Editorial: Laying down law to Muslims

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Anjum Rahman at Pirongia Forest Park Lodge. Photo / Stephen Barker
Anjum Rahman at Pirongia Forest Park Lodge. Photo / Stephen Barker

It would take a special meanness of spirit not to admire the young Muslim women in our Insight pages today, building a new identity in their adopted homeland, all the while adhering to the dress code of their Islamic culture and religion.

Abseiling, kayaking, horse-riding and skiing, these women are keen to be New Zealanders, but see no reason to surrender their Muslim identity. "No one has really defined what a Kiwi-Muslim is," says Aliya Danzeisen, one of the founders of the Waikato Muslim Association. "Traditionally we have tried to assimilate; now it's about integration."

The distinction between the two terms may be lost on the many New Zealanders who still wrestle with the idea that this country's demographic make-up has transformed beyond recognition in barely a generation.

That process has not been without growing pains - it could hardly have been otherwise - but it has generally shaken down rather well and outbursts of racial warfare are, thankfully, not much seen here.

But the Kiwi-Muslims in the Waikato remind us of the recent brouhaha over two separate incidents in which Muslim women wearing headgear that covered their faces were refused the right to board buses. (The drivers later claimed to be suffering from maskophobia, a disorder hitherto unknown to psychiatry and unlikely to make the next edition of the textbooks).

The incident resulted in the instant creation of thousands of scholars of Islam, among them Paul Holmes who, despite having a bit of trouble telling his burqas from his niqabs, announced that headscarves looked silly on Muslims and Exclusive Brethren (though Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly managed to escape censure) and that "Muslim women have to get real" and fit in.

His point of view, enthusiastically though far from unanimously endorsed by online readers, would have seemed ironic to anyone with an appreciation of the country's colonial history. The earliest settlers certainly did not feel unduly bound by the old "When in Rome ..." protocol.

But it raises the question of whether we should require immigrants not only to observe our laws but also to adhere to our cultural mores, and, if so, how - and by whom - those mores are going to be defined.

In France, where they have banned the niqab and burqa (along with balaclavas and other masks), they estimate that fewer than 5000 of the country's 2 million Muslims wear the head coverings targeted by the law. On a proportionate basis barely a dozen of our 37,000 Muslims are likely to be dressed in the face-covering niqab.

In terms of the sheer numbers, this is hardly posing a threat to the New Zealand way of life. But, more to the point, it is worth asking what the "New Zealand way of life" is: whether it is fixed in a white, Christian past or fluid, constantly evolving as our population changes.

Within immigrant Muslim communities there is furious debate about whether the niqab is prescribed by scripture or by ancient tribalism. Many argue that it is a medieval form of oppression, but by the same token there are Western-educated Muslim women who have articulately attested to the freedom the niqab gives them from the prurient male gaze.

Plainly it is a matter that is evolving, and non-Muslims (particularly columnists) should consider whether it is their role to issue such definitive pronouncements. Living together means learning respect for the way others do things - not laying down the law about the way an undefined "we" do things here.

ELECTORAL REFERENDUM ACT 2010

Contrary to what we said in last week's editorial, the Electoral Referendum Act 2010 provides that at least six specified aspects of MMP must be considered in the Electoral Commission review that will follow the referendum regardless of its outcome.

- Herald on Sunday

- Herald on Sunday

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