Greater Spy Powers no Solution to Right-Wing Extremism

Since the March 15 terror attacks, calls have slowly been increasing to grant New Zealand’s spy agencies greater powers and resources in the name of fighting right-wing extremism. A royal commission of inquiry has been established to probe intelligence failings and recommend future “improvements” and the National Party has gone on the offensive, suggesting the GCSB and SIS need more powers of mass surveillance. Socialists however, should be cautious about joining such calls. Intelligence agencies worldwide have done much to promote the very Islamophobia the far right feeds upon and rather than adding to their powers, we should be returning civil liberties that have been stolen from Muslims and ending racism everywhere it is found.

The violence right-wing extremists are just one element of a wider culture of Islamophobia, fueled and stoked by the capitalist elite. Politicians and the media have set the tone. ACT Party candidate Stephen Berry wrote in a 2013 post about the “Islamic poison spreading across Europe” and NewsTalk ZB’s Christchurch host wrote a 2017 column questioning “Does Islam have a place in public swimming pools.” Winston Peters is well known for his anti-immigration and Islamophobic tirades, delivering a speech in 2005 entitled “The end of tolerance,” which he still refuses to apologize for. After a brief pause following the Christchurch attacks politicians and media commentators have resumed business as usual, the Weekend Herald publishing a column by talkback host Leighton Smith connecting “Neo-Marxism” and supposed favoritism towards Islam with a global “war on Christianity”.

Of course, none of this claptrap is true. No Muslim has ever committed a terrorist attack in New Zealand and globally Muslims are the people most likely to become victims of terrorism. A 2011 report by the US government’s Counter-Terrorism Centre stated that “In cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97% of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years.” The countries most at risk of terrorist attack are not in Europe, North America or Australasia, but are precisely those nations most devastated by Western aggression.

Islamophobia, including the presentation of Muslims as somehow less civilized or less democratic than “Westerners” provides convenient justification for unpopular wars in the Middle East, fought for control of oil reserves and the benefit of the ruling elite. It has been used to ratchet-up repression as part of the “war on terror” and combined with more generalized anti-migrant racism, it has further benefited the capitalist class by sowing division between working people and building support for continued austerity since the 2008 recession.

New Zealand’s police and security services have reflected and amplified the Islamophobic atmosphere in which the far right has been able to flourish and grow. Our spy agencies have been obsessed by “Islamic extremism” – using it as the rationale for new powers and resources.   The Terrorism Suppression Act introduced in 2002, makes specific reference to Isalmist organisations in its purpose. Almost all of the organisations officially designated by the New Zealand Police as “terrorist entities” are Muslim. A recent investigation by Radio New Zealand showed that in the past 10 years of official documents have been dominated by extensive discussion of so-called “Islamic extremism.”

The reason for the perverse correlation between the victims of terrorism and those of state repression is that the police and spy agencies don’t exist to protect ordinary people, Muslim and non-Muslim. Just as war in the Middle East is fought for the interests of global capitalism, spy agencies exist to protect the interests of the state and the ruling elite. The priorities of the intelligence agencies reflect their agenda, which is why they have remained obsessed with surveilling organisations such as Greenpeace and fighting “Islamic extremism” rather than stopping the rise of the far right.

More resources for intelligence agencies to spy on right-wing extremists doesn’t challenge the assumptions under which these agencies have operated for the past two decades and the Islamophobic atmosphere that those agencies have helped create. At it’s worst, such calls risk providing justification for the continued targeting of Muslims in a perverse kind of “equal opportunity” spying.

Instead of further empowering the very agencies that have done so much to contribute to and fuel Islamophobia, we need to dismantle the whole infrastructure of Islamophobia. This involves combating the both violence of the far right and the bigotry of more ordinary politicians that creates space for them, but also challenging the agenda of our intelligence agencies who have systematically oppressed and persecuted Muslims both in Aotearoa and around the globe. Rather than more resources for the GCSB and SIS, we need to be reclaim the democratic space that has been lost to the “war on terror” and give Muslims and all people opposed to racism and Islamophobia a greater voice.

Image credit: Love Aotearoa Hate Racism.