Richard Prosser’s xenophobic and bigoted remarks about Muslims (which are not racist, since he was targeting a religion, not an ethnic or racial group) has rightfully met with wide-spread opprobrium. More than a comment about Muslims, his remarks say a lot about him on several levels. Let’s just leave it at this: That he was prompted to air his views by having his pocket knife confiscated at an airport security gate, then actually took the time to write out his thoughts in a magazine op-ed, make it clear that somewhere in Aotearoa a village is missing its idiot, and that idiot has been found spending lots of time in the Beehive.
However, the current repudiation of his views has not always been as wide-spread, and in fact his appeal to negative Muslim stereotypes was, if not all the rage, widely accepted just ten years ago.
Consider that when Ahmed Zaoui attempted to seek political refuge in New Zealand in late 2002, his arrival was met with official alarm and a chorus of exactly the sort of xenophobic invective that Prosser has voiced. The Fifth Labour government branded him an “Islamicst” with ties to al-Qaeda, then worked with the SIS to manufacture a “terrorist” case against him in order to justify his indefinite detention and eventual expulsion. It even changed domestic spying laws and created new anti-terrorist legislation (both still on the books and enhanced by National) so as to counter the Islamicist threat. The SIS went so far as to claim in its 2005 annual report that local jihadis and their sympathizers were a serious threat to New Zealand, only to drop the claim entirely in the 2006 report.
Zaoui was not the only Arab who got the heavy treatment. In 2006 Rayed Mohammed Abdullah Ali, a Yemeni-Saud flight school student overstayer, was summarily deported and handed over to Saudi security officials after he was caught (apparently following a tip-off to Winston Peters from a member of the public related to Ardmore Flying School). Despite concerns about his fate once he was turned over to the Saudis, he disappeared after being placed in their custody. The Fifth Labour government, through then-Immigration Minister David Cunliffe, refused to comment on his whereabouts or well-being and did not seek assurances from the Saudis regarding his treatment. As a justification for his summary deportation under escort, the Fifth Labour government claimed that he was a threat to national security, with his alleged “crime” being that he briefly flatted and shared pilot training with one of the 9/11 hijackers. No evidence has been produced to suggest that Abdullah Ali was aware of, much less involved in, the 9/11 conspiracy. Yet in the eyes of the New Zealand authorities at the time, relying in part on disputed FBI reports, he was guilty by association.
Shortly after Zaoui’s arrival Winston Peters, who now says that there is an element of truth to Prosser’s remarks but that his choice of words was unwise, demanded that Zaoui be expelled forthwith and went on to say that the NZ Muslim community was a “hydra” with extremist cells within it. Along with NZ First, National supported Labour on the Zaoui matter. Only the Greens questioned the official narrative (and Keith Locke needs to be congratulated for his staunch defense of Zaoui’s rights). Eventually, and with the help of some steadfast supporters and a few critical media types, the courageous work of Deborah Manning, Richard McLeod and Rodney Harrison destroyed the government attempt to frame and scapegoat Mr. Zaoui. After nearly five years the case against Zaoui was withdrawn and he was set free (he now runs a kebab place on K Road). For a good documentary overview of the case, see here.
My point is that timing is everything when politicians choose to stereotype so-called “out” groups. Back then Islamophobia ran rampant and it was fine if not fashionable to Muslim-bash, which the Clark government did adroitly and with aplomb. It did so by being subtle in its talk and thorough and focused in its actions. It publicly maintained it had nothing against Muslims or Islam, yet ordered its security apparatus to increase its surveillance of Muslim males (something that is ongoing) and enacted draconian security legislation with an eye towards the purported Islamicist threat to NZ (although truth be told, it first tried to use its new anti-terrorist legislation against the Urewera 18, and we know how that turned out).
Today all of that is water under the bridge although the laws remain on the books. NZ Muslims are no more of a threat today then they were a decade ago, but with the exception of the usual right-wing fanatics ranting in the blogosphere, the public mood is largely relaxed on the issue of the danger to NZ posed by Islamic extremism. Most politicians understand that even in election years scapegoating Muslims is now a losing campaign strategy. Thus Prosser is being made to wear a hair shirt over his contemporary remarks when he would have been applauded as a non-PC realist just a few years ago.
I would simply say that more than his stupid words, his timing if off. Politics is the art of hypocrisy disguised as righteousness, but the key to a successful disguise lies in the timing of the public posture. The Fifth Labour government timed its stereotyping just right, which allowed it to curry favor with its Western security partners in the anti-Islamic crusade by strengthening its anti-terrorism laws and internal security legislation. Zaoui was the precipitant and scapegoat used to that effect.
Prosser, on the other hand, is simply an uncouth political neophyte spouting rubbish at the wrong time. Had he made his remarks ten years ago he would have fared far better in the court of public and political opinion.