Hone Harawira's comments on Bin Laden's death were dumb. But they could have been smart.

On the scale of dumb things to say if you want to be taken seriously as a politician, praising Osama Bin Laden as "a man who fought for the rights, the land and the freedom of his people" ranks slightly above "I don't think it is necessary for private individuals to own automobiles" and only just below "over the last few months, my pet goat and I have been enjoying a mutually loving sexual relationship."

Now, I know this isn't actually what Hone Harawira said. Viewing the full clip of his comments, it is obvious he is claiming that Osama Bin Laden's "family, tribe and people" hold this view of the man, and that he is acknowledging it as part of the Maori custom of "honour[ing] and mourn[ing] the deceased."

Not that this makes the view, whether held by Harawira personally or anyone else, any less wrong. Bin Laden wasn't fighting for "the rights, the land and the freedom of his people" - or, at least, not directly. For one thing, while he wanted to see a "true" Islamic caliphate in his home Saudi Arabia (as well as pretty much everywhere else), he spent his time fighting and plotting in places like Somalia and Afghanistan. For another, "rights" and "freedom" didn't exactly rank high on Bin Laden's list of things that would be "nice to have". Plus Harawira probably is wrong about what Bin Laden's family actually think about him and his death, given that they disowned him back in 1994 (when the Saudi Arabian Government also revoked his passport).

And whether it really is the case within Maoritanga that even the death of a despised enemy should lead to nothing but respectful remembrances and pious salutations is, it seems to me as an admitted outsider, questionable. I mean, if Tainui had managed to knock off Te Rauparaha in battle after he conducted his raids on Te Wai Ponamu, is it really the case that Ngai Tahu would have responded to this news by gathering on Marae to solemnly shake their heads and "not damn [him] in death, but acknowledge the positive aspects of life."? Well - maybe ... but I'd need a bit of convincing on that point.

Now, I know the counter to this last point - Te Rauparaha was a direct enemy of Ngai Tahu in a way Osama Bin Laden isn't to Hone Harawira or other Maori. Or, to paraphrase Muhammad Ali's apocryphal quip, no al-Qaeda ever stole my lands. All Bin Laden did was stick it to first the Russians and then the Americans, who are the greatest force for oppression on the globe. So, while his methods may have been ... unorthodox ... the underlying passion can at least be recognised.

To which the only reply is: bullshit. This sort of "the enemy of my enemy is, if not exactly my friend, at least not completely terrible" thinking is lazy and fails to recognise that the opposite of a bad can be an even worse. Just to make it clear, I'll write this in bold and italics: the inspirational leader of a religio-political movement that views cutting off peoples' faces with piano wire as an acceptable tactic for advancing its goals is a bad person and ought to be viewed as the enemy of all right-thinking persons everywhere.

That's not to say that all America's foreign policies are wonderful, or that anyone who opposes the USA's drive to remake the world in its image is bad. It's just a basic recognition that Bin Laden was an awful human being with a worldview that would be a terrible, terrible disaster if ever put into widespread practice. And while it is possible to have reservations about the extra-judicial execution of even awful human beings ... well, actually, I'm not entirely sure I do have such reservations.

All of which is to say, Hone Harawira's comments were without any saving grace whatsoever. Which is a shame, because there's actually a pretty good point he could have made.

You see, the US operation to execute Bin Laden was given the code name "Geronimo". This also happens to be the popularised name of Goyaałé, a Native American leader of the Chiricahua Apache people who resisted the Mexican and American invasion of his people's lands for some thirty years in the nineteenth century. Such was his success in doing so that he was described by American settlers as "the worst Indian that ever lived".

Understandably, the decision to name the operation to kill America's number one enemy after a heroic Native American defender of his people's independence has upset members of the Apache tribe on the grounds that "after all this time, Americans are still equating Native Americans with savages and enemies." It's even going to be the subject of hearings by the US Congress.

Now, given the Mana Party's commitment to indigenous people's rights, you might have though Hone Harawira could have seized on this issue to make a comment that went beyond the banal "the world is a better place without Bin Laden", without tripping into territory that invites headlines such as "Harawira thinks Bin Laden is a freedom fighter". Comment along the lines of, "the fact the USA chose to attach the name of a great Native American fighter to Bin Laden shows how far indigenous peoples everywhere must travel to win respect". Or, "while Bin Laden was a terrorist that no-one will mourn, the fact the USA equates him with a warrior for indigenous self-determination like Geronimo is deeply insulting."

Taking this line could have made Harawira's point - "I'm not going out and cheering on the USA while they do whatever they want" - and reinforced his brand - "In these world events, it's what it means for indigenous peoples that really matters to me". It's just a shame he wasn't smart enough, or well enough clued up on what actually happened in Pakistan, to follow it.

Comments (14)

by Graeme Edgeler on May 05, 2011
Graeme Edgeler

What could Scotty Morrison have said instead of what he said?

by Tim Watkin on May 05, 2011
Tim Watkin

That caliphate, Andrew, was meant to spread from Spain to Indonesia.

And one of the things that's interesting about bin Laden's fighting is that it was never actually in his home country. He always fought in other people's lands.

But when you go to the effort to write something in bold, it gets me thinking. There's nothing good about a movement such as al-Qaeda. But NATO in the past week also bombed a house, killing three of Gaddafi's grandkids. So while I agree it's lazy to use our own failings to excuse another's, it's quite vital to wonder if we're in any place to condemn.

It seems Twitter this week is full of Martin Luthur King Jr: "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that" (although that's more than 140 characters!).

Now if only a politician in this country had said that!


by Chris Webster on May 06, 2011
Chris Webster

..., if Tainui had managed to knock off Te Rauparaha in battle after he conducted ...

Waikato .. (not Tainui) was / is the tribe - Tainui is made up of four tribes - Tainui is the waka ...


by Andin on May 06, 2011

"And whether it really is the case within Maoritanga that even the death of a despised enemy should lead to nothing but respectful remembrances and pious salutations is, it seems to me as an admitted outsider, questionable."

It's a practice common to many cultures. Though that doesnt mean it should be practised unquestioningly. Especially in this context and especially nowadays.

by Andrew Geddis on May 06, 2011
Andrew Geddis


Yeah - it was a pretty leading question. But just because someone digs a pit doesn't mean you have to jump into it.


I'm not sure there really is the moral equivalence you suggest ... isn't this the dilemma: the West sat back and did nothing in Rwanda, as some hundreds of thousands of people were butchered. Following that failure to act - for which we (nice liberal citizens in relatively safe places like NZ) rightly beat ourselves up - we decided "if we can do something to help stop mass slaughter within a nation's borders, we ought to do it". The question then becomes, what is that "something"? Is it merely economic/diplomatic pressure (unlikely to work in the red-hot environment of somewhere like Rwanda then, Bosnia in the 90s or Libya today). Or is it more direct military intervention? If so, of what flavour? How to balance the costs and benefits of likely civilian casualties from an action versus its potential effectiveness in stopping other civilians being killed?

Point is, if we apply the pure principle "we won't act in ways that may kill genuine innocents", then there's a lot of things we won't be able to do that might save the lives of a lot more genuine innocents. And if we believe a failure to act to save a life is as morally bad as acting in a way that takes a life (a debatable point, I agree ... but see Rwanda and our reaction thereto), then we're led into applying a tricky and sometimes ugly moral calculus. However, the difference between "us" and al-Qaeda, I like to think, is that we genuinely feel a moral ambivalence and uncertainty about our actions - as well as regret for the cost they may incur - which is lacking from the certainties of a religio-political viewpoint that says "my way must be the right one".

Probably not much comfort to the families of those we kill - but what else to do when the haters ain't just hating, they are raping and killing?


Thanks. Sloppy of me. Te Rauparaha was Ngati-Toa ... which is, of course, part of Tainui.

by Andrew Geddis on May 06, 2011
Andrew Geddis

Andin: "It's a practice common to many cultures."

Including, of course, Pakeha. The maxim "never speak ill of the dead" comes to us from our Greek antecedents ... but a general caution does not equate to a always applicable, fixed rule!

by Claire Browning on May 06, 2011
Claire Browning

I've no problem speaking ill of the dead, in this case, since it's true.

I find what Tim summed up [on another thread] as the "frat party on the White House lawn", and the reported calls from 9/11 victims' families, to see the photos in all their gory, really bloody disturbing. It just makes me want to cry - for us, not him. What is wrong with these people?

If Twitter's come over all Martin Luther, maybe it is some use, after all.

[PS. Which is not meant to detract from the overall awesomeness of the post.]

by Claire Browning on May 06, 2011
Claire Browning
PPS. If I was Twitter-literate, I'd have said ''all #MartinLuther''. Wouldn't I?
by Chris Webster on May 06, 2011
Chris Webster

waikato and ngati maniapoto wanted te rauparaha's head

he kinda liked his and left kawhia with those bros  [waikato and ngati maniapoto] in deep pursuit ..

this modern monicker 'tainui' is very misleading -

tainui is the waka of four tribes - 

waikato and maniapoto and hauraki and raukura -- all stood and still stand on their separate mana -

there never referred to themselves or collectively as 'tainui' - only in their mihi

ko tainui et te waka and so on ,..

 but thanks any old way and

yes you were sloppy - 20 push- ups 

by Ewan Morris on May 06, 2011
Ewan Morris

Chris - do you mean "Raukawa" (rather than "Raukura")?

Andrew - I completely agree with you, and think that what Hone Harawira said was indefensible. But it is worth being cautious about alleged quotes in English of statements made in Maori - even when the translation of those statements comes from the subtitles of Maori-language TV programmes. Hone Harawira didn't actually say anything about "freedom" or "rights", unless you think those terms are part of "tino rangatiratanga" (which is certainly arguable). He said that Bin Laden was seen as having fought for his "tino rangatiratanga", "whenua" and "iwi" (who he described as the "iwi taketake o reira" - the indigenous people of that place).

by NiuZila on May 06, 2011

Are you not defining Osama's "people" as Saudi's?  Wasn't he an islamist?  Therefore it is arguable his "people" are not defined by modern national borders, but by religious identity - muslims.

In relation to Hone's comment about family mourning him, my understanding is that it's a recognition that even enemies have loved ones.  It might not be a nuclear family - mother, father (who, as you've said in Osama's case, disowned him), but no doubt Osama has his wives and children (and others who follow him) who are highly likely to be mourning at this time.

I'm Samoan, and we have similar oratory protocols for the recently deceased.  So I can understand what Hone was trying to convey. 

by Chris Webster on May 06, 2011
Chris Webster


Aue! Ngati Raukawa -

Slip of the fingers -- sloppy

and in the context of what Hone was saying - acknowledging the death of Osama Bin Laden - I too understand -

At times though I have neither liked nor got on with people who pass away in violent circumstances  - the courtesy is extended to their passing.




by Luc Hansen on May 06, 2011
Luc Hansen

I think Hone should be cut a bit of slack on this issue.  He was put on the spot, and as a man without detectable guile, he just gave a sincere view that has been distorted out of all proportion.

Surely most of us have suffered the loss of a loved or revered one and would understand how his close circle of family and friends would currently feel?

Without doubt, and with hindsight, he could have expressed himself differently, but I wouldn't bet on myself doing any better in that situation (hence, my complete lack of desire to be any kind of politician, perhaps).

How Bin Laden saw himself was, I suspect, pretty much as Hone inferred (albeit, with the inherent uncertainties of translation as pointed out above), but it is also true that the West, and most Muslims, did not see things as Bin Laden did.  Hone needed to make that distinction, in my opinion, but that's all.

I also think (and this does not apply to Pundit's commentators) that's there is a little reflexive Maori-bashing colouring this topic.

I'm reminded of a Bill Maher quote (I've only just caught up on his show, and I'm annoyed that I'm 209 episodes late!) on the birther issue along the lines of: "Right (says the Fox crowd), we've got the birth certificate, now let's work on how a black guy got into Harvard Law School."

In other words, any excuse.

For example, Don Brash, perhaps our Finance Minister-in-waiting, said some pretty inexcusable and downright ignorant stuff on Close Up the other night, but he's generally had a free ride.

I hope to be back later in the weekend to discuss Andrew's "ugly calculus."


by Tim Watkin on May 06, 2011
Tim Watkin

You're not wrong Andrew. You'd hope our intention was better (although that frat party outside the White House makes me wonder. And of course any number of western leaders have been willing to excuse deaths to advance one cause or another, so our intentions are often no better). I agree we need to reserve the right to act, and to use violence in that action if necessay. Washing our hands can be just as deadly.

But if the end result is the same? If it all ends in kids dying? I don't know... Anyway, new post on what I'm thinking is now up for anyone interested.

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