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Test of faith: Does New Zealand have anything to fear from radical Islam?

This is republished from the June 2016 issue of North & South.

Almost three years ago, the Muslim community in Auckland welcomed me into their world with warmth, trust and open arms. Amid rising paranoia that taking in Muslim refugees from countries such as Syria would allow terrorists to slip into New Zealand, the men and women I talked to for the story republished here embraced the opportunity to share the everyday normality of their lives: meeting family and friends for a picnic in the park, coaching a school futsal team, raising children in a world where what we see, too often, are the differences that divide us rather than the shared humanity that has now brought so many people together in horror and grief.

Muslim Kiwis from Iraq, Tunisia and Syria gather in Cornwall Park. Some migrated to New Zealand many years ago and have raised their children here, while the Syrian family arrived as part of a special refugee intake in March. Because men and women don’t socialise together, the two groups are sitting apart, with women and children gathered to the left.

The world was shocked when Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the US. But a string of terror attacks in Europe and waves of refugees pouring across its borders have hardened attitudes – even here in New Zealand. Joanna Wane asks what we really have to fear.

A friend posted a link to the story on Facebook. Six Bethells Beach lifeguards had launched a Givealittle campaign to get themselves and an inflatable rescue boat to the Greek island of Lesvos to help fish refugees from the water.

By the time the squad flew out at the end of April, they’d raised $14,000.

Dave Comp, 54, isn’t a religious man, but tucked in his pack was a St Christopher medal – a birthday present from his father – to wish him safe travel.

An accountant when he’s not on patrol, he’d heard 3700 Syrians have drowned trying to cross the Aegean Sea in the past seven or eight months. He calls that obscene. After 20 years with the surf club, he’s been involved in plenty of rescues on Auckland’s west coast, with its treacherous rips. What worries him most is the scale of the Syrian exodus – the possibility of coming across an overloaded boat that’s going down fast and having to pick who to rescue.

Read more: How you can help after the Christchurch terror attack

Comp doesn’t know any Muslims, and friends from Europe have said refugees are starting to wear out the welcome mat. “But nobody puts children into a boat unless the water is safer than the land. That says a lot, doesn’t it? Forget the religious, the political side of it... There are people drowning. They’re having the proverbial blown out of them and they’re getting the hell out of Dodge.”

By midnight on Anzac Day, he had begun his first watch.

In March, Doing Our Bit spokesman Murdoch Stephens presented a petition to MPs signed by more than 20,000 New Zealanders in support of doubling the refugee quota, which hasn’t changed since 1987.

He’s a big man, Dave Comp, with a big heart. But more than a few people reckon he needs to get his priorities straight. “Instead of sending lifeguards to greace [sic] they should put the hat around to build machine gun turrets on the coast and blow them all to fuckery,” wrote Paul, on the website for the TV3 news show Story, which ran a piece on the fundraising campaign.

“If you don’t stand and fight for your own country then you deserve to lose it,” wrote Lesley – to the outrage of Alisa, who posted drone footage shot over Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, showing block after block of utter destruction.

Lesley refused to watch it. “Will you have any empathy,” she fired back, “when one of those terrorists blows up something in NZ and hundreds/thousands are killed?”

My friend who’d shared the Facebook link is an immigrant herself. Originally from the UK, she was shocked by some of the comments: “Very depressing the lack of compassion from Kiwis from the safety of their green isle.”

For me, the backlash came as less of a surprise. At a recent social gathering, I’d been chatting to a group of typical Kiwi guys – middle-aged, middle-class family men – when the conversation turned to the refugee crisis. Every single one of them thought we should close the borders to Muslims. Even if the risk of a radical slipping through was slight, they said, what mattered most was keeping New Zealand safe.

A few weeks later, that didn’t seem quite so far-fetched when three Islamist militants blew themselves up in Brussels, killing 32 bystanders and wounding more than 300. Two of the suicide bombers were brothers who were born in Belgium; a third grew up in Brussels and studied engineering at university before he dropped out and began manufacturing explosives for Isis. Throughout the West, Muslims once again had become people to fear.

It’s the kind of thinking that exasperates Murdoch Stephens, who’s just finished a nationwide tour drumming up support for the “Doing Our Bit” campaign to double the refugee quota. Globally, the average wait for refugees before they’re resettled is 17 years, he says, and any potential threat is more likely to come from someone on a business, tourist or student visa, which involves far less scrutiny.

“These [refugees] are the people fleeing terrorism. If you have this insane idea you should ban Muslim immigration, you’re going to generate an intense division and isolate them. Then that will create the very thing you’re scared of.”

You couldn’t get much more of a white-bread childhood than the one Stephens had, growing up on his parents’ small family farm in rural Balclutha. But a sense of fairness was one of the values he was raised with.

A taste for travel led him to the Middle East, where he spent four months teaching English in Syria before the civil war broke out. A photo taken behind his house in Aleppo shows a large mosque almost rubbing shoulders with an Armenian Christian church. He loved it there and felt safer than he had living in America. “I put on 10kg eating falafel and drinking beer you could buy in the street.” Most of his old neighbourhood has been destroyed now.

The millions of Muslim refugees streaming into Europe are the lucky ones, Stephens says, because they’ve had the money and resources to get that far. And despite the public’s misconceptions, none of them will be on the next plane to Auckland.

New Zealand accepts 750 quota refugees each year through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees resettlement programme, which assesses their status and screens for security risks before they’re vetted again by Immigration NZ (two groups of Syrians who have already arrived this year, some under a special emergency intake, came from a UN refugee camp in Lebanon).

The quota hasn’t changed for almost 30 years, despite a huge drop in the number of asylum seekers since the bar was raised post 9/11. Stephens, who’s also campaigning to double the funding for support services, remembers being horrified to discover Australia takes three times as many refugees per capita. “I thought I knew this country and race relations here compared to Australia.”

The quota is under review and in June, a new $20 million complex able to take 1500 people a year will replace the shambolic World War II military barracks that have housed the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre in South Auckland since the late 1970s.

Immigration NZ’s refugee quota branch manager, Qemajl Murati, says only the most vulnerable cases are considered for resettlement. Biometric data is shared between the “Five Eyes” countries (New Zealand, Canada, the United States, the UK and Australia) and anyone with a red flag – such as a possible link to human rights abuses or a family member who is a combatant – is excluded or deprioritised until it can be shown they don’t pose a threat.

“It’s probably the most difficult part of the job, making these assessments. No one would like to put their signature next to someone who may potentially do harm to anyone in New Zealand.” 

Murati says extremists like Isis have committed acts beyond comprehension. “But it’s very important to realise the absolute majority [of refugees from Syria] are women, children and elderly fleeing for their lives. They’ve lost their homes, they’ve lost everything. They’re not looking for an opportunity to cause trouble.”

According to the Global Terrorism Index, terrorist activity increased by 80 per cent in 2014 to its highest recorded level. Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria, between 25,000 and 30,000 foreign fighters have flowed into Syria and Iraq – a fifth of them from Europe.

Yet despite Brussels and Paris, where 130 people were killed last November, only 2.6 per cent of terrorism deaths this century have been in the West (including nearly 3000 killed in the al-Qaeda September 11 attacks). According to the Washington Post, toddlers were responsible for more shooting deaths than terrorists in the US last year.

Here, the government has between 30 and 40 names on its active watchlist, and intelligence services have rated “violent extremism in New Zealand and by New Zealanders” as a top security risk. That’s made people jumpy. Last year, a Sikh medical student at Auckland University was reported as a terrorist by someone who saw headphone cords sticking out of his bag and mistook him for a Muslim, despite his turban.

Just this month, in unrelated court cases, two Auckland men admitted possessing extremist Islamic videos – the first time such charges have been laid in New Zealand. One of the men, Imran Patel, had previously been banned from an Avondale mosque after threatening some of its members.

Former Labour leader David Shearer, who sits on Parliament’s intelligence and security committee, believes radical Islam will remain the greatest threat to world security for the next generation.

He’s had boots on the ground in the Muslim world, running UN humanitarian and reconstruction programmes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. Even if Isis were to be eradicated tomorrow, he believes an equally dangerous peril would rise to take its place. Yet at a public talk on “The Middle East and New Zealand” in his Mt Albert electorate in February, he reckoned people had more chance of dying on the road as they drove home, or having a heart attack from the burger they ate for dinner, than being blown up by a bomb.

“I grew up during the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis, when the entire world could have been annihilated,” he later told North & South. “We’re not even within three degrees of magnitude to that. Not to understate the tragedy [of terror attacks], but you have to keep it in perspective.”

Shearer says extremists like Isis have become conflated with the refugee crisis and done an “incredible disservice” to the Muslim faith. In Sydney, the gunman behind the Martin Place siege might have flown an Islamic flag but he had no ties to any terrorist organisations and was later found to be mentally ill.

“He was Shia [one of the two major Islamic denominations]. If he’d been in an Isis area, they would have killed him, because they don’t tolerate Shias. People either haven’t tried or can’t quite pick apart the various strands.

“When [IRA] bombs were going off in London, did we ostracise all Catholics? Imagine if the name of the man who walked into the Winz office in Ashburton [and killed two women] was Mohammed. That would have been world news.”

Globally, Shearer says New Zealand is “largely irrelevant” and too remote to be the likely target of an organised terror plot. Building close ties with the Muslim community is the best way to protect against rogue elements here.

“You can do all the intelligence you like, but Muslims in New Zealand who feel they are Kiwis, in a sense they’re the frontline for us. Rather than pointing the finger, we should be embracing them. Because at the end of the day, if there’s an outlaw within their ranks, it will be them who find it – not me, poring over intelligence reports.”

Batool Zaki, a computer engineer, and her dentist husband, Thair al-Saudi, emigrated from Iraq to New Zealand 20 years ago with their four young sons. They now have three grandchildren born here. “We were brought up to understand that our religion teaches us to deal with others with respect and with tolerance,” says Zaki. “And we know Islam is well-respected in New Zealand.”

Journalist Jon Stephenson, who’s had extensive experience reporting in the Middle East, says Muslims who have built a life in New Zealand are very conscious of the potential threat from radicalisation.

He knows of two young dissidents whose passports were confiscated after a tip-off from relatives who discovered the hapless pair were heading to Syria after they booked their flights by credit card. “They weren’t a particularly high threat – essentially mixed-up chaps who were sitting around unemployed, looking for a cause and watching all this crap online. They’d probably have got themselves killed. But that’s the type of person who’s at risk.”

(Another Kiwi, Mark Taylor, made it as far as Syria last year to join Isis, but was nicknamed the “Bumbling Jihadi” after he forgot to turn off the location service on his Twitter account, giving intelligence agencies information on his movements, and identified other militants in some of his tweets.)

Stephenson says intelligence services have made some “ham-fisted” attempts to recruit local Muslims as their eyes on the inside. Prime Minister John Key has used the community as a political football, he claims, and misleading statements by Key and SIS director Rebecca Kitteridge that Kiwi women were travelling from New Zealand to Iraq and Syria as “jihadi brides” were deeply offensive. (According to official papers, a handful of NZ citizens living in Australia have flown out from there.)

Like Shearer, he believes the risk of a major terror attack here is extremely low. “We’re not on the radar like France or the US or other major countries in the coalition, but it’s a mistake to think people in the Muslim world aren’t aware of the dynamics of what’s happening here,” he says. “When Key committed [non-combat] troops back into Iraq, Isis put our flag on their little propaganda videos. He painted a target on the back of any Kiwi.”

The Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation Bill, rushed through in 2014, gave the SIS greater surveillance powers over terrorist suspects and also increased the government’s authority to suspend or cancel passports. Earlier that year, an Auckland man who had posted comments supporting Isis on his Facebook page was stopped at the airport as he tried to board a flight to Qatar and in Hawke’s Bay, a high-profile Maori convert announced the formation of his own Islamic State. His profile has since disappeared from social media.

However, when it comes to dealing with Isis sympathisers, not everyone thinks keeping them here is the right option. One senior figure in Auckland’s Muslim community, who emigrated from Iraq in the 1990s, told North & South they should be free to leave – but not to return. “Let them go and be killed or arrested, because they spread poison. Let them go and not come back.”

Leaders at his Auckland mosque have prepared for the possibility of a terror attack and have met with intelligence officers several times. “When people say, ‘Block Muslims, don’t let them in’, I can excuse them, because they feel at risk. These [extremists] are not big numbers, but they make a big mess.”

Islam does not condone violence, he says. “But all it takes is one. You can’t guarantee that from the inside a mad person might not go and do something silly. Yes, the risk is there.”

As a young Muslim growing up in the United States, Lamia Imam had never heard the word “jihad”, or Christians and Jews described as “infidels”, until the Twin Towers were brought down in 2001.

Even then, she says, al-Qaeda was seen as a fringe terrorist group. “More like an international gang – terrible people who had nothing to do with Muslims. No one ever asked me to defend my religion. Now people think there’s something inherently wrong with Muslim folk.”

Imam, whose parents are from Bangladesh, was born in Christchurch while her father was studying at Lincoln University on a Common-wealth Scholarship. Unable to stay in New Zealand after he graduated, they migrated to the United States. But Imam, who says she feels most at home in Kiwi culture, came back to study law at Canterbury and later worked for the Ministry of Justice here.

Now spending time with her family in the US after finishing a master’s degree at the University of Texas, she says “Islamophobia” has reached such a disturbing level that her mother has stopped going to the local mosque. In February, a couple house-hunting with their children in Missouri were threatened with a gun by a man who asked if they were Muslim, then told them they should die. This “deplorable wave of hate” is being documented by the Huffington Post, which is keeping a running tally online.

Imam had a liberal upbringing and doesn’t wear a hijab. She sees Isis as a political ideology driven less by religious fervour than a desire for power and control. The most effective way to fight back, she believes, is by showing that the intrinsic values of most Muslim families aren’t so different after all.

“If I’m going down to the pub and watching the All Blacks play, voting in elections, going to a protest or out with my friends, that’s saying we’re part of this culture and we reject the extremist point of view,” she says. “Part of their whole ideology is telling Muslims like me that the West hates us. We need our own propaganda that shows the West embracing Muslims and telling us that we’re wanted; that I’m not going to be alienated in my own society. Terrorist attacks, even on Western soil, only end up hurting Muslims most of all.”

Hardliners, however, argue there’s something intrinsically violent about Islam and that extremists like Isis are a “natural offshoot of its angry soul”. And it’s true some of the more fundamentalist beliefs sit uneasily in secular Western societies, where sexual and gender freedom is considered a human right.

In Auckland, the sight of a woman battling through drenching summer humidity in a black niqab – with only a narrow slit exposing her eyes – is still a relatively rare, if unsettling sight. But in the UK, Muslim dress has become a fashion statement. This year, Marks & Spencer launched a new “burkini” line, described as a kind of whole-body swimming pyjama. In France, where the burqa is banned, Women’s Rights Minister Laurence Rossignol denounced it as a symbol of oppression, likening women who favour burkinis to Negroes who supported slavery.

One right-wing magazine in Poland ran a cover story titled “Islamic Rape of Europe” after hundreds of women were sexually assaulted during New Year’s Eve celebrations last year in the German city of Cologne, reportedly by Muslim asylum seekers. In Belgium and France, impoverished ghettos full of angry and alienated young Muslim men have become no-go zones for police.

Even Sweden, where encouraging multiculturalism has been a government policy since the 1970s, faces growing resentment that its liberal, egalitarian society has been compromised. The city of Malmö, which has a large Islamic population, has been rocked by bomb explosions and riots involving gangs of disaffected Muslim youth.

Yet despite the anti-Islamic sentiment sweeping Europe, London has just elected its first Muslim mayor, lawyer Sadiq Khan – the son of a Pakistani bus driver – who romped to victory on May 7.

Emna Ben Jemaa, 14, with Asmaa, a friend’s younger sister. Many of Emna’s friends at Epsom Girls’ Grammar are non-Muslim. “They respect my culture and I love them like sisters.”

The world’s second-largest religion, Islam has 1.7 billion followers spread across the world. As a foreign correspondent, Jon Stephenson has witnessed cultural practices that range from reactionary to progressive, and admits some of the attitudes he’s encountered have been confronting.

“It’s turned me into a raving feminist in a way. I’ve certainly seen women treated respectfully in some places, but in others I’ve seen things that are absolutely appalling. Seeing women being treated like animals is very hard to take.”

Just as Christianity and Judaism faced their own reformations, he says there’s a battle unfolding within Islam over how to adapt to modernity. In April, a poll of British Muslims found more than half believed homosexuality should be illegal. And when first- and second-generation Muslim schoolboys in Germany were asked how they’d feel if their sister wanted to date an Anglo-Saxon, most were completely opposed – and some said if they found out she was sleeping with a non-Muslim, they’d kill her. 

“Part of the problem is ignorance,” says Stephenson, “because some practices justified on religious grounds are based on incorrect or extreme interpretations of Islam. A lot of it is cultural, rather than religious. I don’t view US soldiers who commit war crimes in Afghanistan as Christian, or say that’s Christian behaviour, because most Christians would reject the thought that you can go and murder villagers because one of your mates was killed.”

He says it’s important to recognise the role the West has played. “For years, we’ve ignored progressive forces in the Muslim world while supporting countries like Saudi Arabia that harbour the worst proponents of radical Islam.”

Stephenson believes good immigration policy is key to a cohesive society where different cultures can be absorbed without creating parallel communities, like the low-income, crime-ridden suburbs in some of France’s larger cities. 

In New Zealand, the Muslim population is small but growing rapidly, with about 46,000 recorded in the 2013 Census (doubling since 2001). About a quarter were born here. In Mt Roskill, Auckland’s most visibly Islamic suburb, the mosque is the centre of family life and hijabs of many colours are seen on the streets. Schools sizzle halal sausages, a local pool holds women-only swim sessions and Pak’nSave has a prayer room for its Muslim staff. (There’s also a growing number of Maori converts, and a Te Reo translation of the Koran was presented to King Tuheitia in 2010.)

Again and again, during research for this article, people talked of New Zealand’s international reputation as a country where Muslims are well treated, accepted and free to practise their faith. An inter-faith group, the Shia Muslim-Christian Council of Aotearoa NZ, has presented a united front against terrorism. And in March, when Sydney-based imam Sheikh Jehad Ismail spoke at a seminar in Auckland on the ethics and values in Islam, members of the Jewish community were among the audience.

Yet there have been some nasty incidents, too: women – more visible targets because of their dress – who’ve been spat on and had cans of Coke thrown at them from passing cars; schoolgirls who’ve had their hijab pulled; an Afghan family called “Isis” on the street. “New Zealand likes to pride itself on being friendly and welcoming,” says Constable Rob Stanton, an ethnic liaison officer with the police in Auckland. “That’s not necessarily the truth on the ground.”

At the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, the police run a session for new arrivals on everything from compulsory child restraints in cars to the legal age of consent for sex. For some, it’s a rude culture shock to discover children are free to marry whoever they like once they turn 18 – with or without their parents’ blessing. Others have what Stanton describes as a “different understanding” of family violence.

But he says many refugees come ready to leave some of their old ways behind.  “Most are just good people wanting to get on with their lives.” Well-meaning Kiwis who want to “liberate” women from wearing headscarves risk causing both distress and offence. Stanton reckons the Muslim girls he’s met on school-holiday programmes are confident, assertive young women who seem anything but repressed.

“They’re proud of their hijab. They disappear into the bathroom and fuss over it like teenage girls do with their hair and make-up, making sure it’s pinned just right. For them, it’s a choice, like wearing a pounamu. It’s a symbol of who they are.”

Bakr al-Saudi was 13 when his family migrated to New Zealand from Iraq, by way of Yemen. Fresh off the boat, unable to speak more than a few words of English, he couldn’t believe his eyes as they left Auckland Airport and lush green paddocks flanked the main road on either side. “There were soccer fields everywhere,” he laughs. “But no one was playing! In the Middle East, that’s very hard to find.”

It didn’t take him long to settle in. A sports star at Glendowie College, he later captained the New Zealand indoor football team, the Futsal Whites, But he reckons it was a part-time job at Pak’nSave that really taught him about being a Kiwi.

As part of the Muslim faith, he doesn’t drink alcohol or socialise in mixed company. On tour, if the futsal squad was heading out for a night on the town, it was simply understood he wouldn’t be joining them. “I’ve never hid that kind of thing, and I never thought of it as being me and them,” he says. “Some people are different and in our way of life, that’s not what we do.”

Now 34 and married with a young son, al-Saudi manages a pharmacy in Manurewa and coaches the futsal team at his old school, as well as the Auckland under-19 squad. On Friday nights, he talks to young Muslims at the mosque about how to make a good life here, while staying true to their faith.

“People who say Islam does not fit in the West just need to understand whatbeing Muslim is about,” he says. “It’s that dialogue that is missing. There’s a lot of good in New Zealand culture.

“Yes, there are some things I do not agree with. But I have a clear knowledge of what is right and wrong; what is culture and what is religion. To integrate within your religious boundaries, you need to let go of some of your cultural ones.”

Al-Saudi’s family were among the first wave of immigrants to New Zealand from Iraq in the mid-90s, after the Gulf War. His father, Thair, is a dentist and had to spend four years requalifying to become registered here; his mother, Batool Zaki, is a computer engineer. When the couple arrived in Auckland, the youngest of their four children – twin boys – were only six.

“We knew we weren’t coming to a Muslim country,” says Zaki (in Muslim tradition, married women don’t usually take their husband’s name). “We accepted we would be living in a society that does not share our creed beliefs. But we were brought up to understand that our religion teaches us to deal with others with respect and with tolerance, and we know Islam is well-respected in New Zealand. We made the right choice.”

Zaki spent five years working at Selwyn College and then 12 years as a database administrator at Kelston Girls’, where she still runs weekly classes for Muslim students. A thoughtful and welcoming woman, she has developed warm friendships with many of her non-Muslim female colleagues.

Within any religion, she says, there are fanatics who “steal” the faith or exploit it for political gain. “People say they are afraid of Muslims because they think Isis represents Muslims. That’s what they think. But that’s only valid if you say the KKK represents Christianity. If only they could see what Isis is doing to the Muslim world, what they’re doing in my home country, Iraq, where they’re bombarding mosques as well as churches.”

Islam is the thread that weaves through the lives of all faithful Muslims, says Zaki, from Fajr prayers at dawn to Isha prayers after the light has gone from the sky. As her grandchildren grow, she will help teach them the formal Arabic of the Koran and where they fit as Muslims in a Western world; the faith and the language will secure them.

Former Futsal Whites captain Bakr al-Saudi at training with the Auckland under-19 squad. He also coaches the team at his old school, Glendowie College. When the chips are down, he told the players at this session, “character and determination is how you come back”.

In March, a second group of Syrians arrived at the Mangere resettlement centre, where disoriented, traumatised refugees spend their first six weeks in New Zealand.

A string of faded flags from the 2011 Rugby World Cup paraded triumphantly across the TV lounge. But as all the new arrivals were welcomed at an official powhiri, it was a battered soccer ball one boy clutched as if his life depended on it – clumps of stuffing bursting through the torn stitching.

Off to the side, a woman sat quietly breastfeeding her baby, the tops of her fingers missing from one hand. Ugg boots peeped from the hem of a girl’s hand-me-down Cinderella dress. Children practised how to hongi, and when a young scamp tumbled past, the grin he flashed was so wide you could see the rows of decay in his teeth.

Dressed in a lavalava and lei, Ethnic Communities Minister Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga – whose family moved here from Samoa when he was three – took his seat. Then, as the formalities began, a sea of cellphones rose to witness the promise of a new beginning.

One refugee had been chosen to speak from each country, their words translated by a hum of interpreters around the room. “We have scars on our heart,” said a young Afghan man. “It is not possible to write on paper or explain with words what we have been through.” Another, from Bhutan, had spent the past 23 years in a refugee camp. When a Vietnamese family sang “Amazing Grace”, the melody was so achingly familiar and yet so unexpected it took a few minutes to place.

The man who stood for the Syrians looked physically and emotionally spent – a shadow in a suit that hung so loosely from his shoulders it might have collapsed at any moment into a puddle at his feet. His name was Mohammad and his homeland, he said, was now “the colour of blood”.

“I speak for all religions. Every mosque, every church, every temple. Peace, living together, these are words we have lost. We do not know them any more. Our children are being killed, our women are attacked. Young people’s hands are tied with iron.”

When he joined the flood of Muslim refugees across the border with his wife and their two small children, the situation seemed hopeless. “We had to live in humiliation – humiliation we drank with every drop of water,” he said, and his words had a poet’s terrible beauty. “No one was hearing our voices. No one was feeling what we felt. Our children had no future, no identity, no hopes, no school. All in the end was death and simply being lost.

“Until I reached this country. Now I am a human being again. I am among kind people who feel my pain and make me feel I am not struggling any more… who wipe away my tears and are saying this is my new home.”     

A Bahraini woman holds a poster of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr following a protest against his execution by Saudi authorities. Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Shia-dominated Iran after angry demonstrators attacked its embassy in Tehran following Nimr’s execution in January.

Bridging the Gap

From ancient grudge to new mutiny… old religious resentments in Islam have been revived and exploited in what’s been described as a very earthly power struggle.

Despite its ancient roots, the divide between Sunni and Shia hasn’t been this deep or bloody for centuries, wrote Middle East specialist Yaroslav Trofimov in a column for the Wall Street Journal. “And it is only in recent years that it has emerged as the biggest fault line in the battle for dominance in the Middle East and beyond.”

Perhaps the defining tension in the region – and potentially the most dangerous – is between Saudi Arabia, a conservative Sunni nation, and Iran, one of the few countries where Shia dominate.

The vast majority of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims are Sunnis, who regard themselves as the orthodox branch of Islam (see The Middle East Agenda on page 50). The split dates back to the seventh century and the death of the Prophet Muhammad. One faction, which became the Shia, wanted the leadership to pass to Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. The other faction, which saw the prophet’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr, as the rightful successor, won the day – and Sunni have dominated political power in the Muslim world ever since.

The theological differences between Sunni and Shia, which often relate to doctrine and rituals, have been likened to those between Catholics and Protestants. And despite some friction, the two communities co-existed reasonably harmoniously in Iran until the 1979 revolution, which installed a Shia cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, as supreme leader – reigniting old rivalries with conservative Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Then, in 2003, the US-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein’s minority Sunni regime, transferring power to Iraq’s Shia majority – and creating the hot, steaming mess from which Isis would later emerge.

Wahhabism, an extreme fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam, has its roots in Saudi Arabia in the mid-18th century, when it was founded by preacher and scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Also known as Salafism, the Wahhabi mission is to spread “purified Islam” throughout the world, with the oil-rich Saudi government spending billions of dollars to build mosques and schools promoting its message.

Modern-day Saudi Arabia is now facing its own schism as successive kings have tried to liberalise the country – including creating women-only universities and encouraging women to vote and join the workforce. This, in turn, has created a backlash from those with a more conservative interpretation of Islam who believe the purity of the faith is being lost.

A June 2013 report by the European Parliament deemed Wahhabism the main source of global terrorism. And although Saudi Arabia is part of the US-led coalition against Isis, it’s been accused of playing a double game – financing extremist Sunni Islamic groups to shore up its own power in the region. According to a report in the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper in mid-2014, an opinion poll released on social-networking sites claimed that 92 per cent of Saudis surveyed believe Isis conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law.  

Young refugees at a makeshift camp on the Greek-Macedonian border, two days after the Brussels bombings in March that killed 32 people. Isis has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

State of the Nation 

Barely three years after breaking away from al-Qaeda, Isis – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – has become the global face of terror.

According to a running account kept by CNN, Isis has “conducted or inspired” more than 70 terrorist attacks in 20 countries, not including Syria and Iraq. In March, the group claimed responsibility for the Brussels bombings.

Unlike al-Qaeda, which shares its fundamentalist ideology, Isis has focused on territorial gain. In 2014, leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced a caliphate – an Islamic state – claiming religious, political and military authority over all Muslims worldwide. Those who do not support the cause, and pledge loyalty to
al-Baghdadi, are considered enemies – not only the “infidels” of the West. In Syria and Iraq, Shia Muslims have been executed and their mosques destroyed.

The vast majority of Muslim leaders and academics, both Sunni and Shia, have rejected Isis completely, says Dr Zain Ali, who heads Auckland University’s Islamic studies research unit. But creating an atmosphere of instability and chaos is part of al-Baghdadi’s strategy.

“If you can get people scared, you have governments trying to respond to that fear by clamping down on local populations – and disenfranchising people is what Isis wants [because it makes them more susceptible to radicalisation]. And if you disrupt security within a country, you disrupt political stability as well.

“There’s a large population in Iraq who don’t feel connected to the government and in Syria, you have civil war. A lot of people are disaffected and disenfranchised, and they’re looking for some sense of security and belonging. So you have this vacuum – and Isis steps into it.”

Al-Baghdadi was originally a member of al-Qaeda (which has now dissociated itself from Isis). After
the US-led invasion that deposed Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Iraqi army was dismantled, leaving thousands of Sunnis without a job or income. Ali says it’s thought al-Baghdadi formed an alliance with generals and commanders who’d been part of Hussein’s inner circle and had access to both weaponry and a rebellious military force ripe for recruitment. Its fighters quickly began making territorial gains, then sent shockwaves around the world in 2014 with the capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

Also known as Daesh, Isis has used a sophisticated social media campaign to recruit foreign fighters, including some radicalised Westerners and many Muslims born and educated in Europe or the US. A 2015 study by a global security firm found its ranks had been swelled by between 27,000 and 31,000 “jihadi” from more than 86 countries.

Now losing territory as coalition air strikes intensify, Isis has changed tactics – stepping up attacks against states who have opposed it, including France, Russia, Turkey, Belgium and Lebanon. It has also expanded into Libya, where some 5000 Isis militants are now based. Ali says it’s difficult to gauge the movement’s true strength, and the underlying issues of unstable governments with weak economies remain. “People are struggling to make a living and Isis says, ‘We’ll pay you, provide you with a job, a house – with furniture – a brotherhood and a purpose.’

“Each time [key leaders] have been captured or killed, we’re told this will make the world safer, but it’s had the opposite effect,” says Ali. “The US has been at war with al-Qaeda and the Taliban for 15 years now and they’re still there. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is actually gaining territory. The harder you fight against these groups, the stronger they seem to become.”

Other Islamic terrorist groups that are currently active in the Middle East and Africa but operate independently of Isis include:


A global militant Sunni Islamist network behind the September 11 attacks and the 2002 Bali bombings, headed by Osama bin Laden until his assassination by the US in 2011. Now led by Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda believes in a strict form of Sharia (Islamic law) and regards liberal Muslims as heretics. Despite sharing common ideological ground with Isis, the two groups are not affiliated. Cited as an inspiration by Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Breivik, who in 2011 killed eight people in Oslo by detonating a van bomb and then massacred 69 others at a summer youth camp on Utøya Island.

Boko Haram:

Overtook Isis last year to become the world’s deadliest terrorist group, according to the Global Terrorism Index. Based in Nigeria, Boko Haram (which loosely translates as “Western education is forbidden”) hit the headlines after kidnapping 276 schoolgirls from their dormitory in the town of Chibok in 2014. Pledged allegiance to Isis last year.


Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, fighting to overthrow the country’s Western-backed Somali Federal Government. Masterminded the 2013 Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi that killed 67 people and was carried out in retaliation for Kenya’s support of the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia.


Islamic fundamentalists who held power in Afghanistan from 1996-2001 and enforced Sharia law, requiring women to wear burqas and forbidding them to work outside the home. A formidable fighting force, the movement remains a major threat to the Afghan government and also controls part of Pakistan, where militants have been blamed for a wave of suicide bombings and other attacks.



This was published in the June 2016 issue of North & South.

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