Muslims make up just over 1 percent of New Zealand's population. But they are far from strangers in the islands at the bottom of the world. Two months after the mosques terror attack in Christchurch where 51 Muslims were slaughtered during Friday prayer, Herald senior journalist Kurt Bayer explores the remarkable history of Islam in New Zealand.
They were literal ships that passed in the night. Unknown to one another and worlds apart at the bottom of the globe, their paths never to cross again. One lot lauded as legendary explorers of a bold New World, Captain James Cook and his chiefly Christian crew of HMS Endeavour; the others a forgotten French colonial foray to the South Seas featuring two lowly Muslim lascars.
The two Indian lascars, or seamen, Mamouth Cassem and his teenage Bengali shipmate Nasrin rowed ashore at Whatuwhiwhi, Doubtless Bay in the Bay of Islands in December 1769 - just weeks after Captain Cook set foot on a sandy Poverty Bay beach and staked his empirical claims on the land of the long white cloud.
The scurvy-ridden crew of the Saint Jean-Baptiste, including the first recorded Muslims to set foot in New Zealand, as intrepid as Captain Cook himself, recuperated in the warm Northland serenity. Mamouth Cassem, translated from ship logs as Mahmud Qasim, along with Nasrin, walked on the beach and collected watercress for a vitamin-boosting tea before agitated local Maori, there several hundred years before them, chased them off. The French ship weighed anchor and fled to South America.
The episode shows that Muslims are as much part of New Zealand's history as European Christians – dating back 250 years. As Dr Todd Nachowitz, the historian who made the remarkable discovery, says, "We tend to think of New Zealand as a bicultural country, but Aotearoa New Zealand has been decidedly multicultural from the very arrival of Europeans, with [Muslims] involved in the nation building projects with Europeans from the get-go, all the way back to 1769. It is a bit of our history that is not being told."
Canterbury's long history
In a quiet corner of a grassy cemetery in the earthquake-cracked eastern suburbs of Christchurch, 41 Muslims lie, side by side in rows. The incredible scenes of thousands of broken friends, families, and fellow followers of Islam burying the victims of New Zealand's worst ever terror attack, complete with the rhythmical Salat al-Janazah prayers and words of the Messenger of Allah drifting over the eerie land, remain as fresh in the mind as the flowers on the still-damp turned soil. But they are not alone. For 165 years, Muslims have been burying their dead in the fertile Canterbury dirt.
During the colonial era, from 1840 onwards, the majority of early Muslim settlers were drawn from, or through, British India, says pre-eminent early Kiwi Islam scholar Abdullah Drury. Many British East India Company ships with lascar crews, and even a few sepoy, or infantry soldiers, visited New Zealand. Old documents refer to them as Mahometans or Mussulmans.
But 1854 marked the start of the first Muslim immigrant families arriving and laying down roots. More than a dozen Indians arrived at Lyttelton as employees of early Canterbury settler Sir John Cracroft Wilson. Known as "Nabob" Wilson, the India-born British civil servant was in ill-health when he was ordered to the emerging dominion to recuperate. On landing in what was then still a dusty frontier town on the make, bringing with him a collection of exotic animals including an Arabian horse, Wilson snapped up some swampy land at the foothills of the Port Hills and declared it Cashmere - after Kashmir in India where he was born.
They made a good fist of their new life. As Drury argues, Wilson's staff, along with most of the early Muslims settlers to New Zealand, assimilated well and became active members of society. When one of his most trusted servants Wuzerah was asked to give evidence in a court case, he enquired whether he could swear his oath on the Holy Qur'an, rather than the Bible. And despite appearing in the conservative, Anglo-European Christian jurisdiction, his wish was obeyed, and even encouraged, Drury says.
A few years later, another Muslim featured in a court case covered by the colourful early newspapers. In July 1861, an Omani Arab sailor named Mombarak alleged that his British captain had physically abused him.
"The complainant, who is an Arab of Muscat, a remarkably black man, a Mussulman, and rejoiced in the name of Mombarak, being sworn upon the Koran, said – The captain called me up to work at a time when I was unwell about three weeks ago; when I said I was unwell the captain struck me two or three times in the face and kicked me on the loins," reported the Lyttelton Times. The court believed him and censured and fined the captain.
When Tasmanian prospector Gabriel Read struck gold in a tributary of the Clutha River in 1861, sparking New Zealand's first gold rush, men of all creeds and colour flocked to the South Island in the hope of making it rich. The April 1874 national census reported 15 Chinese "Mahometans" in Otago, and four years later, there were 39 "Mahometans" reported across the country.
In 1881 when Nabob Wilson died, he left Wuzerah a plot of land on the former Cashmere estate, where Drury says the ageing Indian spent his final years in a small cottage. A son, Wazera Noora, got involved in horse breeding and, by the 1890s, was selling trotting stallions in Otago. Drury says he epitomises the blending of the early Muslim families into local society.
"They generally integrated very well, to the point of assimilation, with their children being absorbed into the pakeha population," says Drury, who himself converted to Islam in the 1990s after developing an interest in the religion while studying at university. "It's part of New Zealand history that pakeha need to pay a little more attention to. Most pakeha are vaguely aware of having a wahine somewhere in the family genealogy but we've had a number of gentlemen from both Hindu and Muslim communities who marry, and in some cases convert, and have been completely absorbed into the pakeha population."
"It's good to know that they put their hands up"
Today, there are more than 60,000 Muslims living in New Zealand, with more than 30 mosques across the country.
But by the turn of the 20th century, there were just pockets of Muslim individuals, and no organised congregation or Jamaat. Drury believes that probably changed around 1904 when more than a dozen Slavic Muslim men arrived in Auckland from south-east Hercegovina, then an Austrian-governed territory, and worked as Kauri gum diggers in Northland. In 1907, two of them were called to give evidence in court as witnesses. When they were asked to remove their fez headwear, they protested but complied. They later challenged the decision, with a diplomatic requesting that, "Hercegovinians of Mohamedan religion be allowed to appear in Court in dress prescribed by their religion". They won the case.
When the First World War broke out in 1914 thousands of young men volunteered to "fight the Hun" in Europe, including several Muslims. A total of 13 have been recorded as signing up, with most coming from India, along with Turkey, Fiji and what's today called Syria. Some underwent training at Narrow Neck in Auckland, but Professor Michael Roche of Massey University says none of them served in conflict, mostly on medical grounds.
Dr Anwar Ghani, spokesman for the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) which was set up in 1979, wasn't aware of the Great War link. "It's good to know that they put their hands up," he says.
In July 1950, with around 200 Muslims in the country at the time, almost all Indian or Asian, the first Islamic organisation, the New Zealand Muslim Association, was founded in Auckland.
The political quagmire arising from the Second World War detritus resulted in the first arrival of large numbers of Muslim refugees. On May 1, 1951 the MS Goya, a Norwegian refugee ship, brought hundreds of Eastern European refugees to New Zealand, mostly ethnic Greeks from Romania but also Estonians, Yugoslavs and other eastern Europeans. Later that year, it brought two more drafts of refugees which included Albanian and Bosnian Muslims. The Goya refugees would include charismatic figures who would go on to play a significant role in the development of the New Zealand Muslim Association, founded a year before, including Mazhar Krasniqi who fled Communist Yugoslavia and Nazmi Mehmeti, a former wrestler wounded fighting the Communist secret service in the Balkans mountains.
Three years later, a Montenegro-born Yugoslav-Bosnian sailor jumped ship in Auckland and claimed political asylum. Avdo Musovich had a remarkable story to tell. Born in Montenegro in 1919, he was just 5-years-old when he witnessed an infamous massacre of the Muslim men in the village of Šahovići. His account of the mass murder was reported in detail in a 1992 Herald interview: "I saw blood everywhere. Terrible. And I started screaming. One woman came over and said, 'You little devil. What are you doing here? The people are mad'. And with a stick she gave me a hiding and she took me back to the post office."
The former Turkish Navy and merchant seaman, who was once jailed for six months by the Yugoslav secret police, spent a month in Mt Eden Prison when he showed up in Auckland. He got involved in the New Zealand Muslim Association before he managed to bring over his wife Sadika and 11-year-old Miralem in 1962. Avdo took up work at a glassworks factory while Miralem made history in 1969 when he became the first Muslim to join the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) as an aircraft engineer. He served for six years in New Zealand and another 12 years at the Australian air force.
Miralem, now aged 67, felt his family was more political than religious, although fellow Muslims from the MS Goya became close family friends, including Bosnian MS Goya refugee and Mangere East fish and chip shop owner Ramzi Kosovich.
By the 1970s, although the Muslim population was still tiny, they were becoming more unified and organised. In 1979, a national Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) was created to represent all of the various regional groups popping up across the country. Its first president was another MS Goya refugee, the Kosovar-Albanian Mazhar Krasniqi. And in the same year, New Zealand's first mosque was built in Vermont St, Ponsonby.
Al Noor Mosque's grassroots history
Suleman Ismail Kara came to Christchurch from India in 1948, following the trail first beat by his grandfather 60 years earlier.
"We have a very long history here in Christchurch, that not many people know," said Kara, who feels 'lost' after his son Junaid Ismail, a 36-year-old popular local cricketer and father of three young children, died in the March 15 terror attack.
For many years, Kara says it felt like his family was the only Muslim one in New Zealand's second largest city. There was no mosque and they used to pray at his house and friends' places.
After some years, they managed to scrape enough cash together and buy a Tuam St property in central Christchurch where they congregated for prayer.
By the late 1970s, the Muslim Association of Canterbury was founded, with Kara involved, and they started planning a proper place of worship.
They began asking around for donations, and a major boost came with the Saudi Arabian government chipping in thousands. More money followed from other Gulf nations, but it was local Muslims, with a population of less than 200, who dug deep into their pockets that got it over the line, Kara said. They ended up raising $700,000 and building what was, in the mid-eighties, a state-of-the-art masjid.
"It didn't matter how much people gave; if it was a dollar, it turned $99 into $100. It all counted the same," Kara says. "It was done with the help of God and the people who donated to it. It was everyone all together. It doesn't matter if it was someone coming to sweep the place, he's just as important as anyone else."
It was a slow build. First they acquired the Deans Ave land, across from the jewel in the civic crown, Hagley Park, 165 hectares donated to the city by early settlers "reserved forever as a public park, and open for the recreation and enjoyment of the public". Then they fenced it off, and waited for more cash to come in. They poured the foundation and hired an architect who travelled globally, taking inspiration from India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Arabian mosque designs, before canvassing local views. They plumped for a copper roof and striking gold dome.
Christchurch's first mosque – then the most southernmost in the world – officially opened in November 1985.
"We have an open-door policy and we welcome interest from non-Muslims," Razzaq Khan told The Press newspaper at the time. Khan said Christchurch had a 300-strong Muslim community comprising of 28 nationalities speaking 28 different languages and welcomed the opportunity to tell reporters "what Islam is really about".
"We are one"
Since the 1990s, the Muslim community in New Zealand has grown dramatically through substantial immigration, principally from Asia and Africa. A second wave of Bosnian migrants came during the brutal 1992-95 war.
The 2013 Census reported 46,000 Muslims living in New Zealand – accounting for 1.1 per cent of the population. While the results of the 2018 Census are yet to be released and it's likely that more than 60,000 Muslims now live in New Zealand.
Over the past 150-plus years, Muslims have assimilated well into New Zealand society, according to Drury. It takes time for migrants and refugees to settle into society, he says, especially when they're learning a new language and culture.
"Society is very complex, it does take time, and you can't speed that up with a magic wand," he says.
"People who have spent 20-30 years in one country, and who have moved to another, they need time to adapt and adopt to the customs and habits here. Unfortunately, in the Millennial generation, everyone wants an app to quickly solve everything. It doesn't work like that."
While there has been a general history of acceptance and assimilation, there has also been episodes of Islamophobia and anti-migrant sentiment in New Zealand. And as with many western countries, it increased after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States. The Al-Qaeda attacks sparked the so-called "War on Terror", the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and saw New Zealand troops fighting on the ground. FIANZ says they felt a backlash after 9/11, hijab-wearing Aucklanders were abused in the street and called "terrorists", and suddenly the security services were looking at New Zealand mosques as possible radicalisation hotbeds.
After Australian Christopher Harvard and dual New Zealand-Australian national Daryl Jones were killed in a US drone strike in Yemen in 2013, Harvard's parents claimed he'd been introduced to radical Islam at Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch. The imam at the time, Hisham el-Zeiny refuted the claims but Prime Minister John Key confirmed the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) had been looking at the mosque.
Harvard had also spent some time in Invercargill and visiting its mosque – now the southernmost in the world, surpassing Al Noor Masjid – and it had a history of being spied on by Kiwi spooks too.
But its colourful dairy-farming imam Reza Abdul-Jabbar welcomes anyone inside his mosque, and works closely with both security agencies and police. During a December 2017 visit by the Herald, he said: "We have a lot of doctors and restaurant owners, respected, well-mannered people in town. You'd be pretty hard pressed to accuse your GP of being a terrorist. It's good to know the community, but it's more important that the community knows us."
A royal commission of inquiry is underway to investigate the specific circumstances leading up to the Christchurch mosques terror attack. FIANZ has backed the inquiry, included probes into the role of SIS and the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) surveillance of Muslims, especially compared to the scrutiny of right-wing advocates of terrorism. It also wants to look at the role media has had in propagating Islamophobia over the last decade.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, globally praised for her sensitive handling of the shootings and quick steps taken to tighten New Zealand's gun laws, is confident that the royal commission will be able to find out what happened in the lead up, what could have been done to stop it, and how to prevent a future tragedy.
For as Ardern said just days after the attack, everything must be done to ensure New Zealand's Muslim community feels safe, as they have done over the last 250 years.
"New Zealand mourns with you. We are one."