Media must play a positive role in bringing communities together: Imam Gamal of Masjid Al Noor, Christchurch

(from The Migrant Times; the original story is here

- misdeeds of few doesn't represent the true nature of Islam, he adds

Islam Awareness Week ends with Mosque Open Day

As part of the nation-wide Islam Awareness Week, the Masjid Al Noor of Christchurch organized a Mosque Open Day in the last weekend of August. Imam Gamal of the Masjid, who is from Egypt but has been in New Zealand for over a decade now, noted, “Our goal is present a unique and intimate look at Islam and the Muslim community in New Zealand during this week to the wider community. It's an opportunity for Muslims to dispel common misconceptions in society as well as a way to celebrate their own uniqueness and contributions to the country.” During the Open Day, the attendees were given a guided tour of the mosque, followed by an informative speech by the Imam, which ended with a question and answer session. Notably, according to the 2013 census, the Muslim community in Canterbury is concentrated in Christchurch, with over 40 nationalities represented in the over 3,000 people living here who practice the Islamic faith.

The Migrant Times talks to Imam Gamal of Masjid Al Noor, Christchurch.

Please tell us something about you?

My name is Gamal Al Banna. I am from Egypt. I got my degree in Islamic education in 1998, after which I got seconded to New Zealand to teach Arabic and Islamic Studies. I was based in Palmerston North Islamic Centre for three years. Then I returned to Egypt, came back after a while, and worked for Dunedin Islamic Centre for four years. I also worked part-time for Otago Muslim Association between 2006 - 2009. I also studied college education, and became a regular teacher. Then I got a job offer from Dubai to work as Arabic and Islamic teacher in Wellington International School. Came back to New Zealand in 2014 to work as a relief teacher in Manawatu and Palmerston North. Now, three months back, I was invited to take up the post of Imam at Masjid Al Noor in Christchurch.

How has been your experience of living in New Zealand over the years?

Very quiet, especially in Palmerston North and Dunedin. But I believe students who come from Muslim countries to study in Dunedin are the cleverest as they get to study different subjects while introducing Islam in innovative ways to the western world and in a manner more suited to the western society.

You studied Islamic studies in Egypt in 1998. It has been 20 years. What you studied and what you teach now, how has it changed?

Oh, it has completely changed. There when you study academic things, they are not actually preparing a person to understand the western mentality. I experienced this when I came to NZ. The challenge is to introduce Islam in a way that makes sense to a person that lives in the West and children as well. Make the learning applicable to the society is what I’m teaching now.

There, we only study academic - what are the rules and stuff - but not how to present Islam to the world, to the western world. Its more suitable to the people in that region, in the Arabic world and Egypt. But when I came here, I started to think out of the box, I started to look and verify all the rules and all the things I studied. So that I can adopt those rules, which are acceptable in Islam and suits the western world as well.

You are having Islamic Awareness Week this weekend. Is it a part of this initiative to present Islam to western world?

After 9/11, the western media started to make a dim view of Muslim people. This prompted muslins around the world to think how to clear this image and make people aware of true Islam and not what they hear in the media. They actually needed to know what real Islam is. I think that was the reason the community started the Islamic Awareness Week. It took few years to gather momentum, but now, I think every year the Muslim community around the world organise this awareness week.

What do you propose to do in this week?

We are having a talk, meeting people, showing the place, showing Islamic and muslim traditions, as well as treating people to traditional Muslim food. We also do educational programmes. I will also take questions. We also have posters to present to people. We are screening a video about history of Islam as well.

There is also a lot of diversity within Muslims here in Christchurch?

Yes, there is. Muslims here are from so many different countries and ethnicities. Throughout history, Muslims especially those who are not specialised in Islamic education, tend to mix their culture with Islamic religion. So people, when they grow up with something, think that this is part of Islam, which it is not. So my job is to slowly let people understand the actual rules of Islam. So that we can remove the misconceptions. We need to see what is correct or incorrect only in terms of Islam and not cultures.

There are three diffident associations of Muslims in Canterbury? What are those?

Nawawi center, Canterburt Muslims Community Trust and the Muslim Association of Canterbury (MAC). But these are all working together to serve Muslims here. Every one serves some different needs of the Muslim community in Canterbury, which is so diverse.

This mosque – Masjid Al Noor - is managed by MAC. Tell us about MAC and what kind of programmes does MAC do?

This is the major mosque in the South Island. We are serving not only people in Canterbury, but are also communicating and helping people in other cities.

How many mosques are there in the South island?

One here, one in Dunedin, one in Invercargill, in Blenheim and Ashburton. So around five. But there are also rooms in different cities, because people are working there and they hire a place or someone open his garage for prayers.

Coming back to about all MAC does to help people. We are the main centre of leading them in education and giving them books and quran. We represent them to FIANZ [Federation of Islamic Associations of NZ]. We visit them and ask if they need any help to pay the rent or to do something. Plus here in Christchurch, apart from the prayers and festivals like Eid, we also give social support in celebrations like marriage, newborn parties and funeral services. We also have our own graveyard. So helping people to do all these things, is MAC main role.

How does the Muslim community deal with the New Zealand Government? How's the relationship between authorities and the Muslim community here?

We deal via FIANZ, which includes eight major mosques of the country. It represents Muslims to the Government. We deal mainly with the Police, with whom we have an excellent relationship.

And how is your relationship with other religious organisations?

It is also very good.

I used to be part of the Abrahamic Interfaith Group in Otago. Thus when I came here I approached them and became part of the Interfaith Society. We just had the AGM of Interfaith Society two days ago, which I attended. There was also a Sikh lecture during that day. So I know and keep inetracting with other faith leaders as well.

So you are collaborating, exchanging ideas, and to know them more and telling them about Islam?

Yes, and many of them are also coming to the Islam Open Day.

Presenting the meaning of Islam to the western world, and to other religions as well. This Interfaith Society is part of that?

Yes, in a way. As part of that initiative, I am giving a workshop soon on how to deal with Muslims to people of different religions. This was we can help generate cultural and religious sensitivities.

Lets talk about Islam now. What are the general misconceptions that you feel the people in the western world have towards Islam?

Unfortunately politics makes things worse. People listen to the media, which perpetuates misconceptions. People need to learn about Islam from authentic scholars who represent true Islam, not from those who call themselves Muslims, but hide behind the religion and use it to force their own agenda and create chaos. Whether it is Syria, or Lebanon or Palestine, or Yemen, even Egypt and Tunisia and Libya now.

So all these groups who call themselves Islamic States, I call them Non-Islamic states. Un-Islamic. They don’t represent Islam, they do not represent Muslims. The media should help spread the true vision, and image of what’s happening there. Whether it is petrol, money, or political power.

In all they may be three to four thousands, who cannot represent billions of Muslims around the world. So the media should be objective and help promote the true meaning of Islam. Especially in NZ, the media should promote harmony, unity among the different religious groups.

Media in NZ should promote unity rather than disunity.

Islam is a religion of peace. Universal brotherhood. Like all the other religions. God created us all and we are brothers and sisters in humanity. We should work together, share the land in peace, and work towards the development of our country.

People blame that the moderate Muslims, which are the majority don’t speak enough against those who are hijacking the Islamic agenda. Is this a little bit true?

We don’t have to be politician to work with politicians. People work in their own way. They live their own lives. They don’t have to be apologetic for what some people are doing. They represent themselves. They should be blamed for what others are doing.

If someone crosses a red light, whether he is Chinese or Arabic or something else we shouldn’t be blaming their whole community. The whole community shouldn’t feel shy, shouldn’t feel embarrassed, or feel like there is discrimination against them. They should speak out and live like everybody else.

Especially here in New Zealand, we are all New Zealanders, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, we see ourselves as part of NZ and NZ is part of us. We are not going to apologise for someone else's misdeeds.

Finally, is radicalisation of Muslim youth a problem in New Zealand?

No. It is not a problem at all but you cannot say that 100 per cent it can't happen here.

Because of Internet, through which these people try to recruit the most these days. So we should be more careful. Last Friday, I talked about this issue and how to protect young people from being monopolised by such people. There are lots of other issues on the internet as well. But I keep talking to parents and the young people regularly so that they are aware of the dangers.

Young people in their teens will want to try things, We cannot stop them. Our job is to give advise and generate a sense of right and wrong in them.

An abridged version of this interview appeared in TMT's print edition.

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