It’s all relative, sure, but New Zealand’s media has clearly done a far better job at holding the line against Islamophobia than their UK and Australian counterparts, writes Elle Hunt from London.
The danger of speaking relatively about race relations is that it risks excusing wrongdoings already being committed and in doing so allowing them to flourish. One reason I believe so many New Zealanders so vehemently resisted Taika Waititi’s characterisation of our country as “racist as fuck” was that it is, as we like to say, “not as racist as Australia”. Islamophobia is, of course, not separate to racism, but the fact is, the Christchurch attacks were on the Muslim faith in particular. The framing of them as “examples of deeper racism … that has been brewing beneath a veneer of acceptance or ambivalence” is valid, wrote Faisal Halabi earlier this week, “but sits separately to the conversation to be had about the place of Muslim communities in New Zealand”.
The question that should be at the front of our minds at this time, wrote Halabi, “is how to prevent violence against the Muslim community”. That question has been more urgent for far longer in Australia and the UK, where Islamophobia is not just insidious but in plain view as well, the dog-whistle echoed by a red-faced bellow. Journalist Jason Wilson wrote last week that “Islamophobia is practically enshrined as public policy in Australia”. If that sounds like a hyperbolic, even clickbaiting headline, his sobering outline of 18 years’ normalisation of hate speech will quickly disillusion you. “In the period of the country’s enthusiastic participation in the War on Terror, Islam and Muslims have frequently been treated as public enemies,” he writes of the climate in which the accused gunman, an Australian citizen, grew up.
Wilson traces this sentiment back to 2001; it was certainly frighteningly ever-present in the years that I lived and worked in Sydney. Instances of blatant, unabashed Islamophobia were so frequent as to almost escape recollection, but I remember finding these instances particularly revolting: the widespread anger at two young girls in hijabs being put forward as the smiling faces of Australia Day, enough for the campaign to be pulled; Pauline Hanson wearing a black burqa into the Senate chamber to further her call to ban the religious garment; and the systematic, unrelenting persecution of Yassmin Abdel-Magied, essentially driven out of her home for a tweet calling attention to the global suffering of Muslims.
Rereading these stories today, I am shocked by them again. In Australia Islamophobia is impossible to ignore even from within a bubble of privilege. Well, some bubbles – those of the conservative press and politicians, on the whole, seem to be virtually bulletproof. I am speaking relatively again, but my time in Australia made me feel grateful for New Zealand’s generally moderate politics, its high level of functioning and base-level common decency largely irrespective of which party was in power, the generally respectful public debate.
The same applies to my new home, the UK, where fear-mongering about Muslims and Islam is apparently never allowed to lapse from view, even as its government falls apart. The Daily Mail and The Times labour to justify printing headlines such as “CHRISTIAN GIRL FORCED INTO MUSLIM FOSTER CARE” above stories that are at best one-sided. Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, likened Muslim women wearing burqas to “letterboxes” and refused to apologise. Eight months later, he is being spoken of as a potential prime minister.
In the past I have wondered: would John Key, he of “gay red top” and ponytailgate and many other infamies, have ever made comments like Johnson’s? I don’t know. But I feel more confident that if he had they would not have found as much of a foothold in New Zealand, at least among the media.
It is hard to underestimate the role that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation plays in fanning the flames of Islamophobia in the UK and Australia. A study by OnePath Network of a year’s coverage of Australia’s Muslim population – less than 3% of the total – across five News Corp newspapers found that there were almost 3000 articles referring to Islam or Muslims alongside words like violence, extremism, terrorism or radical: “That’s over eight articles a day in the Murdoch press slamming Muslims.”
In 12 months, across five newspapers, there were 152 front pages featuring Islam in some negative capacity, often billed as “exclusives” as though it were a selling point. An assessment of six of the most controversial commentators found that they wrote about Islam very nearly a third of the time. The predictable impact of this coverage is fuelling prejudice against particularly Arab Muslims, a fact demonstrated unequivocally by a New Zealand study – a reminder that, in an globalised media environment, New Zealanders can easily participate in that toxicity if they choose to.
“Islamophobia does not simply exist on the unpalatable mass of the internet. It’s not the preserve of rightwing extremists whom we write off as online nutters. It leaks across public life, in our institutions and our media, to form a pernicious feedback loop and almost nobody cares,” wrote Nosheen Iqbal in the Guardian after the Christchurch attacks. Grimly, she was proven right again in the subsequent week, when anti-Muslim hate crimes reported across Britain increased by 593%, with nearly all incidents linked to the massacre on the other side of the world.
There is Islamophobia in New Zealand, but it is not peddled or condoned or enshrined in public discourse, in politics, at a national level. You can see that not just from the national shows of solidarity following the Christchurch attacks, but in the actions being taken to stamp out any strains of it that might previously have escaped notice. Sky New Zealand’s decision to stop broadcasting Sky Australia, in the review of exclusionary policies in schools, in the quiet deletion of inflammatory and racist coverage by media organisations, in shock jocks’ hasty and noisy embrace of peace and love.
Islamophobia has not taken root in New Zealand – if you want to know what it looks like when it does, you need only look across the ditch. That is a comparison, yes, but it doesn’t have to be an excuse for complacency. It is more a reason to remain vigilant, to be attuned to insidious othering, choices of language, dog-whistling politics that might not fool you but could well do others. Particularly within the uncompromising parameters for debate set by Ardern, these uncomfortable conversations can only help towards greater understanding of the rot within our country, just as there is in any other, and a renewed, collective commitment to stamping it out.
They couldn’t get away with it in New Zealand now. That doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to in future.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.