A couple of weeks ago I attended a talk by Jeremy Scahill about his book ‘Dirty Wars’ at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival. Scahill was a war reporter who wrote this book about the war crimes and cover-ups being committed by the United States in the Middle East. At the book signing that followed, my friend asked him if there was a degree of privilege attached to him being able to write this book as a white American. His response was an immediate ‘absolutely’. He proceeded to explain how every single one of his friends who are Muslim journalists have told him that if they wrote that exact same book, they would have been detained.
I was slightly shocked when I heard this. Not because I didn’t think it was true, but because hearing a white man say it weirdly legitimised something that I’ve always thought to be true as a wheelchair user, an Indian and a Muslim woman. I greatly respect how Scahill recognises the privilege attached to his whiteness.
There are certainly double standards when it comes to who has the ‘right’ to be political. Access affects my day-to-day life but when I’ve complained about disability access and transport issues some people have responded with ‘but at least it’s better than what you would’ve had if you were still in Fiji or India’ in the tone of ‘have you no gratitude?’ Of course I appreciate the progress New Zealand has made but this doesn’t mean that I have to settle for a country that has inequalities. On a side note, I was born here and while I have an emotional connection to these two places of where I have roots, I can’t ‘still’ be in a place where I never even lived.
When it comes to expressing political concern, the same goes for ethnic and religious minorities but with more severe consequences. The political, ideological or economical climate in a particular time and place means that the group who are either oppressed or unpopular are the ones whose voices get misconstrued by the media and this filters into the psyche of the masses, leading to the irrational vilification and demonization of an entire group of people.
Recent history is filled with such events. Those who fight for their human rights are threats and other unpopular groups are blamed for everything and gotten rid of. Jews were blamed for all of Germany’s problems pre-WW2. Black Civil Rights Activists in the USA were persecuted. The ANC were called terrorists. Idi Amin expelled the Indians from Uganda because he believed them to be money-hoarders. The same almost happened to Indo-Fijians in the 80s. Dawn Raids. Japanese Internment Camps. Palestinians throwing stones are somehow akin to IDF soldiers shotting missiles into heavily densely populated areas. I hate to think what would happen if Asian workers in modern-day slave states such as Qatar and the UAE started asking for equal rights. All of these situations are similar in the way the government in conjunction with the media made these groups out to be villains when they’re really the victims just so that the elite can protect an ideological agenda, racial superiority and the free acquiring of someone else’s resources.
The shunning that Muslims have to face around the world post-9/11 is the current example of this, to the point where being a Muslim male in the wrong place at the wrong time gets you sent to Guantanamo Bay. Being a male above the age of 16 in rural Yemen makes you a terrorist, which warrants the release of a drone missile through your village. Such paranoia is so strong that even Yusuf Islam a.k.a. Cat Stevens, who wrote “Peace Train” was banned from entering the USA with allegations that he has ties to terrorist organisations back in 2004. Both situations are equally barbaric and serve to brainwash the public into thinking we need to be feared just so that the 5 eyes, of which New Zealand is a part of, can continue with building surveillance states.
Meanwhile Muslims who live in countries where we are a minority have to tread on eggshells because we know that the media only feeds the public one narrative about us, to the point where some people resort to hiding this part of their identity to avoid judgement. One slip up or allegation and its in the papers, thereby undoing all the effort we put in to trying to convince everyone that we’re not the ‘other’, we don’t ‘hate the west’ and that we’re capable of love and goodness.
This also means that speaking out against the actions of the government carries a bigger risk for Muslims, which brings me back to the statement by Scahill. If a white man criticises New Zealand’s involvement or support of the USA’s illegal activity, it’s ok but put the same words in the mouth of an ethnic looking man with a beard and it’s a completely different story. Because of this, only those who are in positions of racial privilege can exercise the universal freedom of speech that we as a nation so proudly claim to have. Disagreeing with the government on issues such as the supporting of Israel and drone strikes does not mean you’re filled with hate. It means you disagree with the killing of innocent civilians, including plane hijackings and bombs on trains.
The building of the surveillance state has been justified by using heavy words like ‘jihad’, ‘extremism’ and ‘national security’. There are currently 16 CCTV cameras being installed in the Avondale mosque, where there were false accusations of such activities being promoted. Why they need so many, I have no idea. But what I do know is that if the mosque eventually opens, a space of reflection where Muslims go to find peace and sanctuary will be overshadowed by the overwhelming sense that Big Brother is watching, which he will be, thus nullifying the purpose of that space. Its not that we have anything to hide, it’s about the frustration of being treated as if you’re guilty until proven innocent simply because you belong to a religious group that your country, for one reason or another, is at war with.
I’m not saying that Muslims around the world are going to get shipped off somewhere en masse. But the theme of having to fabricate an enemy for political gain is a running theme throughout recent history and the current vilification of Muslims shows the persistence of that. I wrote this because as a Muslim, I want this to be the end of this ugly trend.