Indonesian Islam Down Under
Kilbirnie Mosque, Wellington
Here’s a message for Indonesian Muslims who feel their faith is flagging: Move to a country where you’re a minority.
“It can be a challenge and there may be downsides, but after ten years in New Zealand I’m more pious than I was in Jakarta,” said Agam Jaya Syam (above, right), chairman of the Indonesian Community Association in Wellington.
“Back home I accepted a lot of things uncritically, but here we find our beliefs and values being challenged. For example my son Fachry asked why we can’t eat pork. In the past I would have said it’s forbidden. Now I’ve had to add the reasons why, explaining how pigs feed and their digestive system works.”
There’s another plus: Worshippers with conflicting views on how their faith should be practised bury divisions when faced with the reality of being the few among the many.
“When you’re in a minority – and a very small minority – you tend to overlook little things,” said Fawzan Hafiz (above, left) , a past president of the International Muslim Association of NZ (IMAN).
“Differences don’t seem to matter so much. The larger the group, the less the compromise. That’s when history, culture and custom come into play.
“In NZ we have a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic community. More than 40 nations are represented in the congregation at the Wellington mosque. The beauty of Islam is that it can adapt.”
A few Chinese Muslims arrived in NZ during the South Island gold rush about 150 years ago. However they had little influence in an overwhelmingly Christian nation, for by 1950 there were only 150 throughout the whole country.
Eleven years later the number hadn’t even doubled. Then Indian Muslims started coming from Fiji. Students from Asia began to arrive, along with refugees from the Middle East.
Islam also began attracting locals disillusioned with other faiths. Now ten per cent of Muslims in NZ are Maori and Western.
Today NZ has around 40,000 Muslims. They worship at 35 prayer centers and mosques, including one in Invercargill, which at latitude 46’42” may well be the world’s most southerly – and coldest.
About 150 of the 400 Indonesians in Wellington use the local mosque and a central city room in a shop for Friday prayers.
The mosque, a printing warehouse converted with local funds and money from Malaysia, can accommodate more than 1,000 worshippers. It was opened just after Muslim terrorists slammed two commercial jets into New York’s World Trade Center, releasing a global cloud of Islamophobia.
Though little across NZ, according to Fawzan. There had been some graffiti and a broken window, but these were examples of vandalism by street kids and not linked to bigotry.
When The Jakarta Post visited at 7 am on a cold Sunday the outside gate was open and the doors unlocked. No guards were present. Later, on a Saturday afternoon, the rooms were full of Somali children and their moms in colourful ankle-length ethnic dress. A few headed for the shops wearing black burqa.
“The atmosphere here is different,” said Fawzan. “NZ is generally pretty tolerant. The people are good – there’s no religious prejudice.”
But then there’s not much religion in the South Pacific nation of 4.25 million.
Census statistics show one third of the population indifferent to religion. Church attendances have tumbled and Sunday service pews in the traditional denominations grow thinner and greyer every year.
The present Prime Minister John Key is not religious though his mother was Jewish. His predecessor Helen Clark, like Australian PM Julia Gillard, is also an atheist. Laws on the separation of faith and state prevent the government from funding religion or having a Ministry of Religion.
An absence of piety doesn’t indicate immorality or lack of compassion. A George Washington University survey of 208 nations called How Islamic are Islamic Countries? ranked NZ number one for implementing policies in keeping with Islamic values. Indonesia was number 140.
When Kiwi businessman Tim Mackay was killed in a 2009 Jakarta terror bombing the RI Embassy in Wellington offered unqualified public apologies and sympathies.
Agam Syam wrote in the local press that he felt “betrayed and ashamed” by terrorists, adding: “If we cannot create peace and instead make trouble and take human lives, that is not Islam.”
“It would be impossible for an Indonesian president not to be Muslim,” said Nourina Djamal who has spent seven years in NZ after a similar period in Australia.
“However we must differentiate between those born Muslim and those who want to be Muslim. If our politicians were truly Muslim there’d be no corruption and there’s be care for the poor.
“I’m happy that there’s no official religion in NZ and I don’t think that causes problems. People don’t ask about religion and it’s illegal to question faith when applying for a job.
“However I don’t like the sex education in schools – I think there’s too much information, it’s too extreme.”
Nourina wears a headscarf in her job at a supermarket, but her 20-year-old student daughter does not – although she did at school.
Agam’s wife Silviana Dewi Warli (left) works for NZ Post. In the street she dons a headscarf – but not in the office. “I’m not ready for that yet,” she said.
The couple have been wondering whether to send their son back to Indonesia for Islamic schooling because there’s only one Muslim school in NZ – in Auckland, 700 kilometers north of Wellington
Both women claimed neither they nor their children had suffered discrimination or abuse but were sometimes greeted in the street by others who recognised fellow Muslims.
However stories of casual racism are often reported in the media. Human Rights Commissioner Joris de Bres reported that although race relations were “relatively healthy” prejudice existed, with Asians the principal target.
Asians are expected to overtake Maori as the second largest ethnic group in NZ by 2026.
The Wellington mosque administration appears to have made earnest efforts to merge into the wider society. Every year it holds an Open Day, inviting visitors and questions, and offering a wide variety of foods from Islamic countries.
Leaders are involved in inter-faith groups and the Koran has been read from lecterns in some progressive churches.
There are no loudspeakers atop the minaret and even if noise abatement laws didn’t exist there’d still be no broadcast calls to prayer, according to Fawzan.
“Why should we disturb local residents who aren’t Muslims?” said Fawzan. “That doesn’t help improve relations with the community.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 July 2012)