JO CHANDLER | Global Mail
LIKE SO MANY MOSQUES around the world, the one in Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby became a lightning rod for explosive distress and anger against Islam in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, back in 2001.
But there was no comfort for the city’s then-fledgling Muslim community in the proximity of a major police station just across the road. Indeed the spray of gunfire that peppered the dome of the mosque – the bullet holes still visible today – reportedly came from high-powered weapons fired by officers stationed there.
In an overwhelmingly and often vehemently Christian nation, where the Parliament last month passed a motion to explore outlawing other faiths, and in which Evangelical and Pentecostal preachers who openly revile Islam hold sway over swelling congregations, PNG Muslims endure discrimination and sporadic violence, says Dr Scott Flower, a Melbourne University Islamic specialist who lived at the Port Moresby mosque for six months as part of his research.
Back in 2001 the number of Muslims in PNG was fewer than 500. Recently published research by Flower, drawing on his analysis of records of Muslim congregations across PNG, now puts the figure above 5,000 – that is, a 1,000 per cent increase. This rise has stirred tensions, despite Islam still factoring as a tiny minority within PNG’s estimated 7 million people, over 96 per cent of whom identify as Christian.
Port Moresby’s crowded urban settlements and remote highland villages, where Islamic practice has found a neat fit with cultural traditions such as polygamy and the rituals of fasting and feasting, have proved fertile ground for Islam and evolved a unique Muslim community. It is almost entirely made up of home-grown converts to the faith – rather than immigrants, as has been the pattern elsewhere in the Pacific.
But the deal brokered last month by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his PNG counterpart, Peter O’Neill, which will see PNG process asylum seekers and resettle all those identified in the next 12 months as genuine refugees, will soon change that – although by how much depends on how many boats come in the next year. If the policy works promptly as a deterrent, refugees settled might number in the hundreds or low thousands; if not there could be several thousand, although Prime Minister O’Neill has responded to a fierce backlash in PNG by telling local media that nothing is “written in stone” and that PNG would protect its national interests.
Regardless, for the next year at least it’s likely that “the growth of the Islamic community in PNG will be predominantly through the asylum-seeker policy,” says Flower – although the scale and pace of change depends on how effective the strategy proves to be in deterring asylum-seekers from trying to reach Australia.
An influx of foreign Muslims, says Flower, “might have different sorts of impacts – it could facilitate further conversions, given that you’ve got a larger active population of born Muslims coming in.” However Flower suspects most refugees will be concerned less with proselytising, at least in the short to medium term, than with trying to secure their livelihoods and settle their families. These ambitions alone may prove destabilising in PNG, where almost 40 per cent of the population lives below the $1-a-day World Bank poverty line, 94 per cent of them in rural areas, surviving largely courtesy of their garden crops.
Flower echoes the concerns of many local commentators and outside experts about the potential for volatility in creating a special class of resettled refugees, provided for at the expense of the Australian Government. Australia has allocated $236 million out of its aid budget over the next four years as “support for unauthorised maritime arrivals living in community-based arrangements” in PNG. Meanwhile local citizens have no social-security support or pensions, and access to basic services such as medical care, power and clean water is extremely limited.
“This is a country that is already rife with jealousy and material inequality,” says Flower. These tensions are blamed by many community leaders and commentators for fuelling epidemic social and domestic violence. Jealousy is frequently cited for provoking accusations of sorcery, brutal witch trials and killings, and was explicitly identified as a motivator in the beheading of a former schoolteacher, women’s activist and accused witch, Helen Rumbali, on Bougainville in April.
While traditional PNG societies were famously diverse (the nation has 850 languages) “one thing they did share … was that material wealth was highly distributed and regulated through custom,” says Flower. “The modern economic system has shaken all that up, and that is one of the big factors in the violence and disputes as it is. You throw something like this [the asylum-seekers deal] in the mix and you have people ticked off that [refugees] have some sort of special privileges, and then you have conflict between them.”
Imam Mikail Abdul Aziz, the Nigerian-born Head Imam of PNG, has told The Global Mail (by phone) that his community will welcome the refugees. “We cannot say no. They have problems, that is why they come … so we look after them, they are human beings. We will give them a proper place to worship, schooling and halal food.”
The imam says he is concerned at the portrayal in some quarters of the new arrivals as a terrorist threat, and the potential repercussions of this belief on his community. Flower anticipates that many of the refugees would likely be moderate Muslims themselves escaping persecution from hardliners in their home countries.
Contemplating the influence born Muslims from the Middle East might have on PNG’s existing Islamic community and wider society, Flower warns that, “Pentecostal churches in PNG are vociferous in their opposition to Islam”, and that this tone is also widespread in politics and social media.
“Polemical things are being sent around to incite people against Muslims, so this feeds into the mix in terms of the religious and social response to an uptake of asylum seekers. For me this is the biggest worry.” He stresses that local Muslims have remained peaceful despite attacks.
Pastors in many of the smaller, fundamentalist churches now proliferating around the country – they are growing at about an equivalent rate as Muslim ranks – rely on their flocks for their income. “This is a competition not just for religious adherence, but a competition for money. I hate to use the term ‘radicalising effect’ but it does happen, on both sides.”
The asylum-seekers issue has riven PNG’s Christian community. Mainstream, established churches – who are also losing their congregations to new, fundamentalist sects – have urged tolerance and acceptance (PNG’s Catholic bishops spoke out opposing the proposed ban on non-Christian religions) while condemning the asylum-seekers deal as “very unwise”.
“While Papua New Guineans are not lacking in compassion for those in need, this country – unlike Australia which is a stable and thriving nation of immigrants – does not have the capacity at this time in its history to welcome a sizeable influx of refugees and provide for their immediate needs and a reasonable hope for a new and prosperous beginning,” says the bishops’ spokesman , Father Philip Gibbs.
Disillusionment and confusion at the competition between Christian churches, and inconsistencies in their theology are key drivers of conversion to Islam in PNG identified in Flower’s research, which he details in a forthcoming book.
“PNG people are quite fanatical about theology, they actually read the bible. They can quote chapter and verse. And the contradictions they find in the bible are another major reason why people told me they converted,” Flower says. Those bothered by the contradictions between bible texts and the teachings of various denominations are drawn to the clarity of the message they find in the Qur’an.
But the single biggest factor driving conversions, according to the accounts collected by Flower, was the synergy of some aspects of its practice with old cultural ways. They identified over 40 different aspects of Islam that resonated with their traditional beliefs. Just as Christian missionaries had looked for similarities between Church and customary values and rituals, and exploited these to draw people into the fold, Islamic missionaries capitalised on male-dominated traditions in areas such as the rugged highlands. There, Islamic missionaries say, “It’s okay to have four wives – you don’t get eternal damnation for that,” says Flower.
“They take salvation very seriously in PNG. So to be able to have their traditional political economy through multiple wives, as they do in the highlands, but still achieve salvation in the hereafter, that’s important,” he explains.
One Seventh Day Adventist preacher from the highlands province of Enga told Flower he believed that, “In the next 30 years all the PNG highlands will become Muslim because our culture is Islamic” – a scenario that reverberates through a lot of anti-Islamic dialogue in PNG’s political and media realms.
Some converts told Flower that they had initially hoped that Islam might pay off for them, given its links to Middle Eastern wealth. “I asked ‘Did you come because you expected cargo?’, and some said, ‘Well, initially’ … but then they were told to focus on living a moral life so that they could go to the after life, and that this was more important than cargo. So while they came to the religion for material dimensions, says Flower, what they actually gained was a coping mechanism for the reality that they don’t have material gain, that Western capitalist society doesn’t provide for everyone.
“It’s a very complex story. But those are the main themes – the cultural, the material, and then the theological dimensions.” Interestingly, despite the disenfranchisement of many people in PNG, particularly the young, Flower’s research didn’t identify political motivations as a powerful influence on the decision to explore Islam.
If boatloads of asylum seekers keep endeavoring to reach Australia and find themselves beached permanently in PNG, the longer-term consequences “are hard to pick”, says Flower. “What we do know from diaspora studies is that first and second generation migrants often experience a strengthening of their traditions or cultural/religious identities as part of adjusting to life in a new society.
“There is a clear trend in the literature. When you are part of a minority in a foreign country, you stick with people who you identify with.” This way of living already resonates deeply in PNG society, which is a cultural patchwork of ethnic minorities defined by kinship and “wantoks” (one-talks, or language groups); disparate communities living separately but together.
The question, as articulated in a lengthy post on PNG’s busiest Facebook political forum this week by the creator of the Sharp Talk site, Douveri Heno (also a lawyer and executive director of the PNG Business Council), is “if [asylum seekers] are going to be our new PNG wantoks, will their presence continue a legacy of a nation with many tongues, or contribute to global indicators as a poor, resource-rich country with spiraling law and order problems?”