What is Islam’s appeal to Māori?

Islam is set to become the largest religion in the world in the next four decades and is one of the fastest-growing religions in Aotearoa New Zealand - particularly among Māori. Dr Ayca Arkilic is exploring Islam’s growing appeal and the socio-political implications of conversion.

As demonstrated by census data and various academic studies, conversion to Islam has been on the rise in Aotearoa New Zealand. Following the 2019 Christchurch attacks, three to five people a day were converting at a Wellington mosque, according to the International Muslim Association of New Zealand.

Among Māori, there is a particular interest in the religion, with the Qur’an translated into Te Reo Māori in 2008 and Māori Muslims organising halal hāngī and ‘Matariki at the Mosque’ events. Plans have even been made to build a mosque-marae hybrid in Christchurch that brings together Islam and Te Ao Māori.

So what is the particular appeal for Māori? And what do these developments mean for Islam, the Muslim community and Aotearoa New Zealand?

Conversion in different parts of the world is attributed to a search for spiritual fulfilment, racism, colonialism, secularisation and disillusionment with Western values and Christianity. For Māori, there appear to be similar reasons. But my research so far also highlights striking cultural similarities between Muslims and Māori, in terms of respect for the elderly, family values, storytelling, the resemblance between a mosque and a marae, and between tikanga and Islamic law.

Initial conversations with Māori converts also show conversion has improved their wellbeing and sense of empowerment, and some Māori have converted to Islam from gangs and in prisons to find peace and solace.

As a Muslim scholar from Turkey, these developments are important for me to understand. But they are just as important for all New Zealanders, given Islam’s increasing local and global importance, the current global social and political climate that stigmatises Muslims, and the lack of ethnographic studies on Muslims in this country. Apart from media stories and a very few narrow studies, conversion to Islam in Aotearoa New Zealand remains an overlooked topic – especially with regard to Māori.

The focus has instead been on Muslims’ history and demographic composition, political integration, and portrayal in the media. Other studies include examinations of psychological wellbeing and the daily experiences of Muslims, Muslim women’s experiences of faith and identity, and Muslim victims’ trauma following the Christchurch attacks.

What is lacking is research that also considers how Islamic conversions are transforming Islam and Aotearoa New Zealand’s society and politics, and how Islam and Aotearoa New Zealand influence one another. Neither are static categories, but are instead actively remaking one another through examples such as halal hāngī events.

A proposed Marsden Fund grant project I have begun to work on aims to answer these questions and further illuminate who converts to Islam in this country and why, as well as looking at the process of conversion and how it affects New Zealanders’ identity and belonging.

Islam is an emerging force here and the question is how do the unique socio-political context, decoloniality and groups such as Māori affect the religion? As important are the insights such research can provide into how we continue to improve integration of an important and growing minority group.

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