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P Buchanan: Scaremongering In The Political Gutter

Scaremongering And Scapegoating In The Political Gutter

By Paul G. Buchanan
August 3, 2005

Unsubstantiated allegations by Winston Peters that there is an extremist hydra residing within the New Zealand Muslim community, coupled with equally vague claims by a foreign security expert that there are at least ten Islamic militant groups operating here, have once again raised concerns about terrorists in our midst. The accusations also raise some interesting questions beyond the particulars of the issue.

To begin with, the question must be asked as to why scare-mongering tactics are so effective in election years, and why other major parties have said nothing on the matters broached by Mr. Peters. Beyond that, several more discrete points of inquiry beg answer.

If Mr. Peters or his foreign security expert supporter knows of Islamic extremists in New Zealand, why do they not identify them or share this information with the counter-terrorism branch of the Police? Should they in fact exist, public declarations lacking in specifics allows militant cells time to disperse and seek cover before re-grouping in different guise sometime in the future. The Police and the SIS have both said that they are monitoring individuals who may support Islamicist causes, but if these are not those that Mr. Peters and the Singapore-based security expert have in mind, then the ability to investigate previously unknown groups has been seriously compromised. Citing operational security, both Mr. Peters and the security expert have refused to identify individuals or groups, but the very act of going public has compromised whatever operational security may have been at play with regard to previously unknown Islamicists in Aotearoa. As it stands, the head of the New Zealand Police’s counter-terrorism squad admits that there are no Muslim terrorist cells operating in New Zealand, even if there are some people who are sympathetic to the Islamicist cause (and not necessarily Islamic themselves).

There is an issue of credibility at stake. Given his track record on issues of immigration and refugee matters, Mr. Peters by and large does not have any. He thus has placed much faith in what the Singaporean-based expert has to say on the matter. Yet, although knowledgeable about al-Qaeda, the foreign security expert backing Mr. Peter’s claims has no expertise in New Zealand and is well known for making vague assertions that later prove incorrect or exaggerated, as well as for crying wolf at any hint of Muslim political opposition to Western foreign policy maneuvers. Moreover, he is employed by a research branch of a (pro-Western authoritarian) foreign security agency, which means that the possibility of rationales of bureaucratic self-interest in maintaining high levels of concern about (and funding for) security measures cannot be discounted. After all, this man’s bread is buttered by his government patrons, and his status as an “expert” is very much dependent on his toeing the official policy line on issues of terrorism—as well as on the continued existence of (real and supposed) terrorist threats themselves.

Then there is the issue of what, exactly, constitutes an “extremist group?” Is a group more than two people with regular contact between them? Or is it an ongoing enterprise of like-minded people focused on specific objectives? Is it made of people who donate money to charities (such as World Vision) who do not know, or do not care about where their money is specifically destined? Or is something much looser, amorphous, and therefore easy to claim but hard to identify? Both Mr. Peters and the foreign expert have failed to elaborate as to what they mean when they speak of Muslim extremist groups.

How is “extremism” defined? Does it include opposition to the Iraq invasion and occupation (which under international law are considered illegal), or the Israeli occupation of Palestine, or to the indefinite detention without trial and under conditions of extreme duress (when not torture) of suspected “illegal combatants” (a status not recognised in international law) in places like Guantanamo Bay? If so, that would put a significant number of non-Muslim New Zealanders, as well as several political parties, in the extremist camp. Moreover, why limit the concern about extremism to Muslims? If anything, non-Muslims of various stripes have grievances that would make them more prone to committing violence in New Zealand than any potential jihadis. Radical environmentalists, Maori separatists, anti-globalisation groups, criminal gangs of different ethnic persuasions--these are far more likely to be potential sources of terrorism in New Zealand than radical Islamicists.

Simple arithmetic shows the relative potential of extremism in New Zealand. If one percent of New Zealand’s estimated 45,000 Muslims are sympathetic to jihadist causes, that means a pool of 450 potential extremists. If one percent of National Party members are sympathetic to the fire-bombing of abortion clinics, that means an equal if not larger number of extremists in its midst. If most Destiny Church and Destiny Party members view abortion and homosexuality as mortal sins worthy of damnation, that makes the whole lot of them potential extremists. If one percent of Maori Party members would use violence to prevent access to shorelines, then they too have a penchant for extremism that Mr. Peters conveniently overlooks. If one percent of anti-GE or animal rights advocates see violence as a means of redress, they are potential terrorists. The simple fact is that virtually all groups have members whose views may be more militant than moderate, and many are much more likely to be a threat to this country than supporters of Islamic causes. Thus, in terms of having potential militants in their fold, Muslims are not alone, and in fact are much less likely to harbour large numbers of extremists given the amount of scrutiny they are subject to.

Even were the accusations to have some basis in truth, then the question must be asked: does vocalizing support for jihadi causes equate to a penchant for violence? As with other areas of human endeavour, talk is cheap, and just because some people (especially university students) express sympathy for Islamicists that does not necessarily mean that they are prone to irregular warfare.

Making unsubstantiated claims against minority ethnic groups (also known as scapegoating) in order to promote majority fear of them, which in turn provides a political climate in which their basic rights and physical security can be challenged (as in the case with recent Iraqi refugees), is a tried and true tactics of demagogic racists. The king of them all, of course, was Hitler, but he has had many imitators over the years, in many different places. Hitler was, after all, elected into office in a democracy on a platform of xenophobic nationalism, so it not just dictators who utilize the ploy. Now it seems he has a student in New Zealand. That is unfortunate, if for no other reason than the fact that New Zealand has very little to fear from radical Islam.

Moreover, since one of the objectives of terrorism is to promote fear and panic among subject populations in order to disrupt their lives and sow a climate of paranoia and irrational dead of suspected “others”, then the response to the London bombings is a clear indication that the tactic is working. Racial and clothing profiling, to say nothing of the legalized police murder of a hapless but innocent Brazilian who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, clearly indicates that the Islamicists have achieved a tactical victory of sorts. In the measure that the British population alter their lives in fear of potential threats during the course of their daily routines, and in the measure that the British authorities, as well as those elsewhere, trample basic civil liberties under the mantle of specialized anti-terrorist legislation, then Osama and his mates are winning. At present there is no conclusive reason why New Zealand should go down that path, regardless of what Mr. Peters says.

New Zealand’s policy of independence in foreign affairs, its history of good relations with Muslim countries, its tradition of generosity towards refugees, its support for the United Nations, and its differences with the US and Britain over the conduct of the so-called “war on terror” (now re-branded as the “Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism,” or “G-Save” in the Washington jargon), affords new Zealand a measure of insulation from Islamicist attacks. This does not mean that there is zero danger from foreign jihadis, particularly to New Zealanders living and working abroad in countries that have been targeted by terrorist cells (as the Bali and London bombings attest). What it does mean is that the potential for terrorism on these shores most likely will come from within, and not from Muslims. Second to that, it may come from a foreign government over a disputed issue of policy, as has occurred once before. But for all the scare-mongering rhetoric of some gutter-level politicians, the most pressing threat comes from the race-based irrational fears that such rhetoric stirs up. If anything, it is the New Zealand Muslim community that should rightfully be fearful of such talk, as the potential backlash against them, as a group, far outweigh the potential of their doing harm to the country that has offered them safe haven. Recent mosque vandalism is evidence of this fact.

Rather than stoop low and respond to political scare-mongering and religious scapegoating on the issue of domestic terrorism, the better course of action is to be vigilant, engage in cross-cultural dialogue, and to use restraint, accuracy and stealth in the identification of suspected extremists, regardless of their ethnic, religious or political persuasion. It may be expedient for politicians without scruples to use the specter of terrorism to stir up racial hatred and fear during an election campaign, but it is incumbent upon the electorate and its government servants to demonstrate tolerance and discretion when addressing such claims. Otherwise the result will be the triumph of demagoguery over reason, and of fear over compassion. That is not the Kiwi way.


Paul G. Buchanan is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland.

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