In Praise of Islam

New Zealand received a lot of good press in the wake of the Christchurch shootings, some of it deserved, some of it weirdly self-congratulatory. That our government acted decisively on arms control is no small thing and must be applauded, so too the way our prime minister led the way when it came to acting with proper respect and empathy. Not everybody behaved well, of course, witness Brian Tamaki objecting to the broadcasting of an Islamic prayer for goodness sake, or the threats of violence received when an RSA suggested a similar prayer at an Anzac Day ceremony. So we have idiots in our midst, who knew, but by in large there was a proper focus on the value of tolerance and the celebration of diversity. But whether that’s to be lauded, or rather falls better under the banner of ‘not being a complete arsehole’, I’m not so sure. If any group deserves particular praise and admiration following the attacks it is  surely the local Islamic community. When these things escalate, it is because the victims get all het up and masculine and go seeking retribution. Remember the US response to 9/11? What we didn’t see in New Zealand was any overt show of anger or appetite for vengeance from those who’d suffered most. Rather we heard words of love and peace. We saw a real openness to the wider community, and we saw a tremendous degree of grace and patience. If anything stands as an antidote to Islamaphobic bigotry it is the behaviour of New Zealand’s Muslim community over recent weeks. If that’s the value set and living example they bring to our country, then lucky us.

Tolerance, of course, is an easy word to use, almost to the point of being rendered meaningless, and a tricky one to practise. Witness the predictable explosion of public vitriol following rugby player Israel Folau’s latest post suggesting most of us, one way or another, are going to hell. His inclusion of homosexuals in the list of the damned was bigoted and hateful, no doubt about it, and speaks of a faith genuinely held but in need of change if we are to move quietly forward to a more inclusive and peaceful future. How to gently pull cultures in that direction, rather than simply alienating them with our admonishments of secular piety, is the bigger question.

What is striking, as journalist Mark Reason recently wrote eloquently of, is the level of righteous indignation we seem to be able to muster in specific cases, while conveniently ignoring what appear to be far worse transgressions elsewhere. Fair to say Rugby culture has a long way to go to earn its right to call itself inclusive when it comes to sexuality, and while the calling out of Folau is in some sense a step forward, and it’s been great to see the high profile players repudiating this point of view with force and passion, there’s something slightly dodgy about the whole holier than thou thing too. Reason points to Australian rugby’s airline sponsorship, owned by a state where homosexuality is not exactly celebrated, and it’s a fair point. It’s also  worth asking whether the fact that Folau has Pasifika heritage has anything to do with our response. Would this issue play our differently with a pakeha All Black, I wonder. I like to think not, but then again, anyone who has read of the Scott Kuggeleijn trials will understand that you can indeed do far worse than express a hateful opinion and have it have no bearing whatsoever on your sporting career. Maybe the difference isn’t race, and our sporting culture just doesn’t like women much. Either way NZ cricket’s behaviour was shameful and that they were not called on it by the general public astonishes me. We do indeed selectively choose when to indulge in the guilty pleasure of judging others.

There is difficult difficult journey ahead if we are to genuinely attempt to help the likes of the Destiny Church lunatics who recently attempted to make their protest outside a mosque to a softer, more inclusive version of belief and celebration (dare I say, in the cases of Tamaki and Folau, a more Christian version?) But New Zealand’s Islamic community have provided us with a timely reminder that there is a way forward, and that when the conditions are right, and the support is heartfelt, the moral arc of the universe can indeed bend towards justice.


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