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HRC Speech: Launch of Islamic Awareness Week

Human Rights Commission

Media Release: Speech by Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres at the launch of Islamic Awareness Week, Auckland University of Technology
8 August 2005

Sustaining a climate where intolerance is the exception rather than the rule

Almost exactly a year ago today we were coming to terms as a nation with an act of prejudice carried out under cover of darkness against New Zealand's Jewish community - the breaking of nearly 100 Jewish gravestones and the burning of a prayer house at Makara cemetery. It was the second such attack in less than a month.

Amongst the many who responded to my invitation as Race Relations Commissioner to sign a statement deploring this act were leaders of New Zealand's Islamic community. The New Zealand Parliament unanimously condemned anti-Semitism and all forms of racial and ethnic hatred, persecution and discrimination.

A fortnight later there was a forum of community leaders at Parliament, which adopted the New Zealand Diversity Action Programme. The Federation of Islamic Associations is now a partner in that programme, and Islamic Awareness Week is the project they have contributed.

Since the forum last year, there have been further incidents of religious and racial intolerance - most notably the hate mail sent to Muslim families and organisations, and the vandalising of Islamic Centres in Auckland last month. There have also been public allegations that individual refugees and the New Zealand Islamic community as a whole somehow support terrorism. This is despite repeated condemnations of terrorism by New Zealand Islamic leaders for many years, and no evidence whatsoever to support such allegations.

Fortunately, in the same way as occurred after the Jewish cemetery desecrations, representatives of other faith communities such as Christians and Jews, Interfaith Councils, and other New Zealanders, have spoken out in solidarity with the Muslim community. The many messages on the website of the Federation of Islamic Associations are testimony to that. But the reality is, a nasty statement makes headlines, a nice statement does not.

Acts of terrorism in the last month through bomb explosions in London, and also in Baghdad, Beirut, and Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt, all directed at innocent civilians, have unsettled us all. We do not live in isolation from the rest of the world, even if physically we are far away. It has been a particularly difficult time for Muslim New Zealanders, given the resurgence of Islamophobia even here in New Zealand.

The activities organised for Islam Awareness Week show that you are not going to give in to such prejudice, but that instead you are opening your doors to fellow New Zealanders, offering to share what your faith is about, and building bridges under the theme of "Getting to Know Each Other". I congratulate you on your courage and your determination not to be intimidated. I hope many other New Zealanders will take up your invitation, take part in your activities and visit your website.

I had the honour of attending a regional interfaith forum in Indonesia last year, with a group of New Zealand religious leaders and specialists, including three Muslim representatives, and since then I have been working with them and others to build a national interfaith network that can respond in times of trouble, advocate for religious tolerance and understanding, and cooperate with others to combat terrorism and promote peace.

The Federation of Islamic Associations is an active member of that interfaith network as well as of the New Zealand Diversity Action Programme. By continuing to build bridges between faiths and between communities and by working together for peace we can establish the kinds of relationships and the kind of climate that we need for people of all faiths and all ethnicities to feel safe and valued in New Zealand.

We can't altogether prevent individuals undertaking acts of violence, but we can support and look after each other better and hopefully sustain a climate where intolerance is the exception rather than the rule.

We will be talking more about how we can do that at the New Zealand Diversity Forum on 23 August at Te Papa in Wellington, where there will be a special forum on religious diversity with representatives from many of New Zealand's diverse faith communities.


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