Saturday, January 13, 2018

CRIKEY: Three things you don’t understand about the Syrian war


For a start, the rebels are not one big happy family all fighting for a common notion of justice.



My goodness. There has been so much internet chatter among Aussie and Western Muslims about the fall of Aleppo to Syrian regime forces aided by Iranian proxies and Russia. But it’s OK. I doubt the chatter will lead to another 0.002% of Australia’s Muslims heading off to join Islamic State.

Instead, the chatter has largely been outpourings of grief at reports of massacres by the regime. Videos from al-Jazeera English and Channel 4 UK are being shared of civilians in Aleppo recording what they believe will be their final messages to the world. One lawyer of Pakistani Muslim heritage living in the US simply posted the words to U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday.

The group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) — which former PM Tony Abbott wanted to ban and which insists only the revival of some sort of caliphate will solve all our problems — is complaining that a photo of a massive march in Istanbul against the Syrian regime was misappropriated by media organisations that failed to mention that HT organised the rally. For goodness sake, guys!

Yet as with any conflict that affects people living thousands of miles away from its epicentre, much of the discussion and debate has lacked nuance. Among the simplistic notions are:

1. Everyone supports the rebels

This might make sense if the rebels were all united. Luckily for the Assad regime, and sadly for its opponents, the rebels are about as united as the Coalition. Based in Istanbul is al-Majlis al-Watani al-Suri (the Syrian National Council) formed in 2011. A year later, it formed a Syrian National Coalition with a host of other opposition groups, but subsequently left in 2004. The council/coalition includes exiled members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, some Kurds (but not many, given what is seen as Turkey’s influence over the council/coalition), Christians and a few other blokes (lawyer Catherine al-Talli resigned in 2002).

On the military front, things haven’t been much better. There is the Free Syrian Army with numerous militias. Here are the Islamist groups we are taught to hate, often with good reason (e.g. ISIS) and those that are being sponsored (albeit indirectly) by the US.

The civilians themselves support and work with one another if for no other reason than to survive. Writing of her visit to the rebel-held part of Aleppo, one CNN journalist, Arwa Damon, speaks of her encounter with “Sama”:
In Aleppo, at a hospital run by the opposition, I met a young woman who goes by the pseudonym Sama. She was living with the hospital ‘staff’ — now made up mostly of young men and a handful of women, many of whom had no prior medical experience. Among her colleagues at the hospital are people of different backgrounds — moderate, conservative, Islamist, Salafi — and on a regular basis they debate what the future Syria should look like. In some way, the revolution has brought together individuals who otherwise would have never interacted, to trade ideas and ideologies. ‘We even shout at each other,’ Sama tells us with a wry smile. ‘I was with the revolution from the start, the revolution is one line, it’s not Islamist, it’s for all Syrians and Syrians are from all sects.

2. The battle is one between Shia and Sunni

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough space for me to explain the historical, theological and political factors that divide these two major sects, a division that goes back over 14 centuries. Suffice it to say that the predominant sect that resembles Syrian Shi’ism is the Alawi (also known as Nusayri) sect. Now if you like, you can spend the next few days reading this magnificent work by an Israeli scholar. Suffice it to say that both Syria and Lebanon have a fair few Alawis and that they have traditionally lived impoverished lives, marginalised by both Sunni and Shia.

The current government in Syria is headed by the Assad clan who happen to be Alawi. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslim, but there is a very strong Christian presence, including descendants of Armenians who fled the Ottoman purges, with many settling in Aleppo.

3. Syria is all about ISIS/Islam — nothing else

Then again, mainstream Australia sees this whole Syria thing as a war on Islamic State and nothing else, with the aim being to keep our streets safe, even if other people’s streets turn to rubble. Or they see it as a war within, or between, or even on, Islam. Hence the attitude in many (especially almost alt-right) circles is: yes, it’s very sad that civilians are suffering, but we don’t want any Muslim refugees (potentially carrying the IS bug) here, thanks very much.

And let no one say that “real” (i.e. white) Aussies fighting on the side of the Kurds are doing anything wrong. The Kurds are totally blameless, notwithstanding evidence that they too have been committing atrocities. Our white Christian boys wouldn’t be caught dead fighting with terrorists in Syria.

First published in Crikey on 19 December 2016

CRIKEY: How do you stop polygamy? With overreaching surveillance, of course


Pauline Hanson thinks there needs to be a national identity card in order to stop Muslims from claiming Centrelink benefits for multiple wives.



Once again those bloody Muzzlems are up to no good. Marrying more than one wife and then claiming multiple spousal benefits. I mean, can you believe it?

And so the headlines and talkback hosts blared over the weekend. The Channel Seven Sunrise program on Sunday carried the words “MUSLIM MARRIAGE DOLE RORT” on screen. Prue MacSween, one of the panellists, reminded us all that polygamy was illegal. She’s right, except that in Australia the way you get around it is to have only one of the marriages registered. It’s a bit like having a wife and a fuckbuddy or mistress or girlfriend or whatever.

She complained that
... these people are thumbing their nose at us and rorting the system.
These people? Us? Yep, these people have polygamous unions. They marry more than once. We don’t do that. We know that real Australians enjoy adulterous relationships rather than polygamous ones. 

(To be fair, when probed about the use of the word “us”, MacSween said she was referring to taxpayers. Though she then spoke of “them” coming here and not standing up in court.)

She also mentioned Centrelink’s claim that it would cost more money to police and enforce the law against this unknown number of polygamous rorters. I sympathise with her in this respect. Some years back, I worked as a welfare rights lawyer running appeals against Centrelink decisions between the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Representing the Commonwealth in the AAT was an excellent and highly professional advocate. The poor chap managed appeals in two states and was about to have a third state added to his load. This would mean he wouldn’t be able to attend all hearings and he’d be jammed. The result? More settlements, which were not in the interests of the Commonwealth and the taxpayer.

The Department of Human Services were also cutting down on the expense of investigators to conduct surveillance on suspected cheats. During my own research for client cases, I came across numerous AAT decisions where the evidence of investigators was used to show that the Centrelink client wasn’t being honest about their relationship status. Without such surveillance, the tribunal will have to decide between the client’s word and Centrelink file.



Oh, and by the way, it isn’t just Muslim polygamous arrangements who can breach Centrelink rules. The MacSweens and Bernardis and Hansons of this world might not be aware that our law recognises these thing called de facto relationships. Our Social Security Act recognises that you can live in a domestic arrangement with someone you aren’t married to, or even with someone you can’t legally marry, such as a same-sex partner.

Perhaps the most frightening response to this pseudo-issue was from Pauline Hanson, who called for the introduction of an Australian identity card. Seriously, Pauline, that is sooooo 1980s. Back in 1985 the Hawke government introduced the idea of an Australia card that was designed not so much to catch welfare cheats as tax cheats. Conservatives led by John Howard lined up to oppose the card, only to support a similar proposal 10 years later. After much mass debate, the proposal was dropped. 

Perhaps Hanson or her advisers should read this very helpful e-Brief published by the Commonwealth Parliament’s Law and Bills Digest Section. She should also understand that her constituents will not appreciate a Big Brother ID card forced on them just to stop a handful of polygamous Muslims.

First published in Crikey on 12 December 2016.

CRIKEY: Et tu, Angela? Merkel picks politics over people


If Merkel really wants to stamp out the wearing of face veils, she will find no greater ally than the mainstream German Muslim communities.

Three Muslim women

And so it goes. The Brexit effect becomes the Brexit/Trump effect, which then becomes the Brexit/Trump/Italy effect. It could almost have become the Brexit/Trump/Austrian Nazi/Italy effect. It may become the Brexit/Trump/Italy/One Nation effect. And it all leads to one simple conundrum: how do centre-right parties stop the seemingly inevitable rise of the “populist” far right?

The conventional wisdom is to take on a key aspect of the far right so as to take the wind out of their sails. That usually means pick the minority the far right loves to hate and throw them under the bus — preferably the minority that is weak and cannot fight back.

In the past 12 months or so, Germany has shown genuine leadership in relation to refugees escaping the horrors of war in Syria. Some 1.1 million refugees were resettled during 2015 alone. Asylum applications have been expedited so that people are not left in limbo.

This isn’t the first time Germany has had to take in large amounts of refugees. After the end of World War II, when Germany was decimated by the Allies, millions of expelled Hungarians, Slovaks, Czechs and other refugees of German ethnicity were expelled from homes and lands they had lived in for centuries.

It was extremely tough, but Germany managed. The new Germans eventually assimilated despite their differences with the German-born Germans, and despite the fact elderly people and children made up many of the refugees’ numbers.

The new Syrian refugees are largely of working age. Many are professionals who, even if not German-speaking, can at least speak English. They wear Western clothes, and many were well-travelled before the war. In this photo of students from the University of Aleppo sitting for their exams in 2013, I can’t find a single burqa.

Whatever the horrors of the Assad regime, it was a regime that allowed religious and ethnic minorities to flourish. Historically, Syria was the land of Byzantine churches, of saints who spent years sitting atop poles, of some of the oldest Christian music in the world. In his 1997 book, From The Holy Mountain, William Dalrymple writes about the strong Christian presence in Syria and the centuries of interaction between the various faith communities of the former Byzantine world.

The idea of lecturing and hectoring this largely modern, educated refugee diaspora about not wearing the burqa or some other face covering (as Chancellor Angela Merkel is now doing) makes little sense. It would be hard to find a Syrian woman who wears the burqa, just as you’d be hard-pressed to find a third-generation German-Turkish woman wearing one. Why even talk about it?

German Muslims who refuse to integrate will likely find pressure on them not just from the courts but also from their own communities. Seriously, how many German Muslims would agree with the claims of an 11-year-old girl before a German court that
... even wearing a burkini, or full-body swimsuit, breached Islamic dress codes ...
? Imagine a Syrian refugee family who saw women drowning in the Mediterranean having objections to their daughters learning to swim.

If Merkel really wants to stamp out the wearing of face veils, she will find no greater ally than the mainstream German Muslim communities — Turks, south Asians and Syrians. A far better strategy would be consulting with them to see how community education and other grassroots strategies can assist.

Of course, the far right and their friends in the German and European and, indeed, our Breitbart-wannabe Australian media will find any excuse to turn a small incident into a mountain of “creeping sharia”. This places pressure on mainstream conservative parties to respond. Some will respond by focusing on who they are and what they stand far. Others will point to a small minority and declare “We are not like them!” hoping this will take attention away from the hate brigade.

It is a strategy that is rarely temporary, It turns the normal centre right into enablers of the far right. And the last thing a leader of Germany would want to be is an enabler of the political descendants of Nazism.

First published in Crikey on 9 December 2016.

Friday, December 15, 2017

CRIKEY: Why George Christensen might make a great immigration minister


Barnaby Joyce reckons George Christensen needs to be given a portfolio. Would Immigration be a good fit? Have you head the rumour? Apparently National Party leader Barnaby Joyce is training up George Christensen for a ministerial gig. At least, I think it’s a rumour. At least I hope it’s a rumour, both for Malcolm Turnbull’s sake and possibly for the sake of the public servants whose jobs come within any portfolio handed to Christensen. And Fairfax says it’s
... time to take George Christensen seriously.
All this raises a few questions:


  1. Which portfolio would be suitable for someone with Christensen’s set of interests and skills? 
  2. If no such portfolio exists, could a new portfolio be created from Christensen? 
  3. By George, what on earth is Barnaby Joyce thinking? It may be true that Christensen is “authentic”, “well-read” and “intelligent”, but what is the broader political strategy here? Is the aim to cash in on a possible Trump factor? Is it to steal votes from One Nation? 



Or perhaps I am being a bit too cynical. Maybe Joyce wasn’t just throwing some praise in Christensen’s general direction to add to a juicy Fairfax Good Weekend profile. Perhaps I should go study Christensen’s colourful parliamentary history for clues.

Let’s start with Christensen’s views on immigration. The guiding principle of any immigration policy, according to Christensen, is that we should not allow (or at least we should heavily restrict) immigration from countries that don’t share our values. Or to put it another way,
... ending immigration from countries with a high level of violent extremism.


To make this policy work, we need to define what our values are. How do we manifest our values and how have they emerged from our history?

These are huge questions that I hope Christensen, for all his wide reading, can answer. Former PM John Howard once defined Australian values in a generic fashion — things like mateship and equality for women. As if people in, say, Afghanistan, don’t have ideas of mateship and friendship. And if broader European attitudes toward sexual assault (yes, 27% of Europeans think rape is acceptable in certain circumstances) are any indication, maybe we don’t need more European migrants.

I’d hate to see Christensen’s version of Australian values emerge from some of the history in his own electorate. Many Australians don’t know this, but slavery was practised in certain parts of the colonies. Most worked on sugar plantations in northern Queensland, where Christensen’s electorate is located. When the Commonwealth of Australia was established in 1901, one of the first pieces of legislation was The Pacific Islander Labourers Act ordering the deportation of all South Sea Islanders to their home islands by 1906:
These Islanders had originally been brought to Australia as sugar slaves. At this time 9324 South Sea Islanders lived in Queensland … They also included those who had lived in Queensland since before 1 September 1879 … Some had married and had families in Queensland. Others had lived here for a very long time and grown old. It would have been difficult or even impossible for Islanders to return to their home islands. Records and knowledge of precise origin were often scant as a result of the questionable recruitment processes and decades making lives in a new country.
To his credit, Christensen acknowledged the cruelty of this slavery policy and the extreme discriminatory legislation that affected them. He even called for a national apology to the Australian South Sea Islander community in 2013.
Just as we’ve had an apology on behalf of Aboriginal Australians who were a part of the stolen generation, we’ve had an apology for those who were forcibly adopted, that in this instance it’s only right that we have a national apology to the South Sea islanders for the treatment they were given.
This is a side of Christensen that is rarely reported. It is also a side he needs to articulate more in relation to those fleeing slavery-like conditions to our shores. Slavery was being practised in Islamic Sate-held territories in Iraq and Syria. This included sexual slavery of women from all denominations and ethnic groups. ISIS is not the first group or state to use sexual slavery as a weapon of war. 

Perhaps we can appeal to Christensen’s better angels. You never know. He may turn out to be a compassionate immigration minister one day.



First published in Crikey on 5 December 2016.

CRIKEY: Some friendly advice to Tony Abbott on writing his next book


Take it from a Muslim, Tony, you need to come to terms with gay marriage.

There’s been plenty of speculation about Tony Abbott’s next book. Already he is in talks with his publisher, and he has even jokingly suggested the title of “Battlescars”. Pundits are asking questions like:


  • Why is he writing this now? 
  • Is he making another tilt for the leadership? 
  • Is he seeking academic employment at Trump University? 


Tony Abbott’s last book, Battlelines, was a terrific read. Even if you despise his politics (and I can say I’ve been pretty harsh on his policies in recent times), you can’t doubt the man knows how to write. The manifesto Abbott set out in his book was far more progressive and mainstream than he is known for, and certainly more inclusive than many policies he pursued during his short term as PM. And far more attractively presented. Plus he won’t have Bronwyn Bishop hampering his keyboard. 



Apart from being so well written that even the late Bob Ellis praised it.

Tony Abbott, can write really well, with lucidity, mischief, moral persuasiveness and a kind of jovial dignity like his fellow Oxonian blow-in Bill Clinton … He writes really well; yet I wish he had told us more. 

That’s some really hefty praise coming from someone Abbott’s lawyers virtually crushed in a defamation action.

According to his publisher, Abbott’s next book will set out his views on what it means to be a conservative in Australia in the 21st century. If he is hoping to provide some coherent support to Donald Trump’s white/economic nationalist gibberish, I expect his book to fill many a shelf at Basement Books, The Book Grocer and other remaindered book stores where cheapskate PhD students, like me, hang out.

So I would like to give Abbott a few tips on what kind of conservative policy Australians (including wogs like me) would happily stomach and might actually vote for.

Firstly, drop the “Team Australia” bullshit unless you really mean it and are prepared to implement it. You can’t invite people to join your team while taking away their liberties. Truly Liberal prime ministers don’t play games like that.



Secondly, the status quo is there for a reason. It has stood the test of time and should not be tampered with. Don’t let ideology push you to push away things that have worked: anti-discrimination laws, multicultural policies (even if you, like me, aren’t overly fond of the “M” word).

Thirdly, come to terms with gay marriage. It can be a difficult pill to swallow for believers. But if a believing-but-not-practising Muslim like me can do it, a solid Catholic like you should be able to. After all, your views on marriage were hardly a reflection of Canon Law. As you wrote in Battlelines:
It’s not realistic to expect most young adults in this hyper-sexualised age to live chastely for many years outside marriage. People have not so much abandoned traditional mores as found that the old standards don’t so readily fit the circumstances of their lives.
Fourthly, try to avoid defending the indefensible blunders of the Howard era. Especially in foreign policy and the disastrous Iraq War that gave birth to ISIS.

Finally, remember what you said in your last book: conservatism is

... a pragmatic, eclectic creed. 

There is nothing pragmatic about going to war with the electorate or relying on some of its lesser angels.

Good luck with writing it, Mr Abbott. I certainly won’t be waiting for a remaindered copy.

First published in Crikey on 24 November 2016.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

CRIKEY: The White Australia Policy is over, deal with it


Sadly, ignorance of non-Anglo cultures is the name of the game in both mainstream media and politics in Australia.
I’ve been writing commentary and pious punditry since 2005. Before then, I was a helpless consumer of news. When caught in Sydney traffic driving to work in the morning in the early 2000s, I’d tune into 2UE for the last half hour of Steve Price’s morning show. The last 10 minutes of Pricey’s show also featured John Laws.

One morning there was some controversy about ethnic profiling of criminal suspects, especially those of Middle Eastern/Lebanese backgrounds. Pricey made some comment about how it was easy to identify a Lebanese person as they looked totally different to Anglo-Australians. I couldn’t help myself; I rang the studio and was put on air.

Pricey, there are plenty of Lebanese with light brown or blond or red hair and green eyes.

Pricey dismissed my comment as codswallop, as did Laws. Then, just before the show was about to end, Pricey was handed a note from the state MP for Bankstown. Pricey was being invited to breakfast with the MP and 500 of his Lebanese constituents, all of whom had red hair and green eyes.

Ignorance of non-Anglo cultures is the name of the game in both mainstream media and politics in Australia. Until recently, allegedly respectable newspapers would regularly mistranslate jihad as “holy war” and fatwa as “death sentence”. Last night’s episode of The Drum showed Caroline Overington claiming that Lebanese people in France lived in slums on the outskirts of Paris. She might wish to confirm that with a French-Lebanese person, say writer Amin Maalouf.

On the same show, Josh Manuatu, a staffer for Eric Abetz who identified as part-Tongan, suggested we didn’t want migrants such as Lebanese who came from countries where women who wished to be educated were stoned. Really? Because the last time I checked the website of the American University of Beirut, which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary, I noticed pictures of female students, some wearing headscarves and some not.



It was truly sad to see Abetz’s staffer make ignorant aspersions about Lebanese migrants gravitating to bikie gangs and terror cells. But you know what they say — for every finger you point at others, three point straight back at you. If we are to believe that authority on ethnic crime former Fairfax columnist Paul Sheehan, in April 2008:
... a group of violent racists acted out their YouTube fantasies and stormed into Merrylands High School at 8.50am, armed with machetes and baseball bats. They then started to beat the crap out of people.
And who were these nasty violent radicalised kids terrorising people? Sheehan continues:
A week after this rampage, any member of the public interested in this crime could have deduced the alleged perpetrators were Tongan morons. Or perhaps morons who are, regrettably, Australian citizens but portray themselves as ‘nigga gangstas’.
Gosh, what kind of dangerous ethnicities does Abetz employ? According to The Daily Telegraph, Tongans and bikie gangs have excellent relations in NSW prisons. Still, how unfair it would be to characterise Tongan-Australians as good for nothing except as prisoners or violent gangsters or as comic pawns in a Chris Lilley show.

Which brings me to Noel Pearson’s curious complaint against the ABC. Pearson claims the ABC has a habit of always portraying indigenous people as victims and/or criminals and/or people who are always down and out. Much of this is caused by structural and cultural factors, he says, given the ABC is staffed by people
... willing the wretched to fail.
If anything, Pearson should have directed his criticisms to all Australian news media. And not just news media. How many indigenous and other minority faces do we see in TV and billboard advertising? Are all shoppers and checkout chicks at Woolies and Coles really white? Are all babies who poo in nappies or people driving cars on our roads really white?

Hasn’t the White Australia Policy ended?

First published in Crikey on 23 November 2016.

CRIKEY: What if our collective racism turned again to Asians?


It turns out 49% of Australians want to stop Muslims from immigrating. But what if they were convinced China's military were a much bigger threat than Islamic State (which it probably is)?

Prejudices. Unless we’re lying, we all have at least one of them. I have a prejudice against music that doesn’t involve at least one hand-played musical instrument. Apologies to Iggy Azalea fans.

The latest Essential Report turned up an interesting mixed bag of voter prejudices. There was prejudice against Pauline Hanson (45% of those polled agreed with the statement that “Pauline Hanson’s views do not reflect Australian values and she should not be given so much media coverage”. Meanwhile 22% of the 49% who said they opposed Muslim immigration did so on the basis that Muslims “do not share our values”. Which I guess means Muslims are more consistent with Australian values than Pauline Hanson.

Still, it requires some nuance and an ability to perform basic statistical analysis to extract the above-mentioned conclusions. The kind of nuance that journalists appear to lack. But in electoral politics and emotive culture wars, nuance and rationality are best kept out of the scene and relegated to wherever it is those Muslims came from.

Funnily enough, the figures were worse (or better, depending on your perspective) for Coalition voters. How much does this make sense historically? Have Liberal voters always ignored the individual in favour of group identities?



The first episode of John Howard’s ABC documentary on his political hero Bob Menzies includes a section on the formation of a new political party for the “forgotten Australians”, the middle class, those who wished to be “lifters, not leaners”, whose core political beliefs included the free market and free individuals. This party’s ideology attracted enough votes in post-war Australia to deliver Menzies a landslide.

Now some 60% of the party’s voters have adopted a new freedom — the freedom to live in a country free of migrants who identify with a disparate group that make up some 25% of humanity. The party’s voters want freedom to imagine that each and every one of this huge rump of humanity are likely terrorists and are unable to integrate into Australia. No doubt the non-integrating terrorist wannabes to be stopped at the border would include people like Houssam Abiad, a former Liberal deputy lord mayor for the City of Adelaide. Three out of five Liberal voters were opposed to immigration by anyone who identifies as Muslim. Or is deemed Muslim.

The national figure was just under one half. Some 34% of Greens voters would oppose the migration of someone like NSW MP Mehreen Faruqi, notwithstanding her PhD in environmental engineering and her passionate support for marriage equality.

Apparently

[t]he most common reasons for wanting a ban were fears over terrorism. 

Little wonder some 40% of ALP voters wouldn’t want any further Muslims from Egypt migrating here, Egyptians like the parents of counterterrorism expert and ALP federal member for Cowan Professor Anne Aly.



Apart from the usual suspects (Greens, a few Labor MP’s and an extra suspect in John Alexander), most pollies have been totally silent on not just the poll but also Hanson’s speech and the underlying prejudices and ignorance it evidences. The silence from the Coalition and from allegedly conservative commentators is even louder. The message this sends to both the perpetrators and victims of the bigotry is that Australia’s political establishment wishes to play a “wait and see” game.
More sober voices can throw facts — that 2% is hardly a swamp, that Hindu communities are growing at a faster rate, that most home-grown terror suspects aren’t migrants but were born here — but since when have facts mattered in such mass debates?

The best we can hope for is that bigger prejudices and problems come along. That other concerns — the economy, health, industrial relations, etc — take over from prejudice against Muslims or Africans or Asians. But how’s this for a scary scenario? The security risks in the future posed by Islamic State and other rogue actors could quickly and easily be dwarfed by the ambitions of the People’s Republic of China flexing its economic and military muscle. Australia could get dragged into conflict in the South China Sea. Our newspapers and media could be swamped with images of Asian-looking people threatening our security, with other Asian-looking people seeking refuge.



How will the average Aussie bigot be able to tell the difference between different kinds of people who look like Chinese leaders giving threatening speeches on TV? Nuance and prejudice tend to go in opposite directions. The likes of George Christensen, Cory Bernardi, Reclaim Australia, Pauline Hanson, etc, may find the notion that a migrant who speaks Mandarin and has a name like Tsai Ing-Wen or Lee Hsien Loong is a security threat.

And why stop at language? That pro-democracy bookseller from Hong Kong Lam Wing-Kee sure has a suspicious name. As does that Suu Kyi woman, who wears funny clothes and lives in Burma.

Why do they celebrate Chinese New Year? What’s wrong with our New Year? What are these moon cakes they eat? How can we tell the difference between a Chinese-looking person from Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Burma or Fiji?

Am I insulting the intelligence of the average Australian bigot? I wish I were. So do the thousands of Sikhs who must put up with the nonsense they cop due to non-Sikhs assuming the Sikh turban is the same as Osama bin Laden’s and the Sikh temple is a mosque.

First published in Crikey on 22 September 2016.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

CRIKEY: Extra! Extra! Bolt condemns white terrorism! (And other headlines you won’t read in the Hun)


A white terror suspect with links to anti-Islam groups was arrested at the weekend. Not that you'd read about it in the right-wing rags.




The weekend was awash with local and international news, sport and culture war. Australian athletes bagged gold medals in Rio like there’s no tomorrow. The Turkish crackdown continued unabated. Some cartoonist for a national newspaper leaked tears on the shoulder of visiting American humourist PJ O’Rourke, who, as this video illustrates, has far more respect for the suffering of the indigenous people of his homeland — not to mention refugees. The Republican Party is about to simultaneously implode and explode in one giant Trumpocpalypse.

And to top it all off, police conducted anti-terror raids in Melbourne’s north-west that led to the arrest of one suspect who was charged with preparing or planning a terrorist act and collecting or making documents likely to facilitate a terrorist attack.

These are extremely serious charges, so serious that the Herald Sun will have splashed the face of suspect Phillip Galea across its front page with a headline, “TERROR” — below which, in smaller letters, the words “IN OUR SUBURBS”. Today’s Herald Sun will no doubt have a six-page wrap-around featuring articles detailing:

  • Galea’s criminal history, including time served for possessing weapons; 
  • His history of involvement in extremist groups that have, in the past few decades, posed a threat to Australians of Chinese, Taiwanese, Singaporean, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, etc, heritage; 
  • The activities of groups like Reclaim Australia and the True Blue Crew including video on their Facebook page showing them using iron bars to smash heads “one leftie at a time”; 
  • Discussions among political leaders and security experts on the groups being declared terrorist organisations; 
  • Links between Australian right-wing extremists and similar groups in the United Kingdom, United States, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Greece, etc; and 
  • Op-eds from Andrew Bolt and Rita Panahi calling for right-of-centre parties to condemn right-wing extremist groups and their political wings, including Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and the Liberal National Party branches in the Queensland seat of Dawson

I could go on and on about the saturation coverage of the Galea arrest across Australian press and the discussion it should arouse among pundits and pollies. But I won’t bother. Just buy yourself a copy of the Herald Sun, the Daily Tele or whatever paper suits your fancy. You’ll find hardly any coverage. 



Galea is no small fish in the Australian far right. Almost all the videos posted to the True Blue Crew’s facebook page were linked to WordPress blog RA Media. Many posts on that blog are authored by Galea, including one post welcoming the return of Pauline Hanson.

Last November, Galea pleaded guilty to possessing five Tasers and a quantity of mercury just days before an anti-immigration rally.

We don’t really know exactly what Galea was planning to do. The accused hasn’t been tried, and he should be granted the benefit of the presumption of innocence, not to mention quality legal representation and access to legal aid. And I would have much preferred Galea was charged under conventional criminal law instead of the new parallel criminal injustice system reserved for vaguely defined “terrorist acts”.

But what of those who agree with him on key issues relating to social cohesion, a key element of our national security? What about those who, like Galea, are right of centre, who want to end or curtail immigration of certain groups, who are against halal meat and/or new mosques? What about those who insist on a rock-solid link between Muslims — their religious and cultural identities — and terrorism?



Will we see the likes of Pauline Hanson, George Christensen, Cory Bernardi, Fred Nile, etc, loudly condemn Galea and his ilk? What about Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman, Rita Panahi, Miranda Devine, Janet Albrechtsen, Alan Jones, etc? Will they acknowledge that their political theology has a problem with extremism and extremist violence?

When will moderate conservatives march through the streets protesting and loudly condemning violent extremism in their ranks?

Pfft. As if Australia’s white conservative elites will ever accept the possibility that one of their own could be a terrorist.

First published in Crikey on 08 August 2016.

CRIKEY: Great, polygamy-promoting Keysar Trad now ‘representing’ Australian Muslims


Keysar Trad has finally hit the big time. Are his PR skills up to the challenge?




Chicago comic Azhar Usman tells a story of trying to convince his workmate to adopt the Islamic faith. The friend is reluctant. The friend says:
I’m not a huge fan of organised religion.
To which Azhar responds:
Hey, man. You need to become an American Muslim. We’re the most disorganised religion on earth!
Australia is no exception. These days, if you’re an Aussie Muslim wishing to find out what’s going on in peak Muslim bodies or Muslim independent schools, you need to have a subscription to Crikey, The Australian (other than the opinion page, though opinion and reportage generally go together) or read a Fairfax paper or the Guardian Australia. For instance, last week the Oz ran a piece on the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) headlined
Muslim leader stands down amid school brawl.
Apart from a court order, I couldn’t see much evidence of a “brawl” in the article. The headline seemed as outrageous as the 160-odd readers’ comments at the end, one of which read:
To soon? OK. I will try again after another slaughter of innocents on Australian soil.
Good to see that comment passed the moderation guidelines of
... anything prejudiced against any religion ...
and
... inflammatory and which will not positively further debate ...
not to mention
... poor spelling.
AFIC’s own website provided little by way of clarification. You can download the latest edition of the group’s magazine (dated January 2015), the annual report from 2014 or catch up on the latest press release, from March 27, 2016, concerning the Brussels attack.

Anyway, back to the school brawl. It appears that the president of AFIC, Hafez Kassem, has resigned. Kassem was relatively media shy. His replacement, however, doesn’t have that problem. Incoming president Keysar Trad is a man you have definitely heard of — unless you’ve just arrived on our planet.



Suffice it to say that Trad’s PR skills need some fine-tuning. More unkind folk may suggest the man is a walking, talking media stereotype. Seriously, every religion has its embarrassing bits. Which raises a simple question: why on earth does Keysar Trad have to bring up a proposal to change marriage laws to allow men to take on more than one mother-in-law?

Such as in 2008 when he told a journalist that he felt the urge to take on a second wife when his existing one was overseas. Or at the 2009 Festival of Dangerous ideas, when he spoke on why polygamy was good for Australia. Or in 2010, when he spoke about polygamy in the context of Centrelink payments. Or in 2012, when he argued laws should be changed to allow polygamy. Or, indeed, when he wrote on the topic for Crikey.

Then there is Trad’s volunteer work as translator and adviser to former Mufti Sheikh Hilali. At times, Trad’s translating skills have been found wanting, as Monica Attard discovered some years back. 

Back in those days, despite being the media’s go-to man for journalists too lazy to approach a woman for comment, Trad’s standing in Muslim circles was limited to being the president of the “Islamic Friendship Society”, which held regular meetings around his dinner table and whose members likely had the same surname.

But now Trad has hit the big time, able to spout his theories on polygamy as titular head of Australian Islam. True, AFIC doesn’t itself have the best reputation among governments and parents paying top dollar to send their kids to AFIC-run schools.

But more important is the problem that anything and everything to do with Islam is seen through the prism of national security, terrorism, radicalisation, etc. It’s a dangerous and divisive narrative that benefits extremists on all sides.

Is Keysar Trad someone who can meet the challenge of challenging the narrative, of defying the stereotype? Can he resist the urge to speak to every journalist who contacts him, to appear on every TV show, to comment on any and every controversy?

First published in Crikey on 02 August 2016

Friday, October 13, 2017

CRIKEY: Abetz should look in his own Nazi backyard before comparing refugees to terrorists


If comparing Eric Abetz to the Nazis is "unAustralian", what is comparing refugees to terrorists?



In the author’s note at the conclusion of his gorgeous book of Jewish refugee stories Cafe Scheherazade, Melbourne author Arnold Zable humanises the refugee experience, writing:
Whenever I hear of another outbreak of conflict somewhere on the globe, whenever I see images of columns of refugees snaking across war-ravaged landscapes, my thoughts turn back to the tales of survivors, living in Melbourne, many of whom I have known since my childhood.
Many of these refugees almost didn’t make it. Public opinion in Australia during the late 1940s viewed these desperate men and women, many victims of Nazi death camps, in much the same way as the Andrew Bolts and Rita Panahis and Piers Akermans of today regard asylum seekers from modern conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, etc — as queue jumpers, potential terrorists, people unable to integrate, people who represent a threat to our way of life and our security.
You wouldn’t expect Senator Eric Abetz to join in this chorus of guilt by association. As the child of German migrants, Abetz knows what it’s like to be tarred with the same brush as the kind of war criminals and mass murderers who make Islamic State look like apprentices. Unlike most Muslim migrants of today and Jewish migrants of yesteryear, Abetz has a direct link to the Nazi regime. His great-uncle Otto Abetz was German ambassador to the Vichy regime and was responsible for sending untold number of French and North African Jews to their deaths.


Otto Abetz served time as a war criminal after being convicted in 1949. His grand-nephews Eric and Peter became Liberal Party politicians. Peter, a West Australian MP, believes his great-uncle did some good things as ambassador, most notably saving Paris from Allied bombing. Eric, on the other hand, dissociates himself completely from the war criminal whose death in a car accident took place in the year Eric was born.

Eric Abetz is sensitive about this issue. He said in 2008:
I think most reasonable Australians would regard any attempt to slur me by association with such a distant relative as completely unfair and, if I might say so, unAustralian.
But now Abetz is happy to endorse the slurs of his staffer and ACT Young Liberal president Josh Manuatu for a piece penned for the (less readable Australian edition of) The Spectator. The article argues that Channel Nine Today host Sonia Kruger was “right” to argue Muslim migrants should be banned, and that Australia should “carefully consider” her proposal.

Why? Because Muslims and Middle Easterners (including, presumably, Egyptian Copts, Lebanese Maronites and Israeli Jews) treat women and gay people very badly. Which I guess means Muslim migration needs to be reviewed or curtailed or basically … er … banned?

I have to agree with the fact that there are lots of cases where women aren’t treated nicely in Muslim societies. But some Australian women aren’t treated very nicely by their husbands and partners. An Australian woman has a much greater chance of being terrorised by her male partner than by IS.

But I wonder how nice the Nazis were to women and gays. Should we be worried about Germans with Nazi backgrounds migrating to Australia?

Will Manuatu write a similar piece stating persons of Nazi heritage or direct links not be allowed into Australia? Will Abetz endorse such an article?

Abetz says he isn’t proud of his family background, and he isn’t happy when his Nazi great-uncle is raised. Which raises the question: has he ever wondered how I and my family must feel when we are judged by Abetz and his staffer to the Nazified nutcases we know and hate as IS?

I don’t know much about my ancestors. I’ve been told my family are direct descendants of the last poet laureate of the Mughal Empire, Mirza Ghalib, whose poetry is celebrated in India and Pakistan even today.


Abetz came to Australia when he was three years old. I was a mere five months old when I arrived here with my family in 1970. My father had taken up a role as a junior academic. He worked hard and was last year awarded an Order of Australia.

I’m extraordinarily proud of my father. I doubt I could achieve as much as he has, notwithstanding all the benefits of being brought up here, not having to leave loved ones behind.

In primary school, I was incessantly bullied, labelled a “boong” and an “Abbo”. My father taught me to fight them back, to give as good as you get, to not just stand there and take it. With that in mind, my question to Abetz is this: just how unAustralian is it to compare migrants who, among other things, happen to have Muslim heritage to terrorists who relish murdering them and their families? Should my family be compared to IS or the Pakistani Taliban? Should I?

With all due respect, Senator Abetz. I won’t be lectured to by the grand-nephew of a convicted Nazi war criminal about my alleged links to terrorism.

First published in Crikey on 26 July 2016.

Monday, October 09, 2017

CRIKEY: The two men at the centre of the bloodshed in Turkey


Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen's rivalry extends to Australia.




Turkey is going through a period of potentially divisive transition. Its political and religious identity is up for grabs. And its substantial diaspora communities — in Germany, North America and Australia, among other places — are not immune.

The coup has been blamed on followers Fethullah Gulen — a Pennsylvania-based imam and businessman who has for years rivalled Erdogan for influence over the style and shape of Turkey’s democratic Islamism. It’s a struggle that reaches well beyond Turkey’s shores, even to Australia, where the Turkish government provides imams to Turkish mosques.

In Australia, a large number of mosques are managed by Turkish communities. These include not only established metropolitan mosques across Sydney and Melbourne but also in regional NSW and Queensland.

The Diyanet (Turkish Ministry of Religion) provides imams to most of these mosques and pays their wages. This gives Turkish mosques a huge financial advantage over their cash-strapped equivalents from other ethnic groups. However, few Diyanet imams stay in Australia for any length of time beyond a few years.

But also having a strong presence in Turkish communities are the secular Gulen schools and university faculties. The Gulen movement (known as Hizmet or “social service”) is believed to have links with independent non-denominational schools in Sydney and Melbourne, which are popular with Turkish parents. In addition to this, the movement has entered into arrangements with universities in NSW and Victoria.

Gulen is a former state imam and Islamist. But he is also a committed democrat who rose to prominence through his sermons in state mosques. He fled to the United States in 1999 after being accused in Turkey of Islamic extremism. 

Gulen and Erdogan were, for a time, allies. But in recent years, their views on Turkish Islamism have become clashed. Three years ago, the leaking of documents exposing the Turkish government’s corruption was blamed on Gulen’s supporters. Since then, the government has taken over several media outlets and educational institutions linked to Gulen in Turkey. And yesterday, Turkey’s prime minister Binali Yildirim sent the United States a request to extradite Gulen, who Yildrim called a “terrorist chief”, over his suspected role in the coup.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is very popular in Turkey — and his popularity has increased after the coup. A Istanbul-based political science academic and expert on Turkey’s diaspora, who asked Crikey not to name him given the increasingly dangerous situation for critics of Erdogan in Turkey, said the crowds supporting Erdogan over the weekend reflected
... all the colours in this alliance: Islamists, conservative nationalists, followers of various Sufi orders, extreme nationalists … all are now worshipping Erdogan.
The academic thinks from now on, criticising Erdogan will mean siding with the failed coup, and against the will of the people.

In Turkey’s diaspora, the divisions mirror those in Turkey. And tensions are rising. In Germany, supporters of Erdogan attacked a school associated with Gulen in the wake of the failed coup. And in Colorado, those in the local Gulen movement say they have also been made targeted by supporters of Erdogan.

In Australia, suspicions about Gulen’s influence have generally been limited to more paranoid sources. In the US, querying Gulen lobbying activities has been a much more mainstream affair.

Given the large, perhaps disproportional and largely ignored influence Turkish religious institutions have among Australian Muslim groups, relations between pro- and anti-Gulen forces will be something worth keeping an eye on.

First published in Crikey on 20 July 2016.


CRIKEY: News Corp gumshoe Sharri Markson does serious jernalisms on toddlers’ hair



News Corp senior writer Sharri Markson has whipped up a brand new scare campaign against Muslims based on the practice of toddlers wearing hijabs.

Ramadan is the month of spiritual miracles. This year, it was especially miraculous in Australia as the imams managed to get their act together and declare that the lunar month would end on the same day. Normally, the month begins and ends on separate days, depending on your mosque. For example, the mosque serving your ethnicity (assuming you have a single ethnicity, which has its own mosque) could determine Ramadan by resorting to a calendar, or it could do it by sighting the moon with the naked eye.

Still, it’s not every day that you see 50,000 Muslims performing their Eid prayers on Haldon Street, Lakemba. Mostly these are the people who don’t turn up to the mosque at any other time of year. This year, The Australian sent its senior writer Sharri Markson to cover the event. In one report, she advised that

... toddlers have begun wearing the hijab as Australian Muslims follow a global trend of younger children covering their hair. 

Did you read that, punters? A global trend. That’s a bold claim to make. To establish such a trend, you’d need to do a huge quantitative and qualitative study across not just the 180-plus ethnicities that make up Australian Muslims but also Muslims across the planet, including the 20%-plus of Muslims living as minorities in everywhere from India to Taiwan to our cousins across the dutch.

Did Markson ask some women about this? There were 50,000 people there, and my guess is at least one-quarter would have been women. On unfairly conservative estimates, perhaps half would have spoken English as their first language. So Markson could have asked any one of 6250 women and girls.

She might well have, but not one is quoted in her story. She might have gone to any number of mosques in Sydney catering for other ethnic groups, including groups where women only cover their hair during the actual prayer time and/or when listening to the scripture being recited, not just for an hour or so after emerging from the mosque. She might have joined my parents at the Urdu-speaking mosque in Rooty Hill and sat with my mum and all the other south Asian women with their hair loose draped with translucent “dupatta“, which would quickly be removed as soon as the prayer was over. 



But why would you do that when you can speak to Keysar Trad, a controversial imam and the former president of a peak body with a bombastic name? Interestingly, none of her sources confirmed Markson’s claim that Muslim toddlers and girls across the world are increasingly covering their hair. 

In her other article, Markson was most disappointed that NSW Premier Mike Baird

... failed to condemn the community leader’s inflammatory remarks. 

And what were the inflammatory remarks of the President of the Lebanese Muslim Association? Muslims felt under siege from Muslim-phobic politicians, felt vulnerable to bigotry and hatred and were subject to

... divisive and toxic policy decisions. 

Gosh, how inflammatory can you get!

And worse still,

... [n]one addressed the issue of radicalisation, focusing instead on Islamophobia and racism. 

Terrible. You’d think a Muslim leader would use the occasion of Eid to read out Andrew Bolt columns.

Being the awesome investigative reporter that she is, Markson wasn’t content:
“Mr Baird refused to condemn Mr Dandan’s remarks when contacted after the ceremony. ‘There were a number of other speakers but the Premier won’t be doing any commentary on their contributions,’ his spokesman said. 
Asked why he spoke about ­racial vilification towards the Muslim community but did not use the opportunity in front of 40,000 people to discuss radicalisation or terrorism, Mr Baird’s spokesman said ‘there were many subjects the Premier did not mention in his remarks, which occupied less than three minutes’.”
Seriously, one of the toddlers in a hijab or dupatta could have told Markson that.

First published in Crikey on 8 July 2016.


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

COMMENT: The Australian's Opinion Page editor explains ...

Some years back, I made a pitch to the Opinion Page editor of The Australian. I was proposing to write an article criticising the prosecution of Mark Steyn in Canada. I received this response:

Irfan,


Are you sure you want to be published in “an American-owned newspaper known as The Australian” by the “interim” opinion editor who published “the kind of rhetoric that hardly six-and-a-half decades ago justified some of her distant relatives to be sent to the gas chambers”?


Rebecca Weisser
Opinion Page Editor
The Australian
Tel: +61 2 9288 ####
Fax: +61 2 9288 ****
Mob: +61 (0) 4## ### ###
Email: weisserr@theaustralian.com.au
Editorial Department
2 Holt Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
Australian [sic.]

Wow. Such objectivity. Such professionalism.

I've made a few pitches to her since then. Just for a lark.