It's time Australia faced up to its shameful Islamophobia

It's time Australia faced up to its shameful Islamophobia
Comment: In today's Australia, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant hysteria are increasingly mainstream attitudes, writes CJ Werleman.
8 min read
30 Aug, 2018
Muslims represent roughly 2 percent of the Australian population [Anadolu]
"We are in danger of being swamped by Asians," warned Pauline Hanson in her maiden speech to Australia's parliament in 1996. Two years later her ultranationalist, far right party, One Nation, pulled in nearly a quarter of the vote in the Queensland state election.

When her political career resumed two decades later, and after serving three years in prison for fraudulently registering her party and defrauding the Australian Electoral Commission of $500,000, Asian immigrants were suddenly off her radar.

In Hanson's mind, according to her rhetoric, Asians had mysteriously and suddenly returned to being invisible and law-abiding citizens at some point between the start of her jail term and the 2016 federal election.

When Hanson announced her candidacy for the Senate in 2015, Asian-bashing was no longer politically fashionable, in part because nearly two decades of "War on Terror" propaganda regarding open-ended United States-led wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq - both of which have involved Australian military forces and have claimed the lives of more than 2 million Muslims - have polluted every level of civil society.

Militarised propaganda and Orientalist tropes which divide the world between an enlightened, progressive West, and a barbaric and backwards East, while giving erroneous and patronising justifications for western imperialist invasions, have seen Muslims replace Asians as the external threat, dangerous other, and demographic whipping boy.

Today, Islamophobia is in fashion, particularly for political and social media entrepreneurs who seek to build an instant support base or following.

Seizing on widespread fears of Islam and Muslims, Hanson won her Senate seat by channeling then US presidential candidate Donald Trump, calling for a total ban on Muslim immigration, mosques, and also a Royal Commission investigation into Islam.

Now, if a taxpayer funded government-led enquiry into a religious belief system isn't comical enough, then consider that one of her party members falsely referred to the Quran as the 
"Haram," and then confused the three Abrahamic faiths by claiming, "Jews aren't under haram, they have their own religion which follows Jesus Christ."

Racism and xenophobia have never proved an impediment to an Australian's pursuit for political power

None of this caused any harm to Hanson's pursuit for a Senate seat, of course. Racism and xenophobia have never proved an impediment to an Australian's pursuit for political power. It has only ever propelled their candidacy by creating instant name recognition and mobilising an imagined moral panic.

The country's longest serving prime minister in recent times, John Howard, leveraged post-9/11 anti-immigrant hysteria to win reelection in 2001 after finding himself down in the polls in what has now become known as the 
"Tampa affair."

While it would be easy to dismiss Hanson as a tawdry opportunist, and Howard's gambit as business-as-usual political maneuvering, doing so glosses over the fact that hostile views towards Muslims are shared by many Australians, at least according to a number of opinion polls.

Read more: Australian politician calls for 'Muslim ban', and 'final solution' to immigration

Consider that 49 percent of Australians are said to support a permanent block on Muslims entering the country; while 55 percent support a ban on the Islamic face veil, an indictable political reality that no doubt inspired Hanson to enter the chambers of the Australian parliament last year wearing the niqab - in what can only be described as a cheap stunt meant to cash in on the country's increasingly hostile attitudes towards Muslims.

Muslims have come under renewed focus and threat over the past two weeks, thanks in part to Senator Fraser Anning's maiden speech to parliament, in which he echoed Hanson's call for a total ban on Muslim immigrants and a return to a European-only policy; going so far as to paraphrase Adolf Hitler by urging a "final solution" for immigrants.

While politicians from across party lines came together to condemn Anning's language, the level of tacit and explicit support Islamophobia enjoys across the entire political spectrum is vast, deep, and alarming.

Australians celebrate Eid al-Fitr near the Lakemba Mosque in suburban Sydney [Getty]

The 2016 US Presidential election is a case in point. While politicians from both major parties denounced Trump's racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia, he was still rewarded by white voters for holding these views, somethig that also speaks to the undercurrents shaping the Australian political landscape and social life.

Last week, former Australian celebrity commentator and football great Sam Newman claimed on air that Muslims "don't generally nationalise, they colonise," adding, "There are 600,000 Muslims in Australia, they share no common interest with what we're on about. They have no common values, they preach to a different, deity, god. This has been a huge problem in Europe and it's beginning to be a huge problem in America."

When a white person carries out an identical crime, his religious faith or lack thereof is irrelevant to the reporting

Even stranger is the fact Newman didn't assert his smear of Australia's Muslim community in the emotional aftermath of an "Islamic" terrorist attack, but rather after two Muslim players from opposing teams hugged each other at the conclusion of a AFL match.

The spurious claim that [they] "don't nationalise, they colonise" was a central theme of Nazi propaganda against European Jews, and we don't need a history lesson to know where that discourse ultimately led.

The Australian media shares much of the blame here for it has chosen to opportunistically capitalise on the racist and Islamophobic views held by many of its viewers and readers in return for page clicks, subscriptions and advertising.

Even when Muslims collectively demonstrate their love and endearment for Australia, as they did when 30,000 Muslims in Sydney congregated for Eid celebrations to pray and raise money for Australia's drought stricken farmers, the media referred to their charitable effort as a "praying for a rain bomb."

When a Muslim carries out a crime, his faith becomes the headline to the story, "Muslim man caught doing X," but when a white person carries out an identical crime, his religious faith or lack thereof is irrelevant to the reporting, with the headline reading, "Man caught doing Y."

This race-baiting dynamic, coupled with the skewed representation of Muslims in the media has created a moral panic in a country where Muslims represent roughly 2 percent of the population. One study found that Australians estimate the Muslim population to be 9 times greater than what it is, an indicator o the level of hysteria gripping popular discourse.

Tying Islam and Muslims to terrorism is the central tenet of Islamophobic discourse, despite the fact that fewer than a handful of Australian Muslims have carried out acts of political violence, and despite the fact Australia played a central role in creating the chaos and bloodshed in the Middle East and Central Asia which has caused the spread of extremist violence and counter-violence.

To shed light on both the country's racist history, one built on genocide, apartheid  and white supremacy, while also pointing to the great many human rights abuses it has helped carry out around the world in recent times, is to invite the charge of being "un-Australian".

A big slice of Australia, it would seem, is in no mood for accepting the country's role in murdering Afghan civilians; fomenting a sectarian civil war in Iraq; and 
arming and training the Myanmar military as it carries out what the UN describes as "textbook ethnic cleansing" against Rohingya Muslims. Successive government efforts to illegally and permanently detain refugees at decrepit off-shore detention centres, should also not be forgotten.

"Australia thrives on muting discussions on racism. A muting that involves the use of complex indexing, dog whistling, erasure and coding," observes Yassir Morsi, author of 'Radical Skins, Moderate Masks'. "What makes Anning's actions ugly is that the nation's mask of civility has slipped and not for the first time."

It took white Australia more than 200 years to say sorry to indigenous Australians

This 'unmasking of civility' is even more profound on social media, a landscape that encourages the proliferation of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant memes, which are designed to instill fear and suspicion of a dangerous other. The worst offenders are Facebook accounts operated by ultranationalist, far-right groups such as Reclaim Australia, Patriot Blue, United Nationalist Front, and others.

The rapid growth and sudden mainstreaming of these groups threatens Australia's multicultural society. The vilification and demonisation of Muslims and non-white immigrants online, typically propagated by negative stereotypes, lies, and fake stories, is already causing bloodshed in the streets, with hate crimes against Muslims and immigrants spiking across Australian cities.

Honest and frank discussions about racism are never forged easily in Australia, and more recently these much needed conversations have become hijacked and dominated by deniers of structural racism.

The popularity of international far-right, neo-Nazi sympathising firebrands in Australia, such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Tommy Robinson, are evidence of this.

It took white Australia more than 200 years to say sorry to indigenous Australians for the genocide and crimes against humanity it perpetrated against them. On the flip side, it took the Nazis less than a decade of anti-Semitic propaganda to convince Germans the "final solution" was a moral necessity.

Now that at least one elected representative has invoked genocidal rhetoric, you can be sure others will follow.

Australia must confront its Islamophobia before it's too late.

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.