange as I have never met you and harbour no ill will toward you. I am certain that if I walked past you on the street your suspicions would not be raised. If you were a customer in my shop I am certain you would not suspect that I pose your family any risk. For you see, I am Muslim, I am 30, and I am also white. Throw in the fact that I am an American expatriate – accent and all – and I possess quite the subterfuge. After all, I could sit next to you on a flight, our arms negotiating the armrest for space, and you would think nothing of it. And yet if between us the subject of religion arose, my reply would disable you with fear.
Or so your column would lead me to believe.
I am writing an open letter to you out of sympathy, respect, and the desire for understanding. I do not write this so publicly in order to give your opinions greater status than they deserve. Instead, I hope to circumvent your vitriol from tainting the views of other people who, through lack of personal experience with the Muslim community, may be susceptible to your very limited and ignorant view of our religion and families.I will start by, ironically, providing you with some defence. It is absolutely your right to speak your mind freely with whatever opinions you so wish. That is one of the great liberties of this nation.
But let me be clear: speaking your mind is your right as a private citizen. As a Member of Parliament, you are a public servant, and your public opinions need to be more carefully delivered. You must be aware that the words of MPs are granted greater political legitimacy than those of private citizens.
It is frightening when someone with so much power to sway the opinions of others is so cavalier in his delivery. We entrust MPs to make defensible, rational, and sympathetic judgments in pursuit of the common good. Counter to this, your words seek to generate divisiveness by fostering an indefensible ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality.
Do you actually believe Muslims are so different to you that we should be trusted less than any other human being? Wherefore this presumption that those who commit terrible crimes in the name of Islam are actually considered heroes or true Muslims by the rest of us? Are we really so homologous to you? Woe to the Sikh or Hindu who you might accidentally recognise for a Muslim in your eagerness to incite fear, all the while I, the unrecognisable white Muslim, sits next to you.
For you see, if the subject of religion is never broached between us, you will feel safer the entire trip knowing you sit next to a safe and reliable Pakeha. Let me assure you, I want that plane to land safely just as much as you do. I have family and friends who I want to be around for a good long time, and so do they.
The only reason I can think that you would harbour such ill-sentiment is that you have very little first-hand experience with Muslims. I can relate. I was not born into a Muslim family. However, with age I came to recognise my beliefs were congruent with Islam. That seemed a bit of a scary prospect, as I am sure you can appreciate that there is a great deal of Islamophobia in the United States, as well.
Once I actually met some Kiwi Muslims, I quickly realised my presumptions were entirely inaccurate. Muslim culture is not some monolithic fiction. Muslims are just like the majority of Kiwis: we love our summer barbecues, we avidly follow the All Blacks’ domination of rugby, we wear jandals, we buy fish n’ chips down the road. You see, Muslims come from all different backgrounds. I was born in the US and descend from Irish stock. My wife was born in Fiji, and her Indian ancestors were relocated during the British slave trade. Many Kiwi Muslims are from India, the Middle East, east Africa, Indonesia, and Malaysia. We have all come here to share in what it means to be Kiwi. Between us we have a similar pathway to God, but we also respect that every non-Muslim is on their own pathway to God.
Your family and my family, we are each equally Kiwi, despite the fact that we may worship differently. We are equal to you in many other ways: my wife and I both happily pay the highest tax rate, our business creates revenue and employment for many New Zealanders, and our education benefits the New Zealand economy. We are even socially and politically active (gasp!).
If you think supporting terror is somehow intrinsic to Islam, or is somehow an inevitability of our religion, ask anyone in the Muslim community here: no one supports any act of violence or terror against any other living being, human or animal. That is what we call haram in Islam, which means “forbidden by God”. We have no support for terrorists who do such horrible things, and we cannot understand how they can call themselves Muslims. Their actions are entirely incompatible with Islam.
In order to establish better communication on this issue, my wife and I would like to invite you to dinner at our place the next time you are in Auckland. We would like to hear your story, and we would like to share ours. I believe that if you would grant us the pleasure of your company, it will give you a much more enlightened perspective on Muslims and Islam in general. I will leave my contact details with the editor if you wish to make good on our offer.
Update: Prosser has accepted the invitation to dinner. I’m sorely tempted to start a contest for suggestions as to what will be on the menu, but that wouldn’t do justice to the spirit of Jason Kennedy and Khayreyah Wahaab. Talk about the better angels of our nature…!