Most of us are living in fear of a Donald Trump presidency. If you don’t inhabit one of the Republican states imprisoned in the centre of the USA, you probably experience regular bouts of pants-crapping horror at the prospect of the Apprentice star becoming the world’s most powerful political leader. But few people feel that terror as viscerally and personally as Muslims.
They’ve been the subject of many of Trump’s worst brain sharts, beginning with his call for Muslims to be banned from entering the US until we “figure out what’s going on”.
While The Spinoff is broadly in favour of figuring out what’s going on, Trump’s suggestion was almost as bigoted as it was impractical. He followed it by putting Syrian refugees “on notice”, appearing to support a database of Muslims, and attacking the parents of a Muslim soldier killed in action.
Those ideas, expressed so crudely and on such a big stage, have fanned the flames of xenophobia in the US. But have they also had an impact on New Zealand? The Human Rights Commission is currently running ‘That’s Us’: a campaign aimed at getting New Zealanders to talk openly about their experiences of racism, and have supported The Spinoff’s commentary on the area. As part of their effort, I talked to Tayyaba Khan, CEO of the ChangeMakers Refugee Forum, about the Trump effect, the realities about being a Muslim in New Zealand, and whether there’s any hope out there in this terrible world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
How much of an impact does the language of someone like Donald Trump have locally?
Well I think about when Seven Sharp did a story on that young refugee woman, Ghadair Alshemari,and how she ran in the local body elections. I looked at the comments underneath the story and it was really illuminating…
[Interjecting rudely] You must be the first person who’s ever spoken positively about reading the comments.
If you want to be realistic about what’s happening you have to see what’s happening in the comments. I mean I was appalled. I’m not saying they’re brilliant comments. It was just telling to see how people were perceiving what was a relatively good story really. They’re focusing on her hijab. They’re telling her to dress more normally. Saying that might improve her chances. Telling her to go back home.
And her response was brilliant – she was posting love hearts to really awful comments. I get what’s she’s doing. But it’s a direct correlation. These people don’t know a Muslim. They’re not engaged with a Muslim. They’re on a social media platform listening to people like Donald Trump. And then they’re using that to base their opinions on Muslim people here and what they might be like.
We think of what’s happening over there in the US as an outlier. But do you actually see some similar sentiments in New Zealand?
I think what Trump has done is raise the confidence of some people to say what they think. New Zealand has been a very peaceful country. We’re very politically correct. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t hold some of those views that Trump is projecting out into the world. He’s just “brave” enough to say it and he’s inspiring others to do the same.
I was thinking earlier today about the National Front. Last year I was in Pakistan and a friend sent me a photo of mine on their website where they had listed me as the “anti-white of the week”. I was horrified. It was really worrying. I had to make a request for that to be taken off. Of course the National Front wasn’t going to be like “Yeah sure”. So I had to get the police involved. Since then they’ve been trolling all of my work. Any press releases that go out they try tear it to pieces with anti-immigration, xenophobic language.
Yeah, sometimes when it’s a fringe group like that you feel like you could almost ignore them. But what Trump’s done with anti-Islamic feeling feels almost like a more intense version of what Don Brash did with his Orewa speech – just mainstreaming this simmering racism. Giving people with reprehensible attitudes the opportunity and confidence to be heard. Do you worry that there’s a significant part of the New Zealand population that hold these attitudes and they’re waiting for them to be mainstreamed?
I do worry. And it’s troubling that it’s only when something bad happens in the news that Muslims are heard from and have a chance to respond. It’s unfortunate because it feels like we have to be constantly responding to current events rather than just getting on with life like everybody else. Other groups don’t have to be responding and pandering to people over everything just so they can see that a small minority doesn’t represent all of you. But we have to engage with stuff as a collective community because we want to make sure that you know us.
So is the answer more visibility and more education, as people say? Is the answer knowing a Muslim, being friends with a Muslim, seeing them day-to-day?
Absolutely. I think I couldn’t have said it any better. The answer really is: Muslims are talking about Muslims, but everybody else isn’t talking with Muslims. That would give the opportunity to not only engage with the mainstream media, but with everybody else.
I’m all for people actually getting to know a Muslim, rather than logging in and listening to Trump or any other moron out there saying “Yep, we know about Islam and this is what they’re like”.
So get to know a Muslim, really. That’s your advice.
Do you feel like there’s this quite intentional friendliness that some Muslims have adopted almost to pre-empt or counter anti-Muslim feeling?
I think there’s two things happening there. A lot of our culture is really about friendliness. Politeness. That’s part of the community we’re a part of. We’re a very social, friendly people. But at the leadership level, and among those speaking out in the public arena, people are really aware that their actions are going to reflect on everyone else in the community. So they are more vigilant. They are more careful. They are more friendly. It’s a bit of both.
Having said that, do you try to communicate with people that obviously hold racist or xenophobic attitudes or do you ignore them?
Yeah, there’s that saying: “Don’t preach to the converted.” They’re already aware of what’s happening. So we need to try to engage the people who need to be engaged. As difficult as it is when someone is being really awful, it’s still really important to talk that through. Because there are some people who will come to me with some really weird understandings of our faith or our culture. You have to engage.
But there’s always this kind of exhaustion. You want to keep putting out the facts about Islam. We have to keep talking so people understand that we’re consistent – that we’re not switching messages on our faith. But that’s a lot of pressure! We’re human beings. We want to be living our lives just like everyone else but we can’t because we have to be responsible for a collective community. We’re now in a world where one person and their actions reflect on everybody else.
You’re right that, in US politics in particular, every time there’s a terrorist attack or ISIS does something terrible, it sort of gets placed onto all Muslims and every Muslim has to condemn it as if everyone is responsible. Does that get frustrating?
I think frustrating is one way to put it. It really makes me quite angry because ISIS isn’t just killing non-Muslims. In fact, the majority of the people that they’re murdering are Muslims. Statistically, it’s like, are you even noticing what’s happening on the ground? Are you noticing that the enemies of the West, or whatever, they’re actually the enemies of the very people that they claim they’re a part of?
There’s a real inequality and injustice in how the whole ISIS issue is even being perceived. We need to put things in perspective a little bit around them being as much an enemy of the Muslim world as they are of everybody else.
There’s a real injustice in that there hasn’t been that many white people killed by ISIS compared to the number Muslims killed, but Muslims are now being held responsible for easing white fear about it; probably while many of you are grieving or feeling angry.
That’s what I mean about having to play on both sides of the fence, almost. It’s ongoing and really exhausting.
I’m glad that I’ve really depressed you with this conversation.
Yeah thanks a lot.
I guess finally, are there any reasons for hope?
I definitely encourage people to have more dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim people. We have the ability to do that here in New Zealand.