ANALYSIS: We do a lot of talking about Islam at Parliament.
Hansard, the record of parliamentary speeches, has 139 mentions of the word “Muslim”, 317 of the word “Islam”, and 238 mentions of the word “Islamic” in its searchable record, which dates back to 2003.
In that same time, only one politician — Aaron “do you know I am?” Gilmore, as fate would have it — has mentioned “white supremacy”, and none have spoken about “white nationalism”.
Other religions are mentioned too — the word “Christian” is mentioned 520 times. But look a little closer, and a distinct difference emerges. While mentions of the word “Christian” tend to be followed by words like “Social Services” more than half of the 238 times, the word “Islam” is mentioned it is followed by the word “State”.
New Zealand is not immune from the global trend of conflating Islam and its nearly two billion adherents with terrorism.
Dr Mohamed Alansari of the University of Auckland noted that when people speak about Islam “it comes with a hint of judgment or a hint of a stereotype and it comes from a place of fear rather than a place of trying to understand”.
The apparent threat of Islam is often conflated with other issues, including security and migration.
No one in Parliament can be expected to wear the blame for Friday’s tragedy.
He was Australian, and appeared to have little connection to New Zealand. But those facts should not prohibit us from examining the crude and hateful rhetoric we have tolerated for too long.
Blame belongs almost exclusively to the terrorist himself. But hate does not breed in a vacuum, and the time is long overdue to hold our leaders to account for playing fast and loose with rhetoric — particularly when it comes to Islam.
Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has a longer history than most when it comes to linking concerns about terrorism to Muslims.
The End of Tolerance
In a 2005 speech titled The End Of Tolerance and delivered in the wake of the London bombings, Peters singled out Muslim migrants for special attention.
He spoke about the “political correctness” in other parties:
“They say – ah yes – but New Zealand has always been a nation of immigrants. They miss a crucial point. New Zealand has never been a nation of Islamic immigrants…”
Peters also suggested that moderate Muslims were operating “hand in glove” with extremists.
His exact words are worth quoting in full:
“This two-faced approach is how radical Islam works – present the acceptable face to one audience and the militant face to another.
“In New Zealand the Muslim community have been quick to show us their more moderate face, but as some media reports have shown, there is a militant underbelly here as well.
“Underneath it all the agenda is to promote fundamentalist Islam.
“Indeed these groups are like the mythical Hydra – a serpent underbelly with multiple heads capable of striking at any time and in any direction.”
He went on to note that “in many parts of the world the Christian faith is under direct threat from radical Islam,” and said that he had sent a letter to all leaders of Islamic groups in New Zealand, calling them to name any “radicals, troublemakers and potential dangers to our society”.
For what it matters, Peters was wrong on the point of Muslim immigration to New Zealand: an article published in the Waikato Islamic Studies Review notes the first Muslim family to settle permanently in New Zealand arrived at some point in the 1850s and made their home in Cashmere, Christchurch.
Peters’ language was called out at the time, with Prime Minister Helen Clark telling the House that it was “no more fair to smear all Muslims because some people of that religion commit acts of criminal, murderous violence than it would have been to smear all Irish people because of the acts of the IRA”.
But that was in August — just two months later, Peters was sworn in as Clark’s Foreign Minister.
Peters waded into the issue of Muslim migration even more recently. In the wake of the London Bridge attacks, in June 2017, Peters urged Muslims to turn in potential terrorists.
“While the Islamic community must clean house by turning these monsters in, it starts with their own families,” he said.
Again, Peters lashed out at the culture of political correctness that allowed Muslim “communities apart” to form.
“We must avoid the same politically correct trap that has allowed such communities apart to form — that is, it is we who must change as a society, they say, to accommodate the cultural practices and traditions of others; that, in some twisted spirit of inclusiveness, it is we who must change, and not them,” he said.
Peters was again called out, this time by ACT’s David Seymour, but just a few months after those comments were made, Peters again found himself in government – this time as Deputy Prime Minister.
He made similar remarks about the Orlando nightclub shooting, also in 2017.
But it is not just Peters who wears the blame. Other parties have trafficked in dog-whistle politics too.
The National Party has been running a campaign against New Zealand’s signing last December of the UN’s Global Migration Pact.
National alleges, in the words of Judith Collins, that the non-binding pact would give “over sovereignty for so much of our immigration to the United Nations”, a fear which has been stoked and disseminated by online far-right groups according to the Politico news website.
Indeed, as Newsroom noted on Friday, the UN appeared to be a concern of the man who attacked Green co-leader James Shaw on Thursday morning. References to the pact were also scrawled on one of Brenton Tarrant’s guns.
For its part, the UN and many observers refute the notion that it creates “a right to migrate”. Francis Collins, the director of New Zealand’s National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis, told Newsroom in December the pact was more about “aspirations”.
“It’s really just an attempt I think to set a number of global norms, or we might even call them aspirations, that countries agreeing to the compact then might try to work towards around migration policy, to sort of get away from both the variations and some of the problematic outcomes of migration policy internationally.”
But that hasn’t stopped some strong rhetoric springing up around the agreement. National’s Gerry Brownlee said on Newshub it would “pretty much open borders”.
National started a petition, saying the pact “defers our immigration policy to the UN” and that it “restricts the ability of future governments to set immigration and foreign policy, and to decide on which migrants are welcome and which aren’t”.
The petition was quietly removed from the party’s website in the wake of the shootings. A National spokesman initially claimed the deletion had taken place weeks ago as part of a standard archiving process.
However, in the wake of cached website data showing the page was still online as of Friday afternoon, National leader Simon Bridges revealed an emotional staffer had deleted the petition on Friday night – a fact he said he only became aware of on Tuesday morning.
AIDS, tuberculosis claims
Peters has also had a swipe at the UN on migration. In 2003 he slammed then-Immigration Minister, Lianne Dalziel now the mayor of Christchurch, in the House. Calling her a “bungling, illegal immigrant-loving, hand-wringing, ineffectual, incompetent, no-hoper”.
Citing an open letter from Dalziel, he said she claimed “she cannot do a thing about an alleged Muslim terrorist, because the United Nations will not let her”.
He went on to say she had “done more to destroy the fabric of our society” than any other minister, including bringing “planeloads of Third World ratbags” to the country.
Peters went even further, citing “an illegal African immigrant” who was “raping New Zealand women, infecting them with AIDS, and condemning them to an early death,” and Third World migrants bringing cases of tuberculosis to Auckland hospital.
“I have news for the Prime Minister, her useless Minister of Immigration, and for all the Labour Party Klingons who are polluting this country with the riff-raff of the Third World.
“It is time to put the health and safety of our people first. We are part of the politically correct drivel about saving the world’s flotsam and jetsam,” he said.
Labour also has some guilt. In 2005, then-Immigration Minister David Cunliffe answered questions in The Listener about the Government’s policy of additional screening for migrants from “high-risk” countries.
“Some countries have a higher risk profile in terms of the people they send here and the immigration profiling group within the Immigration Service assesses the risk of individual applicants from those countries,” he said.
He was responding to remarks from then-National leader Don Brash about migrants from countries with “bedrock values”.
Cunliffe pushed back at Brash’s rhetoric, saying he was “trying to do what others have done in history, which is define the ‘in’ crowd by who is not in it”. But the Listener noted that in practice, the government’s immigration policy was little different to Brash’s, and prioritised migrants from Britain.
Then there was the controversy over Labour’s “Chinese-sounding names” attack on overseas home buyers, and a general sense of tough talk on immigration numbers both leading up to and following the 2017 election.
It may not have been aimed at Muslims, but some undoubtedly felt its sting.
Speaking to media outside the Christchurch welfare centre on Sunday, one Muslim woman pointed to the stream of announcements and updates on migration numbers from the Government, saying many in the community felt more targeted and less safe now than before the election.
“People fear the unknown. What they see in the media is Muslims are trying to take over. It’s a narrative that people struggle to diminish.”
Alansari says that in a vacuum, poor rhetoric has shaped people’s views around Muslims.
“People fear the unknown,” he said.
“What they see in the media is Muslims are trying to take over. It’s a narrative that people struggle to diminish,” he said.
“When it comes to understanding the Muslim culture and Muslim religious beliefs, it’s often based on misinformed information.”
It will take time to know for certain whether such views shaped Tarrant’s views, as it now appears. Media and politicians are wisely not taking his manifesto at face value.
Until then, it seems right to hold our leaders’ rhetoric around race and immigration up to the light, and truly ask ourselves whether we did enough to stamp out racism when it came from people we elected.
Still better, it might be time for parties to look who is on their lists and see what can be done to let New Zealand’s Muslims use the floor of the House to speak for themselves.
Newsroom corrected comments in this story about the deletion National Party’s petition on the UN migration pact, after a party spokesman claimed they were incorrect. However, with Simon Bridges now confirming the party did delete the petition following the attacks, we have reinstated the original sentences, along with some information on the denial and retraction.