Back in April I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Anwar Ghani and Aliya Danzeisen while visiting Hamilton.  Dr. Ghani is the President of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ), and Ms. Danzeisen is active in the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand.  We share a variety of interests, and Aliya is originally from Brooklyn (New York, not Wellington).

With Ms. Danzeisen and Dr. Ghani in Hamilton.

With Ms. Danzeisen and Dr. Ghani in Hamilton.

I very much enjoyed that conversation and our subsequent interactions.  Earlier this month Dr. Ghani graciously agreed to be interviewed about the Muslim community in New Zealand for my blog, on the occasion of the start of Ramadan.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is a period of fasting, devotion, and reflection.  The month starts with the sighting of the new moon and concludes with the celebration of Eid ul-Fitr at the sighting of the next new moon.  This year Ramadan started on August 12th.

During Ramadan here in New Zealand, as in the U.S. and around the world, Muslims forgo food and drink from dawn until dusk and then break fast with nightly iftar dinners.  Iftar meals are a time of fellowship with friends and family, and in many places are conducted as large banquets or community festivals.

In the U.S., mosques and Islamic centers use the month of Ramadan to reach out to fellow Americans and to build bridges with the community at large.  Dozens of U.S. Embassies, the Secretary of State, and the President (starting in the mid 1990s) host iftar dinners for Muslims and non-Muslims in order to, as Secretary Clinton says, “join together and reflect on our common values, faith, and the gifts of the past year.”

Below is my conversation with Dr. Ghani. I will use as illustrations images from the U.S. and elsewhere around the world, rather than solely from New Zealand.

President George W. Bush participates in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Islamic Center of Washington in 2007.

President George W. Bush participates in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Islamic Center of Washington in 2007.

DH: Dr. Ghani, Ramadan Kareem.  Thank you for taking time to talk during this special time of year.

AG: Ambassador, thank you for inviting me.  I am pleased to have an opportunity to discuss our work, particularly during this holy month.  Ramadan has deep meaning and many facets, including encouraging us to reach out to others, have care and compassion, and transform our communities to be better.

DH: Dr. Ghani, it is a pleasure chatting with you again.  I was initially surprised to meet you in Hamilton, as I thought you lived up in Auckland.  Does Hamilton have a particularly vibrant Muslim community?

AG: Yes, absolutely.  Hamilton is a wonderful place to live and has an active and vibrant Muslim community.  There are nearly 2,500 Muslims living in Hamilton city itself.  They come from about 30 different ethnic groups.  We have a large population of overseas Muslim students who study in different schools and in different fields, from various sciences to languages to management, etc.  It is a good mix of young and old, and of second- or third-generation Muslims to new immigrants.  I myself work for AgResearch here in Hamilton, as a senior Environmental Scientist.  The main thrust of my work has been in nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, and water quality.  My employer has been very supportive of my community work.

Waikato Muslim Association’s Hamilton Mosque.

Waikato Muslim Association’s Hamilton Mosque.

DH: More broadly, what is your assessment of the current position of Muslims in the larger Kiwi community?

AG: Kiwi Muslims are progressing well.  They have quite a bit to catch up with the more progressive communities.  The most positive aspect of living in New Zealand is that Muslims have equal opportunity to grow as other Kiwis.  They enjoy a relatively peaceful environment compared to other Western nations.  Given the track record of Muslims in New Zealand as being peaceful people, despite international pressures we get along with the wider community very well.  Muslim professionals are doing well in their fields, and Muslims in businesses are also doing very well, so both are contributing to the economy of New Zealand.

Members of the Malaysian Students Association celebrate their graduation from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Members of the Malaysian Students Association celebrate their graduation from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

DH: Following up on that point, are there any particular challenges that Kiwi Muslims face?

AG: Being a heterogeneous and culturally diverse community (with migrants from 52 different nations), Muslims will continue to face challenges to accommodate diversity and remain united for the next decade or so.  Once community has settled in, it has the potential to become a model community which can make a significant contribution in the economic growth and social cohesion of the country.

AG: Another challenge that Muslims have is to gain economic parity with the wider community of New Zealanders.  Nearly 25% of the Muslims in this country are political or economic refugees.  They face challenges to settle in a new country where language and culture are different.  They lack heritor economic base.  These people need to be cared for more gently rather than being exposed immediately to the harsh realities of economic forces.  It is important that these new settlers don’t become dependent on the benefit system.  They are given skills to contribute in the economic growth which will give them confidence and keep their self-esteem high.

AG: National and cultural identity of the new generation Kiwi-Muslim is another challenge.  FIANZ is exploring ways to develop leadership amongst younger people of both genders.

Students and advisers paint a mural that recognizes diversity in faith in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Students and advisers paint a mural that recognizes diversity in faith in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

DH: Is there such a thing as a “typical” Kiwi Muslim?

AG: If by that you mean Muslims who have adapted to wearing gumboots, singlet and shorts, running around with a rugby ball … well … yes, there is some evidence that Kiwi Muslims are adopting to the “unassuming spirit” of the attire.  Certainly, there is more involvement of Kiwi Muslims in the traditional games loved by Kiwis.  For example, one of our Afghani Muslim youth has been selected to play for the Rugby league franchise called the Warriors.  A few Muslim youth are playing soccer in regional teams, and a few of them are now representing NZ in athletics.

AG: Quite seriously, typical Kiwi Muslims are those young men and women between the ages of 18 and 30 who were born and raised in Aoteroa, speak like a typical Kiwi, and know no other country as home but New Zealand.

Iraqi boys celebrate Eid al-Fitr by playing a game of foosball on the street, marking the end of the month-long Ramadan fast.

Iraqi boys celebrate Eid al-Fitr by playing a game of foosball on the street, marking the end of the month-long Ramadan fast.

DH: Please tell me a little about FIANZ and your role in it.

AG: FIANZ is the only national umbrella organisation for Muslims in New Zealand.  It was registered in 1979 when the Muslim population in New Zealand was less than 3,000 individuals.  Today, the Muslim population is estimated to be nearly 50,000.  FIANZ plays a unifying role in the community.  It has its own religious advisory board and a number of working divisions.  We celebrate our festivals, including Ramadam, only when FIANZ confirms the lunar dates – which is a fine example of unity in diversity.  FIANZ is a non-political organisation.  Its main focus is to look after the spiritual and physical wellbeing of Muslims in New Zealand.

AG: I have always been interested in the affairs of the Muslim community ever since my university days.  As soon as I completed my university qualification with a Doctorate degree in Soil Science in 1989, I became actively involved in regional and national Muslim organisations.  I was appointed as President of FIANZ in 1996 and carried that responsibly until 2002.  I think, I was the youngest (35 years old) to have ever served as president of FIANZ.  I stepped down in 2002 to allow a new leadership to emerge.  In 2008 I was reappointed President of FIANZ and have carried on this responsibility.

AG: My main focus is to keep our community together.  As president, I am the spokesperson of the community, manager of the executive committee, and a direct link with the outside world.  The role is demanding because of the diverse activities of FIANZ … from business to public outreach programmes … from interfaith liaison to engagement with government and policy agencies to connecting to outside Muslim world bodies and other NGOs.  I am privileged to have a very cohesive executive committee and a dedicated office staff who try to share the responsibilities well. So collectively FIANZ moves forward by the effort of a number of individuals.

American Muslim comedienne Maysoon Zayid does her stand-up routine. Click through for image source.

American Muslim comedienne Maysoon Zayid does her stand-up routine.

DH: Beyond your work with FIANZ, what other interests do you pursue?

AG: Outside of work and FIANZ, I love sports … particularly cricket and rugby.  I am a BIG fan of the All Blacks rugby team, and I follow and support the Indian cricket team.  If the Indian cricket team is not playing against New Zealand, then I support the New Zealand cricket team.  I enjoyed playing club cricket in Hamilton.  I stopped playing eight years ago due to injuries catching up with me.  It was tough to find time to play cricket on Saturdays during spring and summer, but where there is a will, there is a way. Sport has taught me discipline and team work, which are important ingredients for any leader.  I get a lot of joy by recounting some of my successes on the sports field.

High school basketball players prepare for a game in Michigan. Click through for image source.

High school basketball players prepare for a game in Michigan.

DH: I understand the theme of Islam Awareness Week 2010 was “Cultivating Positive Emotions for a Healthy Society” – what sort of things did the local Hamilton Muslim community do?  And the wider Muslim communities in NZ?

AG: It is a vibrant community.  There were a host of programmes during Islam awareness week.  Highlights of the programmes included an interfaith evening with people of Abrahamic faith (Muslims, Christians, and Jews) where we discussed how our religious teachings can help us to lead a healthy and balanced life, Mosque open day to public, cultural programmes at the university and polytechnic.

AG: We are investing in our younger people to keep them interested in our affairs and develop next generation leadership.  We have very active women’s group in Hamilton which focuses on the development of younger women. Our community members contribute in many of the civic activities.

Imam Hashim Raza leads prayers during a funeral at the al-Fatima Islamic Center in Colonie, New York for Mohsin Naqvi, a U.S. Army officer killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Click through for image source.

Imam Hashim Raza leads prayers during a funeral at the al-Fatima Islamic Center in Colonie, New York for Mohsin Naqvi, a U.S. Army officer killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

DH: What would you like to achieve in future with your leadership work?

AG: I would like to see our community becoming self-sufficient in meeting all its needs and contribute positively to the economic growth and environmental protection of this country.  I would also like to see our community be a leader in promoting peace and harmony amongst all New Zealanders.

AG: Whenever I get the opportunity, I love talking about the positive aspects of our community and our country.  I would love the opportunity to promote the positive aspects of this beautiful country and the attributes of its people at a global level.  We have the beautiful native culture tangata whenua which teaches us to live in harmony with nature.  We are world leaders in the primary production systems.  We are conscious of the fact of its pristine environment that is priceless.  The stewardship that a New Zealander demonstrates in keeping this country clean and green is praiseworthy.

Muslim youth in Mont Royal, Montreal. Click through for image source.

Muslim youth in Mont Royal, Montreal.

DH: Dr. Ghani, thank you for your time today, and thank you for the important work that you are doing.  Also, please accept my hearty congratulations.  I was delighted to read last week that you have just been honored as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world (along with another Kiwi, Kireka Whaanga, leader of the Aotearoa Maori Muslim Association).  That is an impressive and well-deserved honor.  It is clear that your leadership here in New Zealand is globally recognized and appreciated for, as the honors list stated, “building bridges with the Government as well as with the broader New Zealand population and leaders of other faiths.”

AG: Thank you. I am humbled to be included among preachers and kings of such great distinction.