So Prime Minister John Key has removed the passports of a few would-be jihadis from New Zealand wishing to join rebel factions in Syria. In doing so, Key is echoing a concern among several European countries that the civil war in Syria has become a training ground for Islamic extremism. The extent of the problem is unclear, and the issue here seems more like a storm in a tea cup – given that there may have been only two people ( a pair of brothers) involved, or so a spokesperson for the Syrian community told RNZ this morning.
Many New Zealanders would support the government trying to prevent any traffic between residents of this country and what are in effect, training camps for al-Qaeda and its associates. The official Al Qaeda splinter group among the rebel forces trying to topple the Assad government seems to have fallen on hard times during the latest round of fierce faction fighting that has reportedly claimed the lives of some 2,300 rebel fighters since serious internecine fighting (reportedly funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar) broke out in early January. However, the united front now emerging as the victor in the faction fighting operates with an equally austere interpretation of Islam, and its manifesto is committed (a) to establishing a theocratic state in which sharia law is the guiding, if not sole principle of legislation, and (b) is explicitly opposed to democracy and secularism.
Still, there would be even wider support for the government’s move to revoke passports if it was more consistently applied: say, to mercenaries going overseas to fight in foreign conflicts (such as Afghanistan and elsewhere) who also bring their values and their violent experiences back home into our communities. It is difficult to see why those going overseas to kill and pillage for money are any less of a security risk than those who do so in the name of religion. Yesterday, Key cynically chose to frame his action in revoking passports as being indicative of the good work being done by our security agencies.
In that respect, the reminder about the Syrian jihad revelations–first publicised by Key during a previous round of GCSB controversy last year–was interesting. By sheer co-incidence (surely) this relatively minor incident is now being publicised to validate the security services only a few days after they came under fire for apparently having destroyed file evidence relevant to the court action being taken against the GCSB by Kim Dotcom. It would also be welcome if this energetic vigilance about Syrian jihadis was matched by a more urgent response to the plight of Syrian refugees by our government. Shuffling around the slots available within our existing UN quota to take in 100 Syrian refugees over the next two years seems a really pathetic response to what the UN has been calling the “greatest humanitarian crisis of the century.”
Recently, the UN made an appeal to Western nations to take 30,000 Syrian refugees of the 2.3 million Syrians refugees in what is now being described as the greatest humanitarian crisis of our century by the United Nations. Many countries have pledged to help fulfil this quota with the USA welcoming several thousand, Germany committed to 10,000, and Moldova the poorest country in Europe and far smaller than New Zealand has accepted 50. Sweden, in addition to a quota of 1200, have offered unlimited asylum to Syrians who make it there. So far 23,000 have applied. According to the UN Global Trends report, refugees in New Zealand make up only 1% of the population compared to a world average of 3.4% and our closest neighbour Australia 2.3%.
Finally, is there a danger that some prospective anti-Assad recruit frustrated at being unable to answer their calling would then turn against our government? Hardly. They may be infuriated by the restriction, but an armed response seems unlikely. (If so inclined, a jihadi wannabe would have innumerable other, more pressing triggers.) With either option – passport removal or applying the same open slather rule to jihadis as we do to mercenaries – the risk to New Zealand seems minimal. And given the rate at which foreign fighters in Syria are being slaughtered by their devout brethren, the chances are that any fighters exported from New Zealand would be very lucky to survive to bring their message back home, anyway.