For some, the Cold War threat of Communism has been replaced by a new threat, Islam. The result, too often, is an ignorant hostility that stereotypes and denigrates. It appears that New Zealand is not immune from these anti-Islam politics.
‘Islamophobia’ was a label coined by the UK’s leading independent race equality thinktank, the Runnymede Trust, in 1991 to describe the “unfounded hostility towards Muslims”. The Runnymede Trust defined Islamophobia as “closed views” that saw Islam as monolithic, unchanging, violent, inferior and a threat to the “West” .
A decade later, the events of 9/11 contributed significantly to an escalation in these closed and xenophobic views about Muslims and Islam. As the Runnymede Trust has said more recently, 9/11 has cast a “long shadow” providing new stereotypes and examples of hostility.
The anti-immigrant parties and activists of the Netherlands, France, Germany, Sweden, the USA and Austria have provided examples of their opposition to Islam in recent years accompanied by proposals (and sometimes policies) to restrict the rights and activities of Muslims. Typically, Muslims have been demonised as disloyal and potential (or actual) terrorists, whether as neighbours or as some global political movement.
New Zealand has seldom been a contributor to these anti-Islam/Muslim politics, with the exception of some isolated comments – Don Brash on Muslim values in 2006 – and the debates around Algerian refugee Ahmed Zaoui. But Richard Prosser’s comments about young Muslim men and “Wogistan” have provided an unfortunate New Zealand example of Islamophobia.
It is not the first time Prosser has made such comments. On the “Islamophobia Watch” website, his arguments on banning the burqa in 2011 provided another example. Whatever happens now, in terms of an apology or retraction, it is too late.
Prosser has helped to characterise New Zealand – and New Zealand Parliamentary representatives – as contributing to these anti-Muslim politics and views. The reporting has gone global, to the shame of all of us. Do we really want to be defined by his comments?
What has been gratifying is that politicians across the political spectrum in New Zealand have moved rapidly to dismiss these comments as unacceptable. They have defined them as racist and offensive. Judith Collins has noted that it has been an “international embarrassment”.
In a democracy, we constantly need to define what is acceptable in terms of public comment. Prosser’s comments are extreme from any perspective except the far right of the political spectrum. If nothing else, it is a moment to re-assert the unacceptability of Islamaphobia publicly – and our politicians have done us proud on that front. The remaining question is whether Prosser should continue as one of our parliamentary representatives.
Professor Paul Spoonley is research director for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences