These past weeks have been grotesque, depressing, real and surreal. New Zealand and Australian talkback radio and newspaper letters pages were already swamped by anti-Muslim, anti-"foreigner" tirades before the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. We're being hit by a double dose of xenophobia and anti-Muslim paranoia.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard eagerly turned the plight of 433 mainly Afghani asylum seekers to his own political advantage in the run-up to the federal election later this year. The Norwegian freighter Tampa which rescued them from a sinking Indonesian fishing boat in international waters near Australia gave him the perfect opportunity to look tough as he refused it entry to Australia. He was as indistinguishable from Australia's far-right Pauline Hanson's One Notion Party as he was from Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War. He would show that Australia was no "soft touch" for "these people".
Howard despatched Australian SAS troops to board the Tampa, who ordered it at gunpoint into international waters as it set sail towards Christmas Island. His government boosted the Australian Defence Force's surveillance patrol and response operation - warships and patrol aircraft to detect and confront suspect boats heading towards Australia and its offshore islands. It had the audacity to claim that a "Pacific solution" to the crisis had been found when tiny, cash-strapped Nauru agreed to take in 283 people from the Tampa (and several hundred more since) for processing their applications for refugee status in exchange for an Australian aid package and the New Zealand government agreed to take 150 as part of its yearly refugee quota. Now, with support from the Labour opposition, Australia is tightening immigration controls and the definition of refugees and limiting access to the courts to asylum seekers.
Some talkback callers suggested that the Afghanis should be barbecued and tossed to the sharks, or blown out of the water by the Australian Navy. Several politicians critical of Howard's position received hate mail, abusive phonecalls and parcels containing detonators and bullets. "We told you so" letters to the editor now seek to link the US attacks with the Afghani asylum seekers and "liberal" immigration policies.
In no time at all, many in New Zealand joined in. Every second person is suddenly an instant expert on Islam, and "these people". While the world waits to see concrete evidence identifying the perpetrators of the USA terror attacks, we are told that the 150 refugees and other Muslim immigrants could be "sleepers" for Bin Laden. I doubt many of them could find Kabul on a map. Fewer could tell you how US and other Western governments have funded and supported many of the same regimes and groups it now dubs terrorist. About the marriage of convenience between the USA and the Afghani mujahideen during the Cold War, and the way that after Afghanistan was destroyed, the US just dumped and ran. Should it not be a time to pause and reflect on history, the global economy and world politics? A time to reflect on the frightening polarisation of communities on a local or global level, to ask what causes millions of people to flee their beloved homelands as refugees? Instead we are being asked to take sides for or against the USA, "freedom", "democracy", and "civilisation". It is a time to hate.
Such hatred and suspicion were not born overnight. Latent anti-Muslim sentiment lies close to the surface of New Zealand and Australian society. We live in countries forged out of the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples, consume a diet of CNN, CBS and ABC news, and regular action movies peopled by mad bad "Muslim" terrorists and heroic Americans. The infotainment slop served up by the major news corporations has done a great service in helping obfuscate the truth about US foreign policy and stunt development of an understanding of what really happens in the world.
Since September 11, mosques, Islamic centres and Muslim schools in Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Perth and Sydney have been stoned, petrolbombed or defaced. An Islamic college in Adelaide was forced to close for safety fears after threats were made. Tram drivers harassed Muslim college students in Melbourne while in Brisbane stones were thrown at a bus taking Muslim children to school. A Lebanese Arab church in Sydney was stoned resulting in the postponement of a wedding
Leaders of New Zealand's small Afghani community have advised Afghanis here to keep a low profile. Threats and abusive messages have been made to mosques and Islamic organisations. A swastika was daubed on Hamilton's mosque. People have been asking taxi companies for non-Muslim taxi drivers. Muslim children going to school have been abused. In Christchurch a woman from the Middle East was spat on and abused. Days before the US attacks, opposition leader Jenny Shipley hid behind parliamentary privilege to accuse Dr Najibullah Lafraie, former Afghani foreign minister and now a refugee in New Zealand of having links to terrorists and inferred that all Afghanis seeking asylum here could potentially be terrorists.
And as for "these people"? Who else will be targetted? The racist backlash in the West has already seen Sikhs, Jews, Hindus and other non-Muslims abused and attacked.
The Australian government is ignoring its international obligations as a signatory to the UN convention on refugees by its actions. Its inhumane treatment of asylum seekers feeds off ugly domestic racism which conveniently forgets the many contributions made to Australia by Muslim settlers. In the mid and late 19th century, Afghanis and Pathans from presentday North West Frontier Province in Pakistan were brought into Australia as camelherders to tend camels and work the trade routes across Australia's vast outback, enduring appalling discrimination and prejudice.
Australia's government claims it is being "swamped" with asylum seekers. Its refugee intake is an absolute drop in the bucket compared with what many countries face. Pakistan and Iran have become home to several million Afghani refugees.
Australia is a zealous advocate for a global free market economy, including the opening up of borders to facilitate the free flow of goods and capital, yet was not prepared to even let the Tampa berth at Christmas Island. For a government so committed to regional economic integration in the Asia-Pacific, the ill-informed statements and conjecture of its top politicians about refugees smack of hypocrisy and a callous lack of real appreciation for the human realities in the region.
With all the talk of boatpeople, the words of Australian Aboriginal singer-songwriter Kev Carmody ring in my ears: "In 1788 down in Sydney Cove, the first boat people landed and they said 'sorry boys, our gain's your loss, we're gonna steal your land'". The Crown claims the right to unilaterally determine who enters Australia and New Zealand by virtue of its assumed sovereignty. Never mind the devastation and terror caused by the white settlers in both countries to the societies that were there before them. A central tenet of colonialism has been to dehumanise the colonised. In this part of the world, there has been plenty of that. Crude, reductionist stereotypes of Muslims are born of the same colonial worldview that deemed Australia to be terra nullius - an empty land - when the British first landed. Just as Aboriginal peoples were defined as non-human fauna, Muslims are depicted as subhuman savages.
Now all of us who can in any way be perceived to be "these people" are fair game for harassment and suspicion.
Notwithstanding the massively-resourced US security intelligence agencies' spectacular failure to prevent the attacks, in a cynical self-promotion exercise, New Zealand's Security Intelligence Service has cashed in on paranoia and anxiety by launching an 0800 number so that Kiwis can dob in suspected terrorists. Defence Force personnel have been deployed in New Zealand's major airports to help screen domestic passengers.
Here and overseas, political leaders' calls for "tolerance", and condemnations of attacks on Muslim communities and other visible immigrants provides little comfort while they fan paranoia and racism in their next breath. Bush has announced a "crusade" against terrorism and is using language from Wild West movies. We are true believers or infidels. We are Cowboys or we are Indians.
There is a fine line between mourning America's dead and using them for political point scoring. Like so many carrion birds, politicians and officials worldwide are seizing on this for domestic purposes. As we take stock of the situation, the WTO, IMF and World Bank are already deftly weaving the attacks into their pronouncements, aligning themselves with the 'crusade" against terrorism, reinforcing their images of themselves as holy warriors for development and against poverty. Have no doubt - these attacks will be used to galvanise support for the neoliberal agenda and demonise critics for years to come. A New McCarthyism is afoot.
We are already being told that opposition to capitalist globalisation is "anti-American", no doubt "anti-democratic", against the, um, "civilised world", and perhaps, "terrorist". Criminalisation of dissent will move forward in great leaps and bounds. Activists and communities of colour - especially those of Muslim, Middle Eastern or South Asian backgrounds - will be disproportionately targetted. We will all be asked to accept more state surveillance and infiltration, more repression, increased racial profiling, more shrinking of peoples' rights as governments cash in on the recent horror in the USA for their own domestic political purposes.
Some US NGOs are self-censoring their activities. The Sierra Club has reportedly pulled statements and advertisements for fear of being seen as anti-Bush. Numerous activities opposing corporate globalisation have been postponed or cancelled out of respect for the victims and their families. If the same respect was extended to the victims of US policy around the world, perhaps nobody would do a thing.
I worry about how ahistorical and ethnocentric many in the West - including some in the "anti-globalisation movement" have become. Just as we are often asked to believe that the struggle against global capital and the neoliberal agenda started at Seattle, so now we are urged to believe that little mattered before September 11 2001.
Ronald Reagan probably cannot remember what his administration did to Afghanistan. He has Alzheimers Disease. What excuse do the rest of us have for overlooking how the majority of the world's population are treated on a daily basis in the economic and political interests of the superpowers - countries and companies? What excuse for ignoring the long struggles for economic and social justice throughout the Third World?
In his condolence message, European Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy said: "This is not a time to talk dollars and cents. We are dealing with life and death and nothing is more important than that." The many years of daily suffering, injustice and deaths caused by US imperialism and the neoliberal model it has so aggressively promoted throughout the world have escaped M Lamy's notice and are clearly not considered worthy of his sympathy. I too am saddened by the terrible loss of life in the USA - but the overwhelming sense I have looking at reactions to these events is that American and European lives are deemed to be worth more than anyone else's.
Activists for social and economic justice must not buy into a worldview that attaches differing values on human lives. My mind swings back to the stark contrast between worldwide reactions to the violent tragic death of Carlo Giuliani in Genoa outside July's G8 meeting, and the deaths, weeks earlier, of four young Papua New Guineans in peaceful anti-privatisation, anti-World Bank/IMF protests . All were killed by police bullets. The Port Moresby killings barely registered a flicker of interest among much of the international "anti-globalisation" movement and the media. But then Steven Kil, Simon Noki, Mathew Pawen, Thomas Moruwo weren't white...
Double standards, racism, scapegoating and more Muslim lives won't reverse what happened in New York and Washington. Creating a future free from all kinds of terror involves coming to terms with the nature of imperialism and US engagement with the world and confronting it head on.