Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Only Connect

E.M. Forster, Howards End, 1910.
...Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
This is a plea to Kiwis and to people the world over. Make connections. Make personal connections. Get to know your neighbours, colleagues, workmates, classmates, inmates and especially those from other cultures. So often there is beauty and treasure right in front of us, yet we frequently make no effort to discover it. Perhaps you know someone who seems a bit withdrawn or doesn’t engage with the crowd; an 'outsider'? Don't just make assumptions based on what you see or what you've heard; don’t simply talk about them; talk to them. Break the ice. Ask questions, respond. Discover what makes them tick. Discover their background. We are all haunted by our past to a greater or lesser extent. Take a little time to get to know them. Their history, their aspirations. They will have much to share. New Zealand has a great diversity of cultures - we need to break down the barriers between them. It is sometimes difficult for us, but try to put our prejudices, assumptions, guesswork and fears aside and engage directly. 

As NZ begrudgingly takes in a small number of Syrian refugees, it becomes increasingly important to ensure that our Muslim community here does not become isolated from the rest of the population. In my experience, Muslims as yet have no serious political aspirations in NZ beyond a genuine willingness to engage across communities and see improvements for all. There is little or no Muslim-specific political agenda, militancy, wish for separatism or special treatment. The vast majority of Muslims in NZ follow what you might call the 'fluffy personal version' of Islam. This provides them with a set of rules and regulations about how they should behave, and by-and-large they don't want to control the behaviour of others.

In my view this is because, at the moment, the Muslims here (like most migrants of any race or creed here) are consciously or unconsciously trying to get away from something. People don't choose to come to this tiny set of islands in the middle of nowhere unless you're escaping from something - whether that be the restrictions of your culture, society, family, your past life, yourself. They are mavericks. So it is unlikely that the current set of Muslims would want to impose strict Sharia (law) on themselves or anyone else.

This escapism or maverick nature of the current set of Muslims here is partly a function of the tiny percentage (1%) of the NZ population that they represent. However, as that percentage grows over time, the dynamics are likely to change. It would no longer be possible for incoming Muslims to seek refuge from the world here. The community would start 'policing' itself and the new Muslim migrants would be those who want to join a Muslim community, not those who are prepared to go-it-alone. It would become increasingly difficult for members of that community to express their own opinions; they would have to toe the line.

Toeing the line, Islamic style. (Grand Mosque of Nishapur 27/9/2013)
Slavery, Terrorism and Islam (Hammond P, 2010) provides examples of the typical behaviour of Muslim communities as they grow and the percentage increases relative to non-Muslims. This is summarised in a blog here, which obviously has a very negative bias, but that doesn’t necessarily make it incorrect.

Islam indoctrinates its followers with a sense of supremacy: Islam is the only true faith and will eventually conquer the whole world. Muslims don't do humility very well. 

I'm asking Kiwis to build close relationships, bridges, with their Muslim community to help them integrate, build understanding and trust, help them to see that there is value in other cultures and that the 'infidels' are not all bad. Act as ambassadors. You will be representing your country, your culture, your kin.

This wont be any easy battle. Muslims are extraordinarily prone to  conspiracy theories and have a very deep distrust of the West (esp. the US, Britain and Israel). This mistrust at a very general level is based on decades of official foreign policy, implementation of that policy on the ground and activities of global corporations. There is a real sense of victimisation (IMHO based on the aforementioned indoctrinated self-esteem deficit). The recent opinion poll conducted within Iraq and Syria by ORB shows that over 80% believe that ISIL is an US/foreign made group. There is actually much evidence to support that view. It didn't appear to be a planned outcome, and it wasn't directly controlled, but the outcome was ISIL. Muslims I have spoken to in NZ and globally believe that the outcome was planned - to create an an ongoing state of war in the MENA region; providing wealth for the Western arms and oil industries and keeping the Muslim world in subjugation to the West. Opinions are not the same as facts, but perceptions control our thoughts and actions.

At an interpersonal level things are better. Muslims are unlikely to reject an honest friendly approach. An issue however. is that while individuals can develop good working relationships across cultural divides, these will be seen by Muslims as a 'special case'. This belief would allow Muslims to reconcile their prejudices about the great Satan (the US and Western civilisation) with their own experience. Nevertheless it is a small but necessary step along the road to integration.