Robust free speech must be strenuously protected, but a written rant by a New Zealand First MP goes beyond defensible lazy thinking to racist insult, and must be condemned
There's nothing quite like a political foot-in-mouth story; indeed, journalists go out of their way to provoke those in power to mis-speak as a way of testing their suitability for high office. So it's quite an achievement when a politician, writing in the calm of his own home or office, inserts his foot so firmly and offensively into his own trap. Take a bow, Richard Prosser.
Writing in that bastion of reason, Investigate, the New Zealand First MP has shared his views on the rights of young Muslims to international travel. In brief - though I have read only media reports thus far - he seems to think they have none. On the logic that most terrorists are Muslims, he suggests young Muslims, indeed anyone from a "a Muslim country" should be quarantined, writing:
If you are a young male, aged between say about 19 and about 35, and you’re a Muslim, or you look like a Muslim, or you come from a Muslim country, then you are not welcome to travel on any of the West’s airline."
The logic is simplistic to the point of daftness. If Prosser's concern is public safety, aren't handguns more a threat? The gun debate in the US after Sandy Hook, for example, has shown that in the five years to 2010, almost 50,000 people were shot to death by firearms in the States alone.
What does a Muslim look like? Mullar Omah or Richard Reid or Ice Cube or Imran Khan or Muhammad Ali or Fareed Zakaria? OK, they may not be under 25, but the stupidity of linking ethnicity to faith remains.
Worst of all, it seems that to Prosser simply being born in a Muslim country should deny you freedom of movement. What is a Muslim country? One with sharia law or just one with a 51% Muslim population? Indonesia is often described as the world's largest Muslim country with 90% of its 240 million people followers of Islam. But what about the other 24 million? Should all of those who are men and aged 19-35 be trapped? Sounds like a great way to breed resentment and anger, cut connections with the rest of the world and role model bigotry.
He writes about "our aeroplanes" as if the "West" is a single entity. He wants Muslims banned from plans until it has purged itself of "extremists". What measure does he suggest for that? Has any religion - can any religion - achieve such purity or orthodoxy of thought? No. Will we put such restrictions on other faiths, ethnicities or nationalities?
Having said all that, such views are not unknown. Other politicians in other countries have made lame generalisations about Muslims and acts of terror. Sloppy language is not uncommon in this sensitive area. Pope Benedict's resignation brings to mind his widely condemned decision to quote a 14th century Christan emperor who said Islam brought the world only "evil" and "inhuman" things.
But Prosser isn't just sloppy. He goes further:
I will not stand by while their [his daughters'] rights and freedoms of other New Zealanders and Westerners, are denigrated by a sorry pack of misogynist troglodytes from Wogistan …
Seriously? Wogs? That's not a matter of Prosser's debateable world view, it's childish name-calling. It's an insult thrown at countries that include friends and major trading partners, and will be reported all round the world. It's an inch from the N word. And it's unacceptable from someone in public office.
I believe in the right of vigorous free speech and the right to offend in the quest for truth. I think people are often looking to be offended and too quickly call foul on good, robust debate. But this, again, is just racist name-calling.
And in the week where the Speaker wouldn't allow a West Papuan campaigner for self-determination speak about the woes in his homeland, it would be insanely ironic to let this slur go unchallenged.
Prosser's words are crass insults and have no more right to the free speech defence than Pope Benedict would have had back in 2006. They requires immediate condemnation from his leader (who as a former Foreign Minister knows a thing or two about diplomacy), an apology from the MP himself and some censure.
To whom much is given, much will be expected. And with public office comes serious responsibilities, such as not behaving like a miffed nine year-old.