Thursday, July 28, 2016

POLITICS: How Turnbull can avoid Howard's mistakes in alienating Muslims

A few imams do not represent Australian Muslims. Here are the people Turnbull should really be talking to.
A 15-year-old boy has murdered an adult in the geographical heart of Sydney. Police believe other teenagers are also involved, as are underworld figures. A 12-year-old is under surveillance. A 22-year-old has been charged with supplying the gun, and an 18-year-old has also been charged in relation to the crime. The appropriate response? Conventional wisdom is that we need to legislate. And we need to talk. In that order.

The conversation we need to have must involve “the Muslim community”. Some say we should talk with them. Others prefer to talk at them. Is it because in our imagination terrorism is necessarily Islamic, and Muslims are usually held collectively responsible? The point is that “we” and “they” need to talk.

Normally we don’t bother talking to them. They are sitting over there in mosques we rarely enter. We assume their women are at home or standing a few metres behind their men when in public. We read about them and their strange culture in our newspapers.


But now there is a greater urgency. Our security is threatened by their teenagers, possibly by their houses of worship and by their negligent parents. And of course by their terrorists. We therefore need to engage with their leaders. No, not academics or professionals or business people. Generally not their women (unless they are the type standing a few metres behind the men). We have to engage with their religious leaders. And we will choose who we speak to.

It’s a patronising narrative, but the fact is governments find it easier to talk to stakeholders and lobbyists. But the structured consultation model doesn’t quite work when you’re talking to 470,000 people coming from over 70 different countries and speaking languages at home that include Bangla, Urdu, Turkish, Arabic, Farsi, Tamil, Vietnamese, Russian and Croatian. Their understanding of religiosity varies. In a recently published book Coming of Age: Growing Up Muslim in Australia, the contributors included writers from at least three out of four Sunni schools of law, a Lebanese Alawi, a Turkish Alevi, a woman of Indian Gujarati Bohra background and an Iranian atheist of Shia heritage. And there was me.

So who represents the Islamic “them”? Malcolm Turnbull will be meeting with a group of people described as “Muslim leaders”. Almost certainly they will be limited to mosque management bodies or councils/federations of mosque management bodies. The Mufti and his interpreter will likely be there. There could be one or two women.
Few will have substantial experience in advocating for their communities to government in a meaningful way (apart from funding applications, and having their photos taken with the immigration minister). The organisations they represent will often have archaic rules. The Lebanese Muslim Association in Lakemba allows full membership only to men of Lebanese heritage. I cannot join, and neither can my mum. Keysar Trad’s Islamic Friendship Association meets each evening around his dinner table. Dr Jamal Rifi has a large medical practice, but then so does every third south Asian.

The main topic of consultation is deradicalisation of young Muslims. And perhaps a discussion on the latest round of anti-terror laws. There won’t be much discussion about the latter as the Prime Minister and Attorney-General have already made up their minds. The leaders (and their interpreters) aren’t capable of engaging with politicians on legal matters.

Former PM John Howard understood this well. After the July 7, 2005, London bombings he set up a round-table discussion with Muslim leaders. Virtually all were male. A fair few spoke little English and had little or no experience in lobbying, public affairs or political engagement. They were largely men of John Howard’s generation, whom he could easily manipulate.


This eventually morphed into a Muslim Community Reference Group (MCRG), which consisted almost exclusively of middle-aged male religious leaders and was chaired by Dr Ameer Ali, then-president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC). In October 2005, Ali claimed the MCRG unanimously supported proposed new counter-terrorism laws before a single clause had been drafted. Howard would have been delighted with such compliant leadership. In fact, no one had any idea of the provisions of the proposed bill until ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope released the draft, much to the consternation of the PM.

Howard’s approach of focusing on religious leaders probably helped the cause of radicalisation. It made imams and religious leaders the public face of Australian Muslims. Mainstream Australians who identified as Muslim and who derived their income and status from mainstream engagement were left out of the picture

On March 26, 2008, the RN Religion Report reported that then-parliamentary secretary for multicultural affairs Laurie Ferguson said the Rudd government was considering reinstating the MCRG, though with
fewer imams, more women and young people, and it will also reflect the sizeable non-religious component of Australian Muslim community.

The focus on youth is natural. We’ve just witnessed a 15-year-old murder someone in broad daylight. We also know groups like Daesh (also known as Islamic State or ISIS) are using social media to actively recruit and influence young people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Yet the last time the self-appointed peak body of Australia’s Muslims made any public comment on an issue was to defend its conduct in relation to the lucrative halal meat certification market on Four Corners

Demographically, Aussie Muslims have a very young profile. The last three census figures show they are over-represented in younger age brackets (up to age 40) and under-represented in older ones. No prizes for guessing which age bracket religious leaders emerge from. They were largely from one denomination (Sunni). Apart from a few that ran independent schools, most had little knowledge of youth affairs.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull can take the cynical route and do a Claytons consultation. Or he can take a leaf out of Laurie Ferguson’s book and search for people of merit by perhaps even inviting applications.

In 2007 Gerard Henderson wrote a monograph for UK conservative think tank Policy Exchange entitled Islam in Australia: Democratic bipartisanship in action. His qualifications to write such are monograph are dubious to say the least, and the document has mysteriously disappeared from the Policy Exchange website. But one valuable point Henderson made in his report was that Australian Muslims are, by and large, as secular and irreligious as most Australian Christians, correctly noting: “Many Australians who regard themselves as followers of Islam do not attend a mosque.” 

Consultations shouldn’t just be with religious Muslim men and imams, most of whom have little influence over kids at risk. Younger people (and not just the relatives of religious leaders who are all too often employed to run government-funded projects for their family fiefdom organisations) should be consulted. Lawyers, doctors, psychologists, journalists, youth workers, sportsmen and women, teachers, entrepreneurs, student leaders, etc. With a focus on people under 40 and people born here and who engage outside the religious square.

When mainstream Australians of Muslim heritage are involved in the process, it will show that with all this talent there are no shortage of role models. It will also show that the hateful mantras of those insisting Muslims “refuse to integrate” are just a load of tabloid refuse.


First published in Crikey on 16 October 2015.