The now infamous “airport-security-confiscated-my-pocket-knife, so-no-young-Muslims (or-anyone-who-looks-like-a-Muslim-or-comes-from-a-Muslim-country) should-be-allowed-to-fly” column by New Zealand First MP Richard Prosser first appeared at the end of January. Continue reading…
(Read the original here - page 8). It vied with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI for media story-of-the week from February 12, after right wing blogger David Farrar brought it to the attention of National Party stalwarts and the media through his Kiwiblog.
Within hours Ethnic Affairs Minister Judith Collins had condemned the comments, and Prime Minister John Key was “appalled”. In a unanimous vote Parliament condemned the comments. For a day or so the story got top billing in all the New Zealand media and was mentioned in despatches overseas, and by Friday of that week (February 15) there was enough anti-Prosser sentiment around for University of Otago political commentator Bryce Edwards to focus his NZ Herald media round-up on the topic.
“Has there ever been an MP so widely condemned?” Edwards asked. And his somewhat cynical response: “The backlash against Richard Prosser's bizarre statements on race and religion has been so incredibly strong that there is a sense of MPs actually revelling in their condemnation, seizing the chance to prove how progressive and anti-racist they are.” (See also Edwards’ “Liberation” column).
Outside the media and politics, Prosser’s views have produced approbation as well as disapproval, particularly in the comment sections of media and blog sites. Jack, for example, on the Liberation site, called Prosser: “One solitary loanly [sic] voice speaking the truth and all the dogs come out to attack him.” These sorts of reactions are no surprise.
However four issues sparked by coverage about Prosser’s article are worth mentioning:
Firstly, Prosser’s article indirectly raised - or allowed to be raised - the thorny issue of what many see as the blatantly unequal treatment of passengers by airport security services around the world. Most non-white travellers have a personal story of seeming discrimination at airports, and many pakeha have witnessed or heard about incidents from friends, family or work colleagues. In a column in the monthly online magazine Werewolf, shaven-headed, atheist, New Zealand writer and journalist Brannavan Gnanalingam, who apparently “looks Muslim” because of his Sri Lankan heritage, gave his own take on travelling.
“I got pulled off the plane while boarding in Greece by a flight attendant who was convinced she was about to bust an international terrorist ring all by herself. My photo page on my passport has a gouge mark from when a Turkish official scratched it vigorously to check if it was real. Officials in Morocco and Egypt have held my passport and asked where I was from: just in case I forgot in between passing it over to them and being asked the question.”
He has had problems entering China, Germany, New Caledonia, Cyprus and Chile. And as a schoolboy on a class trip to the Philippines, he was the only one of the New Zealanders held back from boarding by Filipino officials for security reasons. “It was pretty embarrassing as a teenager, being stared at by everyone else while waiting for one of my teachers to convince the officials that I was one of them.”
Gnanalingam’s message: “What Prosser probably doesn’t realise is that life as someone who looks like his worst nightmare is already challenging enough, in this transient and globalised world.”
Meanwhile, Prosser in an interview with Radio New Zealand’s Kathryn Ryan said he regretted calling for a travel ban for Muslims, but instead wanted a discussion on targeted profiling at airports. This provoked a response from Associate Law Professor Colin Gavaghan in the Dunedin-based community newspaper D Scene. (The easiest place to read the column is on the “Your NZ” blog, here). In the opinion piece, the Otago University academic discussed the possible problems with security profiling to detect “Muslimness”, including the weakness of a system “that can be fooled by a bottle of hair dye”. And while welcoming a more sophisticated system if it did detect and prevent terrorist attacks, Gavaghan also worried about the possible restrictions and inconveniences for innocent travellers of false positives.
“For those who don’t resemble the profile of a “typical” terrorist, all this may seem like a price worth paying for greater security. But it won’t be them paying the price.”
Freedom of speech - but for whom?
Anjum Rahman is a chartered accountant and national coordinator for the Islamic Women’s Council. Her Stargazer blog “Here we go again” is definitely worth reading, and bemoans the regular media spiral around Muslim issues (stupid comment, general OUTRAGE [her capitals], media going to every man and his dog for comment, more OUTRAGE about these new views and more reporting of the whole affair).
What’s really damaging for Muslims, she says, are the often vitriolic comments that appear on social media whenever these sorts of issues become top stories in the mainstream media.
Like Bryce Edwards, Rahman sees the whole Prosser story as politicians and their supporters making political capital - and says Muslims suffer in the process.
“But this strategy only works when the media decide that it's a story; when they choose not to ignore the rantings of an outlier, but instead make a big issue out of it.”
At other times, Rahman says, it’s hard to get reasoned pro-Muslim stories into the media, though not as hard as it was in the years immediately post-9/11.
The power of social media
The furore about Prosser’s comments didn’t follow its appearance in Investigate magazine, but came more than two weeks later when the column’s content was outed by Farrar’s blog. The severity of the response was cemented by Judith Collin’s press release. In between came a tweet from Farrar, which - particularly when re-tweeted - significantly upped the potential audience (approximately 25,000 people a day read Farrar’s blog, he says, but the tweet went to way more).
On the other hand, the relative visibility of Prosser’s comments in social media versus print shows the rise and rise of social media as a major source of society’s discourse.