Thoughts in the aftermath of the Christchurch white supremacist terrorist attacks:

As many of you know, my recent work and experience with the Waikato Interfaith Council, teaching Comparative Religion at the University of Waikato, and the Religious Diversity Centre has focused around the issues of our religious illiteracy and helping to raise awareness of all types of religious diversity in order to help mitigate incidences of discrimination and hate prevalent in society today. In January this year, we began forming a new organization called EarthDiverse that’s dedicated to raising our levels of awareness of all issues related to diversity, which includes both cultural (e.g. multiculturalism, religious diversity, language) and environmental (e.g. climate change, loss of habitat, shrinking biodiversity) dimensions. EarthDiverse’s very first programs have been two series of ongoing adult education classes open to the public designed to raise awareness amongst majority populations of the importance of religious diversity. The first series of classes across all four school terms throughout the year is entitled “Discovering Religious Diversity” and focuses on the history, development, and beliefs and practices of all of the world’s main religious traditions. The second series of classes is entitled “Contemporary Issues in Religion,” and the 2019 Term 1 and Term 2 courses are entitled “Religious Fundamentalism, Extremism and Terrorism.” This class focuses on the belief that acts of extremism and terrorism occur in all of our faith traditions, and that no one faith has a monopoly on extremist beliefs. In our class this past Thursday, the night before the murderous attacks, we discussed the topic of Christian extremism and the notion that white supremacist ideology is alive and well in New Zealand and around the globe. In future sessions, we will be discussing other forms and manifestations of hate, and in Term 2 we will be also looking at the topic of Religion and non-violence, and the various faith-based responses to hate and terrorism. Both classes are ongoing, and registration is open to all at any time. 

I would encourage anyone interested in ‘taking action’ in the aftermath of this past weeks’ events, or keen to do anything proactive about the perpetuation and pervasiveness of discrimination, hate, and the acting out of extremist belief, to enroll in such classes, either here in Hamilton, or elsewhere in New Zealand or around the globe. In New Zealand, the Waikato Interfaith Council, the Religious Diversity Centre, the Tauranga Mōana Interfaith Council, and EarthDiverse have been collectively offering these classes and seminars for four years now and will continue to do so in the future. In fact, we will redouble our efforts in this sphere. I urge you, wherever you are, to seek out and become involved in your local Interfaith Councils, which have been working tirelessly on these issues for years. 

If you’re like me, you’ve been devastated by Friday’s horrific attack on our Muslim community by a white supremacist ideologue. The shock and horror of such a thing happening in New Zealand have prevented many of us from carrying on with our normal day-to-day lives. 

However, move forward we must, and continue to actively engage on these and related issues. Our classes are a direct result of our desire to help mitigate the incidences of racism, extremism, and discrimination by educating ourselves against the hate of elements like Antisemitism and Islamophobia that are prevalent in our society. Remember that the attack against Jews at worship on the Sabbath in their Pittsburgh synagogue happened only this past October. Sikhs were likewise murdered in their Gurdwara while at prayer in Wisconsin in August 2012. There are, unfortunately, too many similar incidents of ignorance and hate to relate. As we now know, New Zealand is no longer immune to such attacks and I fear we have lost our innocence. Continued interest in being an element of change can help stem the rising tide brought about by our ignorance of other cultures, beliefs, and religious systems.

If you know others that are interested in learning, bring them along to our classes. If people feel helpless and want to do something, one of the most beneficial things we can do is educate ourselves about our minority neighbors and help spread that love, rather than perpetuate fear or even remain complacent. 

Here, in a ‘bicultural’ New Zealand, we tend to think that our migrant communities are relatively recent arrivals, with the first few coming during the 1860s Otago gold rush and more recent migrants coming to Aotearoan shores in the wake of the 1987 Immigration Act reform. This is a myth. New Zealand was decidedly multicultural from the very first steps Europeans took on Aotearoan shores. European vessels of exploration and exploitation brought South Asians to New Zealand shores in 1769, and the very first non-Māori, non-European foot-plantings on Aotearoan shores occurred only two months after James Cook’s initial visit in October 1769, with the landing of Captain Jean-François-Marie de Surville’s ship, Saint Jean-Baptiste, at Doubtless Bay (Northland) in December 1769. Very few historians know that Saint Jean-Baptiste had set sail from Pondicherry, India, on 2 June 1769, with a crew of 232, fifty-three of which were Indian lascars (sailors). While the great majority of the crew died of scurvy on their way to Aotearoa, 5-6 Indian lascars survived to make a landing in Doubtless Bay to rest, recuperate, and drink greens during their two-week stay between 18-31 December 1769. Two of the crew that survived, and who would have been ashore at the second landing of Europeans in 1769 were Indian Muslims, and are named in Surville’s, and his second-in-command Labé’s, ships logs as “Mahmud Qāsim” of Pondicherry, India, and as “Nasreen” a young Bengali lascar. This incident, as well as additional incidents of the earliest South Asian, Chinese, and African arrivals on Aotearoan shores in the late 1700s and early 1800s, are well-documented in my 2015, 2018, and 2019 publications, which includes detailed descriptions of Indians ashore during the first years of Māori-European encounter. Tauiwi were here from the very start and have just as much a right to live, work, and stay safe in Aotearoa New Zealand as do Europeans. 

While government agencies and multicultural councils do much good work to help with migrant integration and support of new migrant communities in a modern New Zealand, the problem is not one of minority integration into mainstream society, but rather majority ignorance of minority communities. We all need to step up and take some responsibility here for not more proactively addressing our own ignorance about our history, the religious beliefs of our minority others, and the importance that Aotearoa’s migrant communities play in our success as a multicultural, multilinguistic, and multireligious society. We are all migrants here. Your tears are our tears…