As New Zealand unites in the aftermath of Friday's terror attack, there are calls to finally resolve racism concerns repeatedly raised by Kiwi Muslims.

One leading figure says a new Government-led strategy is needed to address issues her group has exhaustively put to officials over recent years, amid what she described as rising levels of discrimination.

That's ranged from casual racism in the media and online vitriol, to hate speech and harrassment in everyday life.

One recent informal survey by the Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand, involving 100 Muslim women aged 12 to 16, found 80 per cent said they had been "harassed or discriminated against within the past year".


The young women reported that the abuse and discrimination was occurring not just on the streets but within the schools they attended, and some of it came from teachers.

What research tells us

Successive studies have suggested where much of it has stemmed from.

Notably, the 20-year longitudinal New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study has indicated Muslims experienced higher levels of prejudice than other ethnic groups, and lower levels of "warmth".

Another survey of 300 people, carried out by Victoria University's Centre for Applied Cross-cultural Research, found a "moderate to moderately high" level of perceived threat in relation to Muslim immigrants.

Fifty-one per cent agreed Muslims had "customs that are not acceptable in New Zealand", 44 per cent agreed "Muslim immigrants increase the risk of terrorism" and 44 per cent agreed that "Muslim values are not compatible with New Zealand values".

A third of those surveyed however agreed Muslims have made an important contribution to New Zealand, and 53 per cent agreed that here should be prayer rooms for Muslims at universities and workplaces.

When respondents were asked to rate how favourable their perceptions were of immigrants from different religious backgrounds, Muslims not only rated the poorest, but were the only group that, at 43 per cent, fell beneath the mid-point of the scale, said the centre's director, Professor Colleen Ward.

Favourability ratings of immigrants from Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and Somalia were also below the midpoint of 50, whereas those from Australia, UK, US, South Africa, China, Philippines, Korea, Samoa, Fiji and Tonga rated higher.


"Although New Zealanders have some of the most positive attitudes toward cultural and ethnic diversity in the world, our research work with members of New Zealand's Muslim community found that everyday racism, negative stereotypes, lack of knowledge about Islam, and racism in the media were among the most commonly-cited challenges faced," Ward said.

"Nevertheless, New Zealand Muslims strongly desire to achieve balance in their lives, combining the peaceful practice of their religion with their participation in the wider New Zealand society."

The number of Muslims in New Zealand according to the 2013 census is 46,149, up 28 per cent from 36,072 in the 2006 census.

New Zealand now has a number of mosques in major centres, and two Islamic schools.

University of Auckland psychology lecturer Dr Danny Osborne said it was difficult to say whether New Zealand was less tolerant to Muslims than other Western nations because there was little comparative data available.

He explained such prejudice partly stemmed from "misperceptions that the values of one group are incompatible with another group."

"But there are also individual differences including right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation," he added.

"I think we're also seeing instances where opinion leaders and political elites like Donald Trump and others are giving a little more space for white nationalism to take root."

Professor Mohan Dutta, the dean's chair in communication at Massey University, explained the trope of the "Islamic other" organised hatred, anchoring a wide array of violent behaviours.

"Existing scholarship documents that this hatred is often generated and circulated in the mainstream, securing its legitimacy from political parties and often driving the campaign strategies of parties," Dutta said.

"The rise of right wing authoritarian leaders from Modi to Trump to Netanyahu across the globe is driven by the hate industry, capturing and manipulating public sentiments to secure political power."

The impact of media

Another researcher who has explored the issue, Otago University religion lecturer Dr John Shaver, identified a link between high media consumption and anti-Muslim prejudice.

Not only did his 2017 study find this correlation spanned right across the political spectrum, but also, the more people watched the news, the more distorted views became.

"Our findings suggested that negative attitudes towards Muslims are, in part, the result of frequent expose to biased and inaccurate representations of Muslims in the media," Shaver said.

"We have not examined the effects of social media on attitudes towards Muslims, although this is an important avenue for future research."

Shaver said that, given the many reports of harassment towards Muslims that have emerged in the past week, it was important that the media pay renewed attention to their responsibility to educate.

One of a group of high-ranking Australian muslim leaders is embraced by a local woman in Christchurch in the wake of last Friday's shootings. Photo / Alan Gibson
One of a group of high-ranking Australian muslim leaders is embraced by a local woman in Christchurch in the wake of last Friday's shootings. Photo / Alan Gibson

"Muslims are a minority and knowledge about minorities, almost by definition, must come second hand," he said.

"If the media are presenting a monolithic, and therefore inaccurate, representation of an incredibly ethnically and ideologically diverse community, then they ought to consider means for better fulfilling their primary responsibility."

Previous studies had found that less than 10 per cent of the presentation of Muslims in the New Zealand media were domestic stories.

In essence, then, New Zealand's Muslims were hidden from public view to the majority of Kiwis, he said.

"In their place are representations of Muslims are more likely to sell newspapers or get visits to websites, and are not an accurate representation of Muslims here or anywhere else," he said.

"Given our findings, and the recent reports of harassment towards Muslims in New Zealand, it seems vital that the media reflect on its role in these events."

New call to tackle racism

Yesterday, Islamic Women's Council spokesperson Anjum Rahman called for a "co-ordinated and strategic approach" from the Government – something the group had sought with a comprehensive report it delivered to the Ministry of Social Development five years ago.

Anjum Rahman, of the Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand, has spoken of the repeated attempts to lobby Government agencies for action. Photo / File
Anjum Rahman, of the Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand, has spoken of the repeated attempts to lobby Government agencies for action. Photo / File

Rahman said the report set out problems surrounding everything from health and education to policing and family violence, and proposed solutions, but the council was unaware of any action undertaken by the ministry.

"We put down what we as a community could offer in those areas as well ... I have no idea what was done with it."

The council had also put its concerns directly to the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, the Department of Internal Affairs and Office of Ethnic Communities, the State Services Commissioner and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

She hoped that, following Friday's terror attack, action would now happen.

"As the threat levels start to go down a little, we do need to start having a really critical look at this stuff," she said.

"We need to start pushing back a little around New Zealand being this wonderful place and saying, actually, we do have problems here, and what are we going to do about them?

"Let's not pat ourselves on the back and think we've done well in responding to this and therefore it's all okay – there is a lot more work that needs to be done, and a lot more self-reflection needed by a lot more people."

'A job for all New Zealanders'

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a press conference this week that Muslim New Zealanders were "the group we need to be wrapping all of our support around" in the aftermath of the attack.

"There is a sense among New Zealanders, of course, that they wish to show the Muslim community their support, their love," Ardern said.

"The challenge for all of us, us going forward, will be to make sure that their safety is assured by making sure we never have an environment where violent extremist ideology can flourish.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to representatives of the Muslim community at the Canterbury refugee centre. Photo / Lucy Bennett
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to representatives of the Muslim community at the Canterbury refugee centre. Photo / Lucy Bennett

"And that means addressing racism and extremism wherever it emerges. That's a job all New Zealanders will have to do and that's something I want to put my mind to a little more over the coming weeks as well."

The Human Rights Commission was calling for better data collection on hate-motivated crimes, and has been running an anti-racism campaign since 2017.

Around one in three complaints to the commission involved racial discrimination.

Osborne said there was much more that New Zealand could do to make itself a welcoming place.

He said there might be a sense of group-based guilt – or even shame – in acknowledging another ethnic group had been treated unfairly.

"Because recognising racism directed toward minorities might threaten one's social identity, it is easier to just deny that racism exists," he said.

"I hate to sound pessimistic, but, if past research is any guide, we will likely only see a temporary increase in the warmth expressed toward Muslim communities.

"I really, really, hope that I am wrong and that we, as a nation, use the terrorist attack in Christchurch as an opportunity to reflect on who we are and embrace everyone who chooses New Zealand as their home.

"But more often than not, atrocities like this serve as a temporary interruption to the status quo."

The nation's Muslim Call to Prayer will take place at 1.30pm today, followed by a two-minute silence at 1.32pm. A National Memorial Service for the 50 people murdered in Christchurch is being planned.