Islamophobia and scaremongering to attack our civil rights

There is a history of political terror in this country, one we should never forget. In the 1990s farmer Allan Titford set fire to his own homestead, hoping to blame the arson on local iwi Te Roroa. He later led tense anti-Treaty protests and provocations. In the South Island fascist Kyle Chapman has convictions for fire-bombing a marae, and has thrown Molotov cocktails at Ngai Tahu property. French government agents sank the Rainbow Warrior when it was docked in Auckland in 1985, killing Fernando Pereira. And in 1984 trade unionist Ernie Abbott was killed by a bombing at Wellington Trades Hall. His killer or killers have never been charged.

All the history of political violence in this country has come from the state and the right. And yet it is Muslims who face threats in a growing atmosphere of Islamophobia and intimidation whipped up by John Key’s calls for tougher anti-terror laws.

Brian Rudman, writing the New Zealand Herald in October, called this “scaremongering to curb freedom further.” He’s right. For all Key’s lurid statements about the threat of random beheadings and terror attacks – and for all that these have been echoed and amplified by a willing media – the government has not been able to produce anything approaching a coherent story. Members of the Aotearoa Maori Muslim Association merely expressing their point of view was enough for Labour MP Stuart Nash to say they have “no place” in society. A climate of intolerance and fear is being generated, and Muslims are the target – this serves the purpose of creating an atmosphere then for the state to claim further anti-democratic powers. In Australia, similar campaigns by Tony Abbott – and his cheer-leaders in the Fairfax and Murdoch press – has already led to violent abuse and attacks on Muslims in major cities.

The state already has wide-ranging, anti-democratic and chilling powers under the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002. Passports can already be cancelled; people can already be jailed for supporting groups the government deems ‘terrorist.’ These laws were passed by Helen Clark’s Labour government in a similar atmosphere of anti-Muslim hysteria following the September 11 attacks.

But, in the past decade, revelations around the SIS and GCSB’s decades-long methods of illegality and surveillance – and the bungling and police terror in Tuhoe land in October 2007 – have tarnished the image of the state as the protector of our freedoms against a threatening world. There is, firstly, the uncomfortable fact that New Zealand is an international backwater: Islamic State militants are unlikely to have heard of this country, letalone have it in their sights. A decade of terror threats with no credible terror sources takes a toll on government lines. And evidence of anti-democratic practices at home – including revelations former Green MP Keith Locke was spied on as a school boy, and this year’s stories about New Zealand’s links with US security – have undermined the anti-terror narrative further.

So this latest round of scare-mongering is part of a response aimed at re-asserting the aggressive role of state forces. It’s primarily an ideological campaign, as ample anti-democratic laws are on the books already. Part of this involves public relations, as with Rebecca Kitteride, head of the spy agency the SIS, giving interviews – the first in the Service’s history – trying to convince people her role is ‘security’ rather than spying. And partly it is to do with borrowing from Australian Liberal party methods and stoking fear and hatred, as Key has attempted.

The racist and politically-loaded content of this campaign is obvious. Who defines terrorism? What counts as extremist? Who decides? When does a freedom fighter – such as the New Zealand citizens who went to Spain in the 1930s to join international forces fighting fascism – become a ‘foreign fighter’? Key has talked about people returning to New Zealand ‘radicalised and with military training’. Brian Rudman puts it well:

If it’s a risk to national security for New Zealanders to fight for one of the warring parties in the Middle East bloodbath, then why is it acceptable for them to be part of another, in particular the Israeli Army which now faces allegations of committing war crimes during its recent 23-day offensive on the Gaza Strip. Should death by beheading be seen as despicable, while firing rockets from a gunboat into a group of kids playing soccer on a Gaza beach, or targeting homes full of civilians, not?

In August, the Age in Melbourne featured New Zealander Sam Gosling who moved to Melbourne in 2008 then joined the Israeli army in 2013. Recovering from shrapnel wounds received in the Gaza bombardment, he was one of 10 members of a Melbourne youth Zionist movement who had joined theIsraeli army in the past two years. “What drives them is a love and passion for Zionism,” said Zionist spokeswoman, Romy Spicer.

The difference, of course, is political: the Israeli army serves interests that suit the New Zealand state. Other military forces, such as those of the Kurds, do not, and are labelled terrorist.

All working people, regardless of faith, need to stand in solidarity with Muslims at the moment. We need to reject the idea of a terror threat absolutely. The complex set of factors that led to the rise of Islamic State in Iraq, tragic as they are and reactionary as they organisation is, stem from US imperialism’s destruction of that region, a destruction New Zealand has been an active supporter of over the last decade and more. The real threat at the moment is to our democratic freedoms and civil rights here. Whatever we might think of the views of some members of the Aotearoa Maori Muslim Association, the idea that they are an ‘extremist’ threat is at best laughable, at worst a racist provocation.

The more trade unions, student associations and the left take up the banner of opposition to anti-Muslim bigotry, and the more confident we reject the very basis for considering these laws, the stronger placed we will be to oppose Key’s wider agenda.

By Dougal McNeill