New Zealand and ISIS

Parihaka, c.1880, Josiah Martin
Parihaka, c.1880, Josiah Martin

It’s Guy Fawke’s Day.  In New Zealand 5 November is also the day in 1881 when 1600 police and volunteers came to arrest the leaders, destroy the village and disperse the inhabitants of Parihaka; a place described as the headquarters of “fanaticism” by the government.  When it comes to handling fanatics we should always question authority very hard.  Mistakes made on that matter can destroy people’s lives, and deepen resistance.  The people of Parihaka responded to British injustice with peaceful resistance, but among their number was Titokowaru, a man who had taken up and then rejected the other path of resistance: violence.

Maori resistance to colonial expansion and exploitation in the 19th century was always described in the blackest terms by the British.  Pai Marire, for example, was a syncretic religion that preached resistance and a Biblical expulsion of the British.  When one of its members – Kereopa – had a priest in Opotiki killed and decapitated you can imagine how the government reacted.  It was a horrific, barbarous act, but it was also an act of personal vengeance by Kereopa for the murder of his family by the British.  Understanding that does not excuse it, but it makes it more comprehensible, and when you understand actions it can change how you respond to them.

Governor Grey’s disproportionate punishment of Whakatohea after Kereopa’s gruesome act in Opitiki gave Whakatohea a sense of what British justice was really about.  For the death of one man orchestrated by an outsider to their lands, Whakatohea were invaded by the British and lost dozens of lives and hundreds of thousands of acres.  They were outcasts in their own homes.  Embittered outcasts; misunderstood and unjustly maligned.  Much like Te Whiti and his followers at Parihaka.

Whether John Key chose 5 November deliberately or not, it was a resonant day for a speech on terrorism.

In the first half of the speech Key outlined domestic law changes he wants to implement to tighten security in New Zealand. He wants to, in his own words,

give the Minister of Internal Affairs the ability to cancel a passport on the grounds of national security for up to three years….  allow the Minister of Internal Affairs to suspend a passport or travel documents, for no more than ten working days….  the SIS, would be given a funding injection of almost seven million dollars… [the SIS would gain the power to conduct video surveillance with a warrant, and] the SIS [would] be given an emergency surveillance power, for a period not exceeding 48 hours [to conduct this surveillance].

I have edited out all the checks that Key stated would be put in place, and on face value I think that all of these measures are reasonable on paper.  If someone wants to go and fight for ISIS, or commit terrorism in New Zealand they should unequivocally be stopped from doing so.  In the House a number of people expressed broad support for these ideas so long as the checks and reporting were robust and the suspension of travel documents and emergency surveillance powers in particular were not abused.  Which is where, of course, we are straight away into problems.  Abuse of surveillance has been very popular recently.  Increased surveillance on a minority group is also very worrying.

Before this Key told us about 30 or 40 people in or from New Zealand on a watch list, i.e. the people who will be subject to these new laws.

Some of those on the watch list have travelled to Syria to engage in fighting and remain there.  Others are ISIL supporters who have tried to travel to Syria or to Iraq to fight and have been prevented from leaving by cancellation of their passport.  Some are people involved in funding terrorism; people who are trying to radicalize others, and people who are themselves becoming radicalized and interested in fighting for ISIL.

Firstly, this is a very small number and some (many) of them are not in New Zealand at all.  Secondly, how have these people been identified if not through the sifting of NSA gathered metadata on everyone?  Thirdly, I wonder over this sentence: “people who are trying to radicalize others, and people who are themselves becoming radicalized and interested in fighting for ISIL.”  What, I wonder, constitutes trying to radicalize others?  In recent years I would say that I have become more radical in my beliefs about American foreign policy.  I am a pacifist so this will not be manifesting itself in me joining any paramilitary or terrorist groups, but how radical are you allowed to be before you are considered radicalized?

Key went on,

In addition to those on the watch list there are a further 30 to 40 people on a list requiring further investigation.  These people could be added to the watch list, or even be given a clean bill of health.  We will not know that until those investigations have been carried out.

I would like to know quite a lot more detail about this.  Saying this kind of thing without being clear about what you mean can have a chilling effect on public and private debate, and the freedom of people to pursue knowledge freely.  I have been reading seminal texts by Muslim radicals recently because I am interested in understanding them.  Does this put me on a watch list somewhere?  I assume not, but who knows.  My Amazon searches, downloads and Google searches would make interesting reading, but I would expect to be able to do what I am doing without being covertly investigated and given a “clean bill of health”.  I also presume that when John Key says a clean bill of health he means “for now”.  If things change in the years to come, and our paranoia rises as threats – real or perceived – increase,  who knows what past Google searches of citizens will be dredged up again from NSA’s databases. That clean bill of health may not look so clean when they review it in light of information just come to hand.

Key takes us into further murky territory when he outlines our role in Five Eyes.

We will be stepping up our contribution to intelligence operations that offer opportunities to further understand and potentially disrupt ISIL, and we will build our capability to monitor threats from any off-shoots of ISIL that threaten us here at home.  I’m not going to go into the details of that intelligence response.

What this means exactly is unclear, but Five Eyes is a very problematic relationship and its scope has been widely abused.  The leader in this abuse has been America, but all four other partners will have conducted surveillance and shared things that had nothing to do with international security.  The Moment of Truth may have been a debacle, but Greenwald and Snowden’s points still stand.

The final note that struck me as particularly dubious was this one from Key:

[W]e need to remember that the seeds of ISIL’s success lie in the failure of the Maliki regime to adhere to acceptable standards of governance and to treat all citizens regardless of ethnicity or religion with respect.

Frankly this is an embarrassing thing for our Prime Minister to say.  It would be like saying that the seeds of Hitler’s success lay in the failure of the last Chancellor of the Weimar Republic.  Maliki was disastrous but let’s not be so economical with history that we forget the previous 100 years in that region and the arrogant, exploitative and violent interventions of Britain, France and America.  The seeds of ISIL’s success lie there – a slow simmering pot that has been brought up to a hard boil by the USA in the last two decades.  Salt thrown in an already boiling pot makes the water churn and spit furiously.  The salt in this case has been the hollowed out words of democracy and freedom and human rights used by the West to lecture the Middle East while carrying out the most transparently dictatorial policies imaginable.

Having anything to do with a bombing campaign against ISIL in Iraq is flat-out wrong.  ISIL is not an army it is a terrorist group.  Terrorists don’t stand in lines along fronts.  A decade of bombing Yemen to deal with Al-Qaeda has increased terrorism in that country, destabilised the government completely, led to surging violence and violent secessionist movements.  Just this week a well-respected figure in Yemeni politics who spoke about conciliation and peace was gunned down in the street.  Yemen is falling apart.  Spectacularly and complete out of sight of main stream media.  When John Key says he supports America’s actions against ISIL he is supporting this kind of bombing.

Key also talked about how we might contribute to “capacity building” in Iraq.  In Afghanistan we are about to see how “building capacity” worked.  The British pulled out the last of their Afghan forces last month.  The Americans will be next.  Recent fraught elections in Afghanistan managed (after a lot of haggling) to deliver a president who has the potential to deliver a perfect mix of Afghan and international ideas, but whether it all lasts when the last Americans leave is very, very unclear.  The imposition of a centralised democracy on Afghanistan still feels like trying to dress a cat: you might be able to get the clothes on but is it really ever going to look right?  The only response the West seems to have to other places, other cultures and other ways of governing is still to say “we’re going to make you like us”.  Can we not learn to learn from others and listen?

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Hone Harawira once called Osama Bin Laden a freedom fighter.  There is an old adage that yesterday’s terrorist is today’s freedom fighter, but the test of that adage is to check what kind of society your candidate wants to create.  Al-Qaeda and ISIL want to create a totalitarian regime of the most intolerant and brutal kind.  It is correct to want to defeat them.  It is not correct that they are freedom fighters.  I may sympathise with the history that has led them to this point, but I have no sympathy for brutality and intolerance.  I apply that to the West too.  Bombing and then killing civilians is brutality.  Not being frank about the clumsy and venal history of those borders ISIL seek to erase in the Middle East, and not confronting the extremism of Saudi Arabia and Israel – to pick two examples – shows a foolhardy intolerance for alternative points of view to the history of that region.

Key’s ideas for domestic security would seem sensible if properly checked (which seems unlikely given recent history), but the majority of his ideas for our international actions are unlikely to be anything but our ongoing contribution to America’s endless war.  Or is it colonialism’s endless war?  The war that came here in the 1800s and played out in Rangiriri, and Opotiki and Parihaka.  The war we have been participating in since we went ashore at Gallipoli in the Middle East in 1915?