Hard News by Russell Brown


These things we must now change

Wajahat Khan becomes a New Zealand citizen tomorrow. On Saturday, before leading the opening prayer at the vigil in Aotea Square, he told the thousands who had gathered there how happy and proud he was at the prospect.

The fact that a young man could express that happiness in the shadow of the previous day's atrocity tears me up even as I write this. But he wasn't alone. The gentleness of all the speakers from the Muslim community,  their entreaties against hate, their frequently-expressed commitment to being New Zealanders, all in a weave of English, te reo Māori and Arabic, was deeply affecting. I cried through much of it and I could see I wasn't alone in the crowd.

Yesterday, aware that my own composure was not matching theirs, I tried to follow their counsel against anger. But it wasn't easy: the whatabouttery had begun. There were the people who told everyone not to "politicise" the atrocity – out of respect for the victims, of course – when evidence of their own foul politics was still there in their timelines and blog comments. There were, horrifyingly, the unrepetant.

By Friday night, things were starting to disappear from the mainstream: Newstalk ZB apparently deleted a number of opinion pieces. The National Party quietly removed the petition that cynically sought to raise ire and fear about New Zealand signing up to the UN Global Migration Compact. These gestures would be more welcome if they came with any kind of explanation or apology.

Because the fact is that there has been an implicit acceptance of rhetoric directed at one group of people, a group defined by their faith, for a long time now. It must be 18 years since I first interviewed Winston Peters, as the new host of Mediawatch. Off-air and unprompted, Peters began telling me about the threatening passages in The Koran. I responded that there was some ropey stuff in The Bible too. Our very awkward conversation ended with Peters flashing that big smile, as if it might all have been a joke.

But Peters has more form here, as Thomas Coughlan notes in a roundup of political statements on Newsroom. He also identifies Labour's positions on immigration and housing at the last election. I think it should be possible, in principle, to debate immigration policy settings like any others, but something happened during the campaign that impressed on me how easy it is for that debate to spill over into something else.

At the Orcon IRL election event we ran at Golden Dawn, Labour MP Louisa Wall talked about "low-quality immigrants". I saw my co-host Jogai Bhatt flinch. I intended to deal with it in the plenary panel, but a rainstorm intervened, so I asked Jogai later if she wanted to write about it. She wrote this post, which also analyses The Opportunies Party's rhetoric on immigration, which was to welcome immigrants only if they directly benefited "our" standard of living. Ironically, she notes that the MP at the IRL event who pushed back against the language ("Immigration is about people, it’s not about numbers. These are human beings we’re talking about.") was New Zealand First's Tracey Martin.

It's an example of how utterly careless our language about immigration has become.

But there was something much worse going on. It has not been difficult to see the boundaries on race and hate being moved in the Trump era. Hateful, even genocidal, rhetoric has gone unmoderated in Kiwiblog comments for years, but it reaches further now, and has a more obvious connection to white-supremacist rabble-rousing in North America.

I think the members of the Free Speech Coalition need to seriously examine what they became part of after they assembled to defend the "rights" of the nakedly racist Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern last year. Their pathetic rally in Aotea Square (which was promoted in advance by the National Front) was principally a fan club for Tommy Robinson, a violent Islamophobe with an extensive criminal record; more speakers railed against "sharia law" than fettered speech.

The coalition had multiple opportunities to repudiate what their rally became, and they didn't take them. Coalition spokesman David Cumin expressed alarm earlier this year when skinheads with swastika tattoos turned up at a Christchurch rally against the UN migration compact, as if only dress-up Nazis were real. The coalition supported the protests on the basis that, as Cumin put it, it "prohibits all critical speech aimed at open-border migration". But the UN compact doesn't enforce "open border migration", it doesn't offer it as an aspiration and no political party has such a policy. The simple use of that phrase as if it describes a reality buys into organised hate.

I think Cumin will be capable of that reflection. I'm not so sure about his coalition colleague, perennial Act Party candidate Stephen Berry. Over the weekend on Twitter, Berry scolded that "trying to politicise this tragedy is disgraceful".

Yet in 2013, on Lindsay Perigo's wretched SOLO Passion website, he wrote a blog post decrying "a plague of Islamic poison spreading across Europe and the UK due to relatively liberal migration laws that allow conservative Muslims in" and described the growth of the Muslim population as a threat. In the comments underneath he professed to agree that "Islamic immigration is a real threat to individual liberties which have resulted from western civilisation" and pondered ways in which "sanctions against Islamic immigration" could be applied.

He stood happily with the people who brandished their Tommy Robinson iconograhy in Aotea Square. Those people will tell you that Islamist "hate preachers" have passed through Auckland and preached to audiences. This is absolutely true, and worrying. But it is dwarfed in every way by the volume, ubiquity and sheer mainstreaming of its mirror-image rhetoric about and against ordinary Muslims. Dodgy hate-preachers don't have national radio shows, or a place in widely-read blog discussions.

And yet, none of this is directly linked to the Christchurch atrocity. The killer's hate culture, as expressed in his pretentious manifesto (always, these people purport to be cleverer than they are, with their pseudoscience and idiot history) is an online one: it crosses national borders; it's everywhere and nowhere.

I got increasingly angry with Paul Buchanan's reckless commentary on the day of the attack; his waxing about Christchurch's culture of white supremacism and especially his baseless claim that the killer grew up in Christchurch and must be considered a product of it. Yes, Christchurch has that history and to some extent that present (although people who live there talk about how it's changed, especialy since the earthquakes, and it seems notable, for example, the the top four candidates in Christchurch East in 2017 were Māori or Pasifika women). But there are ethno-nationalist groups at the University of Auckland, and a gang of neo-Nazi twentysomethings plastering their filth on walls in Wellington. And, as we now know, the killer lived, when he was in New Zealand, in Dunedin and belonged to a creepy-sounding gun club. The killer's manifesto uses a symbol displayed by neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. None of us are innocent.

Perhaps, apart from having the stricter gun laws in place, nothing could have been done to prevent this mass murder. One of the problems with even identifying a likely far-right terrorist is simply picking out his hate rhetoric from the background din of bigotry. They can, to some extent, hide in plain sight.

But no more. This must end here. These ideas need to be called out and, where necessary, drawn to the attention of police. Politicians need to stop using bigotry as a lever, media organisations need to stop giving it air. Intelligence agencies must look where they, unaccountably, have not been looking. We may need to talk to our own family members about what they're reading. We can't change what happened on Friday, but we can do everything to prevent it happening again.

And we can do it so that members of the Muslim community, these people who are so proud and happy to be New Zealanders, don't have to live with the fear. Anjum Rahman has explained here about how she and other members of the Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand became so alarmed by "the rise of vitriol and the rise of the alt-right in New Zealand" that they compiled a report about it. Over five years, they met with civil servants, the SIS, ministers to talk about the way their community was being threatened – and nothing really happened.

We can read this likes of this, by Faisal Halabi, on the conflicting emotions of being a Muslim New Zealander. We can listen to this, by journalist and poet Mohamed Hassan, whose adeptness at describing his experience has never been more needed.

And tomorrow, we can all send Wajahat Khan a big, bold "kia ora" from our hearts.

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