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Freedom Fighter?

Are some subjects so sensitive that we shouldn’t even have an open discussion about them? If that class of subjects exists does it extend to entirely political events? Should it? Specifically what I am asking is whether it’s possible to discuss the life and actions of Osama bin Laden in any way except that approved by the official western propaganda machine: that is that he was a murderous villain.

Controversial New Zealand politician and Mana Party leader Hone Harawira recently commented that he thought bin Laden fought for rights, for land, and for freedom of his people. That is a far more positive opinion that the official line allows and he later apologised for the comment.

But should he have? I’m not saying that I think bin Laden really was a hero, or that he was motivated by a genuine wish to free his people, or even that he deserves much respect. What I am asking is should we approach dissenting opinions by forcing apologies or should we try to show where the argument is wrong?

Ironically a major reason given for fighting terrorism is to preserve freedom yet it seems that freedom doesn’t extend to offering any opinions other than that one which is officially sanctioned by the Americans and their allies.

Maori commentator, Ranginui Walker was surprised about the apology and said he thought Harawira was “right on” in his appraisal of bin Laden. Yet he went on during an interview I recently heard to contradict the idea of bin Laden being a freedom fighter and basically agreed he was a terrorist. But at the end of the interview he compared him to Che Guevara, surely the revolutionary with the most positive public profile.

So which is it? Freedom fighter, or murderous terrorist… or both? Clearly it depends on what perspective you look at the subject from. Ranginui Walker is an activist for Maori rights and sees western forces (for example British, American, and New Zealand settlers) as representatives of empires he describes as “bathed in blood”. So he identifies with individuals fighting for the rights of who he sees as the oppressed. I don’t agree with his opinion (or Harawira’s) but I do think it is good that they have made their ideas public and I don’t think they should be forced to apologise for them.

If bin Laden’s actions are genuinely as evil as most western leaders say then that will be obvious to everyone and opinions contradicting this view can be easily dismissed. But refusing to even look at the possibility that those opinions have merit is almost like saying the establishment doesn’t want the issue even discussed. As I said, if the situation is as clear as claimed what would be the harm? It’s almost as if there is a fear that the simple “good guys versus bad guys” story which has been created will be destroyed if we look at it too closely!

For the people who do promote a more nuanced view on the subject the consensus seems to be that al Qaeda is an organisation fighting for what it sees as freedom but it is totally deluded regarding the way to achieve its aims. What sort of organisation tries to ensure peace by promoting violence? And how can it achieve freedom by imposing oppressive rules based on the most archaic interpretations of Islam?

So I don’t think Harawira should have apologised. And the prime minister simply labelling them as “ridiculous” or “misguided” without really saying why is just intellectually lazy (no surprises there). What should have happened is that someone should have explained why his opinions give bin Laden too much credit. But just labelling him a terrorist and leaving it at that isn’t enough. Closing down the debate won’t change anyone’s point of view: it will just make people with views contrary to the official propaganda keep quiet about them and that can’t be good.

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