I was honoured to launch the Crescent Moon Exhibition: the Asian Face of Islam in New Zealand at the University of Malaya Library on 13 November. The month-long exhibition, based on photographs of New Zealand Muslims and accompanying interviews, will hopefully contribute to a dynamic academic life within campus, sparking curiosities and triggering debate.
Many Malaysians might not realise that Muslims thrive further southeast of Indonesia. Last year I visited Australia on a Muslim Cultural Exchange Programme and saw the diversity of Islam there. The highlight for me was visiting the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque in the suburbs of Sydney: I thought it was highly symbolic for the Turkish community there to invoke the site of a World War I battle that remains central to the national consciousness of Australia as well as New Zealand.
Last Sunday I was at the Tugu Negara to commemorate the fallen at the centenary of the start of World War I – organised by the British High Commission but well-attended by Australians, New Zealanders and Malaysians in uniform, some of whom laid wreaths and one of whom played the Last Post and Reveille to frame the solemn silence. Sadly, after World War I there was to be more joint sacrifice in the name of freedom in World War II, the Emergency and Konfrontasi. The cooperation amongst our armed forces continues to be taken very seriously, but the personal links are even more profound, and I’ve had the privilege of witnessing some of these through an organisation of which I am Patron, the World Malay-Polynesian Organisation, whose members include army veterans.
At their kind behest I visited New Zealand (specifically Waitangi and Auckland) earlier this year – and while the purpose of that trip wasn’t to explore Islam in New Zealand, I certainly experienced a tremendous warmth from our Maori and Pakeha hosts towards the Muslim members of our delegation. The astonishing similarities between Malay and Maori vocabulary convinced me beyond doubt of our shared blood and linguistic ancestry: but this exhibition shows that such things are not prerequisites for being welcome in New Zealand.
Indeed, the people whose photographs are displayed have origins and histories in Afghanistan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, India, Japan, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Iran, Indonesia, Cyprus, Singapore, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. They are a microcosm of the pluralism inherent amongst the Muslim faithful around the world. Their stories are important not just because they represent different cultural traditions and may follow different schools of jurisprudence, but because they are Muslim individuals speaking about their faith and country on their own terms, rather than being spoken for by politicians or self-declared leaders who claim to be speaking on their behalf. The diversity of professions too is remarkable: apart from students there’s an IT trainer, a farmer, a butcher, a broadcaster, an imam, a boxer, an accountant, a teacher, a political scientist, a Member of Parliament, several civil servants and activists. They like to swim, ride motorbikes, paint, go bowling, play cricket and row boats. They thrive in the liberal democracy of New Zealand.
Indeed, in the Overall Islamicity Index Rankings published by professors at the George Washington University to measure how countries’ policies reflect Muslim values, New Zealand came first in the world while Malaysia came first amongst countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Of course all such rankings have their critics, but such tools are useful in spurring alternative theories and ultimately help to improve policymaking in the future.
We can also be inspired by values espoused by the great polities of the historic Muslim world: the religious tolerance of Cordoba and Istanbul, the intellectual freedom of Fez and Cairo, the trading activity of Marrakech and Malacca. Yet, I wonder how many Muslim leaders are willing to learn from those examples, instead of resorting to rhetoric capitalising on nationalistic fervour over substance. To be seen to be “defending Islam” captures more political capital than actually applying the religion’s principles to governance.
And yet, many Malaysians forget that the first Secretary-General of the OIC was Tunku Abdul Rahman, and there was no doubt that he passionately believed in the principles of democracy. In the context of the Cold War he placed Malaysia firmly on the side of democratic nations, including New Zealand.
Today the Malaysia-New Zealand relationship is thriving across all diplomatic tracks, despite one or two challenges of late, and this exhibition will augment that relationship. Accordingly I hope UM opens its doors to enable as many Malaysians as possible to see the faces of Asian Islam in New Zealand.
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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS