Yesterday the story broke of Richard Prosser, a Member of Parliament for the NZ First Party, publishing an opinion piece in which he argued that Muslims should be banned from Western air transport because – among other reasons – “most Muslims are terrorists”. While many people dismissed his comments as being that of a bigoted, small-minded racist not even worthy of a page click let alone words on a page, and many more took to social media with angry, pithy comments pointing out that if all extremists are banned from Western air transport Prosser himself will have some difficulty getting around, some penned more powerful sentiments. Here, my dear friend Saziah shares why Prosser’s rant was more than something to be dismissed and filed under “trolls will be trolls”, or put down to a pathetic political attention grab by an increasingly irrelevant party, and instead a painfully personal attack – while perhaps not new, not to be dismissed.
Normally anything I have to say about, well, anything, but in particular political and quasi political and pseudo political things, is confined to (a) the (arguably) safe confines of my head, (b) my Facebook and Twitter, and (c) rants via txt and email to various friends and, on occasion, my sibling.
Expressing opinions on Facebook has its pros and cons. On the one hand, there’s that instant gratification of a “like.” On the other hand, there’s my heavy self-editing because I am sometimes quite self conscious, often too angry and always aware that my friends list encompasses a diverse mishmash of new friends, family friends, old friends, colleagues, relatives etc and that it would be all too easy for a poor choice of words to unintentionally offend or antagonize. Of course, some days I am basically like “ZOMG WTF POTATOES!?!@”
So today, as per usual, I posted a link about Richard Prosser’s Muslim men should not be allowed on planes thing on my Facebook, accompanied with a comment along the lines of “No, Mr Prosser, YOU are a troglodyte” and emailed Di with a (commonly used in our case) “wow have you seen this” one liner email.
I was going to leave it at that. GRRR ARGGH – that’s all you’re getting out of me when it comes to discussing an obviously racist sentiment expressed by a racist MP. I wanted to limit my response to trollolollll and move on because I just wouldn’t know where to start with what was wrong with what he said (hint: all of the things!). Why waste my breath, you know?
Except Di responded, not only in her usual supportive solidarity and shared degree of frustration. But she asked me if I was okay. Because surely something like this must be quite hurtful.
And she was right. I am not okay. I AM hurt. And for once I felt I should at least speak out in more than the confines of a negligible status update, because this hurt.
It hurts because you know when this hits the different news websites, and when Campbell Live or someone else picks up on it, while a lot of people will dismiss it as “Prosser’s just an idiot” and some will point out that it’s completely inappropriate for an MP to say something this blatantly racist, others will start reminding everyone not to forget that Muslims *really are* terrorists so why is everyone defending them, and more people still will silently agree that it was about time someone “spoke up.” At time of writing, Peters, while assuring everyone that this is not what his party stands for, hasn’t outright condemned Prosser entirely or demanded an apology.
I won’t talk about how advocating THAT degree of discrimination is not only socially and morally abhorrent but legally fraught. I will not list for the you the number of rights it would trample on.
I will tell you why, personally, this is yet another slap in the face. For me, politics is always personal. But this hits home. It hurts me in the same way it hurt me when, post 9/11, some stranger in a West Auckland supermarket had the audacity to walk up to my mother and tell her to go back where she came from because she wasn’t welcome here, simply because she was wearing a head scarf. It hurts in same way it hurt me when my younger brother came home from his part-time job one day in a North Shore mall, having dealt with a customer who, in response to my brother’s generic offer of assistance, said he didn’t need any help from the likes of him, who were “coming here” and “taking all the jobs.”
This isn’t to say anything of the years of name calling as children and “harmless joking around” as adults we’ve had to put up with. Yes, yes it’s hilarious when someone lumps all Bangladeshis together with Indians and Pakistanis and Sri Lankans and, in my case, a few times “Africans” (because, don’t you know, Africa is a country).
It goes beyond the exhaustion of having to detail my ethnic origin and travel history to every person who asks, and they do ask, all the fucking time. I don’t usually have a problem telling you I am originally from Bangladesh, I am proud to be Bengali, or why I don’t have an accent, or why I speak English well. Of course I give them the polite, quick version “oh my parents moved around a lot when I was a kid” instead of “I wasn’t born in Bangladesh and I have never lived there, I am a New Zealand citizen and of course I can speak English, I have a fucking Masters degree in Law for fuck’s sake” because, really, I JUST want to pay for my chocolate bar and leave your shop. And look, now the chocolate bar has multiplied into several chocolate bars because of the stress you’ve caused me. So, really, kudos on the ingenious sales strategy.
But fatigue from that sort of borderline offensive, often “harmless” curiousity I can handle.
This hurts particularly because, on an official level, it goes to the heart of the question of my identity.
Richard Posser’s suggestion that Muslim men of a certain age not be allowed on Western planes is offensive, blatantly racist and, let’s face it, ludicrous. There is no doubt about that. But Mr Posser’s comments hurt me personally because he is challenging who I am.
I am a Bengali New Zealander. I am also a feminist, a bookworm, a foodie and a cinephile. Some days I have good taste in music and some days I have bad taste in music. I love the beach but hate getting sand everywhere. I speak several languages. I still get upset at the thought that Dumbledore dies. When I lived in Auckland, I thought of West Auckland as home. Now that I live in Wellington, I think of Auckland as home, and of Wellington as “my city,” whatever that means. I bake decent brownies (oh the irony).
Oh, yes, I am also a Muslim.
You would think that would be the only thing about me that would be relevant to this conversation. But it is not. We are a sum of all our parts. Reducing us to one characteristic, especially one that is viewed with a lot of prejudice and misunderstanding, dehumanizes us. It is destructive. It is destructive to our personhood, in your eyes. And it is destructive to my identity in my own eyes.
I am not a perfect creature, and I grapple with my own identity every day, much the same way most people, for various reasons do. Possibly more so because of added factors. What I don’t need is an MP telling me what I am or am not.
Richard Prosser’s comments hurt because he’s saying I’m not a real New Zealander. I am an Other. I am suspect because I don’t, undoubtedly, look like his daughters. My little brother, now 20, studying a Bachelor of Commerce, with his terribly cheesy sense of humour and his kind, kind heart, who loves his sports and protein shakes but who I will partly always think of as that bossy toddler with chubby cheeks, is for no other reason than because Mr Prosser, from his position of power and privilege says so, not enough of a New Zealander. Because of only one thing, out of the many things that he is, because he is Muslim. Not enough of a New Zealander to deserve the minimum modicum of respect one would expect from an MP when talking about one of the citizens of this country, simply based on his faith, and, let’s be honest, the colour of his skin. Not enough of a New Zealander to get on his Western planes.
I can’t begin to discuss the issues behind considering Muslims a homogenous group, of defining the term “Western” or even how comments like this create and solidify the language of “us and them.” It is a self fulfilling prophecy. In Othering us, you are causing us to consider ourselves the Other, thus creating an Other when previously there was none. How, in 2013, are we still grappling with basic orientalism? After all these decades, isn’t it actually shameful that Said’s words still remain relevant?
Have some Muslims committed acts of terrorism? Yes. Have some Christians? Yes. Have some white people? Why yes. And so on and so forth. Are all the complex geopolitical issues from which a lot of this sentiment stems so easily summed up as “Muslims bad, non Muslims good” – I would argue: fuck no.
More importantly, I shouldn’t have to explain myself. I shouldn’t have to question my identity as a routine Tuesday afternoon activity. I shouldn’t be made to feel like a second-class citizen, not simply because I am not, but because such a thing should never exist, because if there is a hierarchy, a differentiation between citizens in that way, our personhood in the eyes of the State loses all meaning. Citizenship loses all meaning.
To allow MPs to spout that form of rhetoric unchecked makes us complicit in this concept of second-class citizenship. And it kills me that that means I am part of the system that is dehumanizing me. An MP who doesn’t understand that the legitimacy of his role and the power it entails derives from the people of this country, and that I AM the people of this country, my Muslim brother is, my Muslim friends are, my Muslim parents are, that MP can never understand that his position is not simply a platform to mouth off but an office bound by duty to the people, like me, from whence his power comes.
It makes me angry that MPs have such little appreciation for their role, that they would abuse it in this manner. All we’ll get from politicans on this is a lot of political posturing to their own ends. All we’ll get from the media on this is some blasé reporting, no critique that wouldn’t fit into a nifty little soundbyte that would retain consumer interest, no critical analysis, not one mention of the word “Islamophobia.”
I was hurt, and I needed to get this out. It is not an intellectual or academic piece of writing on rights and power politics, I didn’t go into immigration or multiculturalism or geopolitics or counterterrorism or traverse the topic of race in any meaningful way. Incidentally, one could argue, if anything, only making statements after carefully taking all such relevant issues into consideration actually IS Mr Prosser’s job. But this is a snapshot of how just another passing instance of racism, which will no doubt fade away in everyone else’s memories by tomorrow, made me question something as fundamental as my being here, in New Zealand, in my very own home. And I can assure you I’m not the only one.
For all the difference it makes I might as well have banged my head against my desk and left it at that. I should have left it at “No, Mr Prosser, YOU are a troglodyte.” I should have just left it at grrrr. Arrrggh.
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