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Monday, February 13, 2006

Of Muslim mobs, the NZ Herald and the student press [Updated 14/02/2006]

In 2000 Martyn Bradbury and I, (thanks to editors Ben Thomas & James Cardno) guest edited an issue of the Auckland University Students' Association weekly magazine Craccum. Martyn was twice editor previously and I was News Editor and reviewer and columnist off and on over the years. Following the success of a previous satirical version of the NZ Herald we had published as an insert in '97 (probably the best work I've ever done in print) we made another one.

On the cover of this mock Herald* we parodied the usual outrageous claims of innuendo, anonymous sources and baseless hearsay that NZ's biggest newspaper hypes from time to time and presents as a legitimate public scandal. In '97 it was the absurd claims that mussels could cure cancer (TVNZ also fell for these snake oil quacks) - which eroded their credibility considerably. In 2000 we picked up another so-called Herald "world exclusive" - that an Afghan family's garage in suburban Auckland had yielded evidence that there was a plot to attack the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in Sydney during the Olympics. For a week or so the Herald led coverage of this supposed atomic terrorist conspiracy which always seemed to come back to an unnamed source (a cop) who had been at the search of this garage and had seen a map of Sydney which had the Lucas Heights area circled. Horror! Shock! Crisis! Drama! NZ Islamic terrorist cell set to nuke the Olympics... Some days later the storm of hysteria that the Herald had been whipping up suddenly stopped once they realised this was all a load of paranoid nonsense predicated on one policeman's over-active imagination. Their news judgement had been found wanting and their reputation critically damaged (once again).

Accusations about this family of immigrants in particular and aspersions about all Muslims had been planted in the public consciousness by the furious tone and irresponsibly speculative and tenuous propositions dressed up as matters of fact by the Herald. And of course after the whole thing was debunked and the evidence proven to be non-existent we never heard anything about it. The Herald has effectively erased their own history when they all but never refer to the incident or if mentioned it is in a very circumscribed way without revealling that it was all disproven hype - which is itself continuing the distortion of the truth. Part of the reason for making this our lead issue was to remind people of the fallible nature of the press and the illusory aura of respectability our local newspaper monopoly cultivates, and as a matter of record that whilst they can pretend their lapse never occured we never let them forget it!

So for our parody paper's front page we put a huge picture of a nuclear mushroom cloud with a headline like "Muslims nuke Sydney" and a string of hypotheticals presented as certainties - and yes it was harder than you'd think to make any more crazed assertions than the Herald had in real life. I put in a comment from George W Bush (then a candidate for the US presidency) that referred to his nemisis as: Osama Bin Laden, "the towel-headed Dr Evil" - I think that was rather prescient considering the spectacular events that were to follow. So we wrote the accompanying article with a conspiratorial angle but then saying the source was a guy who talked to one of the wives of the policeman who had overheard something in the station etc. And projecting massive casulaties and death tolls etc. for any blast in Sydney etc. Just ridiculous stuff.

However, some Muslim students didn't get the joke apparently. After that Craccum issue was distributed on campus a group of angry muslims confronted the editors at their offices demanding retractions. The editors attempted to explain that we were actually on their side and against the Herald. So there you go - swarming hypersenstive muslims with no sense of humour demanding editors apologise - nothing new at all.

I also recall a Bangladeshi guy, Mahmud (I think he was an engineering student who also did a politics paper with me) was going to stand for the student executive around that time and wanted to know whether it was appropriate to get a group of supporters together and go around campus chanting with banners and loudhailers in a... you know... mob - as part of his election campaign. He said it was the normal thing to do where he came from. I said that swarming muslims would put people off him and would probably freak people out as it would be seen as too aggressive.

So nothing has really changed in New Zealand. If Ben Thomas is out there he could tell you more about the actual incident than I can. He did convey to me that they were highly irrate, threatening and just could not grasp the context. Whoever would have thought that cult groups could be irrational and angry?

* Somewhat typically, albeit the only issue of Craccum I can claim credit for editing, I cannot find a copy of it anywhere - thus the lack of direct quotes.

--------------------------UPDATE 14/02/2006------------------------

Ben Thomas has just emailed me his recollection of the events (of which I have emphasised where appropriate):

The week following the publication of the NZ Herald parody, I was approached in my office by two Islamic students – one a fairly new immigrant from Afghanistan, the other from Pakistan. They were concerned, which is to say irate, about the parody image, which they said was offensive to Islam.

One of the things everybody, and Martyn and Tim in particular, used to parody about the Herald under editor Stephen Davis was its use of 'key points' in a box-out for each story. There was nothing that the Herald couldn't summarise in four word, bullet-pointed sentences. In which vein, Tim and Martyn's parody 'key points' had included the point "Muslims bad", which was a pretty accurate reflection of the Herald's hysterical coverage of the road map discovered in an Afghani family's garage.

Lesson in cultural difference #1: Modern western society prizes irony. Islamic culture has not heard of irony.

It took me a while to figure out these guys were angry about the Herald piece - because we didn't think of it as having been offensive to anyone except Davis, an ex-tabloid hack we had been taking shots at all year. I tried explaining that by writing "muslims bad" we were making fun of the Herald's standards, not literally decrying the Muslim faith.

"No," one of my visitors said. "If you are attacking the Herald, you say 'Herald bad'. Not 'Muslims bad'." That's the only direct quote I can still remember from our exchange. They basically refused to leave and I attempted to explain freedom of speech. At University, freedom of speech is a trump. Nothing beats free expression (ie the Tim Pankhurst "I'm sorry you were offended but I had every right to print it" line). Yet these guys would have none of it. They insisted there must be an apology. I insisted that would not happen and they had political avenues they could take if they were unhappy with the magazine. (A group of socialists had tried to roll James and me earlier that year, with risible results.) Their response was to insist that we must run an apology. I said, you cannot make me, so you are wasting your time. They said, we will make you.

Eventually, I left my office and they removed themselves later.

In the fine tradition of student magazines, I wrote an editorial making fun of my critics for the next issue. (A sardonic apology - "Most of all, I'm sorry these two perpetuated the stereotype of Muslims as extremists willing to declare Jihad over a misplaced comma," or something), and thought nothing of it.

Strangely, the last straw was a letter. In consecutive issues we ran letters suggesting (respectively): the Islamic institutionalised disrespect for women made marrying into Islam a poor choice for western women; that the previous correspondent should shut up; that Muslims shouldn't respond to any perceived slight with threats of violence; that the previous letter writer should shut up; repeat.

I think we finished the year on a "muslims bad"-style letter. That's all I knew until I was drinking at the pub, when someone told me that there were "Islamic students" overrunning my office. This turned out to be a wild exaggeration, but there were around thirty or so Islamic students (of various ethnicities) outside in a kind of vaguely threatening vigil, and one of them had punched my brother in the face, the only actual incident of violence.

(Like Edgar Allan Poe's raven, they just sat and perched and nothing more for the next two or three days - and nights – always intimating when they saw me that they were going to do me violence, but never getting closer than a few inches away. Whereas earlier that year I had been jumped by an angry socialist at a party – the shambling Scott Hamilton, who currently blogs as "Reading the Maps". So let's remember that all of this "violence and intolerance" by Muslims is relative.)

It's hard to tell what the point of any of that was, although it made sense a few years later. In 2004 Craccum put a female student in a burqa and took pictures of her drinking beer from a jug etc. The response: no threats; no stake-outs, no violence. But the next weekend the ground floor windows of the university library was adorned with anti-Craccum graffiti. "The Muslims", it seemed, had become just as puerile, obnoxious, and unthreatening as every other disgruntled
student group. Which, believe it or not, is progress.


At 13/2/06 6:53 pm, Blogger Antarctic Lemur said...

Do tell more.

At 13/2/06 8:49 pm, Blogger t selwyn said...

Ben can tell us more but he probably can't be bothered. I sent him an email.

At 21/2/06 3:08 pm, Blogger Matt said...

Reminds me of the time I rewrote Jonathan Swift's 'A Modest Proposal' for a New Zealand audience as 'Ending Benefit Dependency.'

Basically, I changed all the references of Irish people Maori and Polynesians and DPB mothers. I reposted it on Fightingtalk a while back (you'll have to scroll down):

Anyway - I ended up with heaps of angry phone calls, one of which threatened to take me to the race relations office. I tried explaining I was on their side, and the context of Swift, satire and Irish oppression by the English - to no avail.




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