Friday, May 25, 2018

CRIKEY: Sorry, Malcolm, but multicultural Australia is not ‘united, strong, successful’



And guess whose fault that is?


And so, on Harmony Day, our erstwhile PM launched a document entitled Multicultural Australia: United, Strong, Successful. And what a colourful, sexy document it is: full of the smiling faces of people from different backgrounds and of all ages, all sharing their own or ancestral stories of struggle — full of wonderful talk about values, visions and all that jazz.

So is the document’s title correct? Upon reading the title of this 16-page document, I couldn’t help but say to myself: “Yep, minus the bigotry of many News Corp columnists and the strength of One Nation, etc, etc, and the emphasis placed on repealing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (a provision that hasn’t stopped the earlier nasty stuff, and whose effect is largely overcome by section 18D) and the paranoia about terrorism that has led to some 65 pieces of legislation since 2005 creating a parallel system of criminal law … minus all that, yes we are a multicultural Australia, which is probably more united, strong and successful than any other Western nation, except perhaps Canada.”

OK, I didn’t literally say all that to myself.

The statement really is a nifty document, short on specifics and high on restating values we already know but rarely see from the Coalition and their friends (at least at election time) in One Nation. The document spoke about the “glue that holds us together is mutual respect — a deep recognition that each of us is entitled to the same respect, the same dignity”. Indeed. And, in the words of our Attorney-General, the same “right to be bigots”.



Under the subheading “Shared vision for the future”, we read about the government continuing to promote “the principle of mutual respect and denouncing racial hatred and discrimination as incompatible with Australian society”. Then on page 19 we read: “… racism and discrimination undermine our society. We condemn people who incite racial hatred.” Unless, of course, if they are supported by the Institute of Public Affairs, the editorial bosses at News Corp, Coalition backbenchers, anti-halal/kosher certification freaks and/or the tiny number of people who read Quadrant. In this case, we will bend over backwards and change the law to suit their need to be as bigoted as they already can be under the law we are hell-bent on changing.

Of course, some of Australia’s neighbours don’t exactly have sterling records in this area. Malaysia’s special treatment for bumiputera (indigenous Malays) over everyone else (including non-Malay Muslims) is appalling. The campaign for the governor of Jakarta has involved overt racial and religious prejudice of a rather un-Islamic kind by influential Muslim preachers targeting a Chinese Christian candidate who is an ally to the current Indonesian President. I doubt it was that bad for Western Sydney Labor MP Ed Husic when anonymous flyers were circulated through the electorate of Greenway in the 2004 election.

Getting back to multiculturalism, I think it’s a bit much to say that it is all about values and vision. Historically, multiculturalism was a policy introduced to help persons with little English to access government services. Interestingly, most of these people were part of the post-War wave of European migration and had lived in Australia for decades, working their elbows to the bone in factories and infrastructure projects and not having the time to learn the local lingo.

Oh, and guess what: multicultural policies in Australia have always been regarded as a means to an end, not as an end in themselves. And what is that end?

Integration.



In a Commonwealth parliamentary research paper published in 2010, Elsa Koleth notes:
James Jupp points out that Australian multicultural policies have always been premised on the supremacy of existing institutions and values and the primacy of the English language, while placing less emphasis on cultural maintenance beyond the immigrant generation ...
As the report notes on page 7, our population comes from over three hundred ancestries, including indigenous peoples with over two hundred and fifty different language groups. We’ve been multicultural for at least 50,000 years. So why tag all this national identity stuff onto what is essentially Australia’s multicultural reality and status quo? Is it the role of multiculturalism to save us from nasty terrorists and even nastier boat people?

And what’s the point of preaching multiculturalism and anti-racism and all that stuff (while you demonise desperate asylum seekers), when you change the law just to please powerful reactionary pseudo-conservatives, and when you take steps to marginalise and alienate young people you think are prone to “radicalisation”?​

First published in Crikey on 23 March 2017.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

CRIKEY: The Australian declares war on Yassmin Abdel-Magied, misses the point again

For some reason, Caroline Overington, in her attacks on Yassmin Abdel-Magied in The Australian, cannot seem to understand this whole idea of soft diplomacy.


 

In 2008, I went to an event at Gleebooks, an independent bookshop in Sydney’s inner west. The British Council and High Commission was putting on a do for a visiting author of conservative bent. The book was, in parts, entertaining but also included some rather sexist material. (Toward the end of the book, the author wrote about a female friend of his and made specific mention of the size of her posterior growing larger since the last time he saw her.) Still, that didn’t stop the British taxpayer from forking out some dosh, just as they would do for any author or performer or artist whose work suits their soft diplomacy interests. In the case of the present author, perhaps the book suited some “deradicalisation of young Muslims” purpose.

DFAT and Australian embassies do the same. As with all activities of DFAT, it all comes out of our pocket. Soft diplomacy, soft power, person-to-person contact, whatever you wish to call it. Australian artists and writers visit various places to collaborate with other articles via a host of programs run by universities as well as DFAT sections such as the Australia Indonesia Institute. Now I am no sycophant of Indonesia, especially when it comes to the treatment of Christian politicians like Ahok. But I learned a hell of a lot about the religious cultures and civil society organisations of our closest Muslim-majority neighbour when I visited Indonesia on a DFAT-funded junket in January 2006. As did the five other Australians who joined me.

So why am I saying all this? Because, for some reason, Caroline Overington of The Australian cannot seem to understand this whole idea of soft diplomacy. After a robust shouting match on Q&A over sharia between engineer Yassmin Abdel-Magied and independent Senator Jacqui Lambie on Monday evening, Overington decided on Thursday to run a front-page “scoop” headlined “Taxpayers billed for Q&A activist’s grand tour of Islamic regimes“.

A terrific culture-war story for The Australian‘s diminishing readership. It has all the ingredients: the wretched Q&A, the nasty ABC, the satanic Tony Jones and the nasty religion whose adherents make up a frightening 25% of humanity. But seriously, reading the story made me wonder what all the fuss was about. It was hardly a scoop. Overington herself notes that the not-so-grant tour was promoted “last November”. That’s three months ago.

Overington is especially upset about the fact that Abdel-Magied visited these nasty brutal regimes while claiming on Q&A that she saw Islam as “the most feminist religion”. Now, I’m no women’s activist, but I felt a bit perturbed about Abdel-Magied’s claim. True, in an ideal Islamic world, things might work out well for the Muslim ladies. But in reality, most Middle Eastern women aren’t enjoying the freedoms that Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Jacqui Lambie and Caroline Overington do here.

But it was almost as if Overington were arguing that someone with Abdel-Magied’s beliefs should not be sent by DFAT. What kind of woman should they send, then? Kirralie whatserface from the Q Society? Janet Albrechtsen? Andrew Bolt?

Overington discusses at length the awful treatment of women in the countries Abdel-Magied visited. This is all public knowledge, and Overington may ask herself why Abdel-Magied, her family, my mum, my siblings, me, my nephew and my nephew’s dog refuse to live in any of these places.

Still, the fact remains that we have to have relations with these nations. Overington’s employer was once partly owned by a Saudi prince. A fair few Australians do business with these places. Our food exports help shore up food security in the region, despite our insistence on fighting unpopular wars there, and pursuing a foreign policy that is despised across the region.

These nations also need to feel secure that not all Australian kids are ready to join Islamic State. Yes, the entire Middle East despises IS. Does sending a smart young lady in her mid-20s who works as an engineer on an oil rig to talk up Australia’s treatment of its Arabs/Sudanese/Egyptians/Muslims make sense? Clearly DFAT thought so. As DFAT told Overington:
Yassmin Abdel-Magied­ visited a number of countries in the Middle East to promote Australia as an open, innovative, democratic and diverse nation. She met youth representatives, scientists, entrepreneurs, women’s groups and others.
Soft diplomacy is money well spent. Perhaps Overington could learn some herself.

First published in Crikey on 17 February 2017.

CRIKEY: Iranian revolutionary leaves a complicated legacy


The guy was the wiliest of wily politicians who co-authored the constitution that created the revolutionary government.


Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani casts his ballot for the parliamentary elections in front of a portrait of late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini 

It was 1979. I was in year 4 at Ryde East Primary School. Something terrible happened. It was called a “revolution” and was all over the TV news, which, back in those days, I only watched because I was forced to. It took place in Iran, a country next door to my dad’s country and one whose name I always remembered because it sounded so much like my own.

Before this, Iran had been a really good place where everyone liked America, drank alcohol and dressed all modern and stuff. They had a nice handsome-looking king, but they overthrew him in favour of a bearded man named Ruhollah Khomeini with big nasty beady eyes whose colleagues also sported beards and wore black coats with black turbans. These guys rarely smiled, and their young followers used to scream death to America and death to Israel.

I wouldn’t have known it at the time, but one of the nasty black-cloaked dudes standing with Khomeini and whispering advice into his ear was a pistachio farmer named Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. He died on Sunday, and his legacy will remain for decades o come.

Five years later, as my interest in political Islam grew, there weren’t too many religious books available in English. We didn’t have the internet, and media sources were also limited. Yet whether you watched Eyewitness News on Channel Ten or read the three-in-one rice paper weekly consisting of The Guardian, Le Monde and The Washington Post, the news on Iran was never nice. Our local mosques and imams also didn’t have nice things to say about Iran, despite being all cheery about the Afghan jihadists battling the nasty communists. And the only Iranian voices we ever heard were from those who were fleeing the Shah and the Islamic regime.

But any kid interested in political Islam had to learn about the Iranian Revolution. For these early years, the voice of relative sanity among the Iranian regime was Rafsanjani. Whether American diplomats were being taken hostage by Iranian students or American journalists kidnapped for seven years by pro-Iranian militias in Beirut or the same militias engaging in suicide attacks against Israeli troops, Rafsanjani was always being presented as the good guy. Yet the reality was that such violent excesses were unlikely to have happened without Rafsanjani’s acquiescence or at least knowledge. 

The guy was the wiliest of wily politicians and co-authored the constitution that created the revolutionary government before holding just about every major leadership position. Among the positions he held was commander in chief of the armed forces during the 1980-88 war with Iraq. Perhaps the best (and funniest) account of the effects of the war on Iranians living near the Iraqi border can be found in Good Muslim Boy, the memoir of Iranian-Iraqi-Australian actor and author Osamah Sami.

Rafsanjani wasn’t terribly liked by ethnic and religious minorities, including those of the same faith. He also is believed to have played a role in having Iranian dissidents in Europe assassinated, and also was involved in an attack on a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires. At the same time, while speaker of the Iranian parliament, Rafsanjani oversaw a system in which Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians had seats reserved for them.

After the war, Rafsanjani was elected president. He held that position twice before losing to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s very own version of Donald Trump, in 2005. Hopefully for the world, we won’t be seeing an Iranian Trump win the 2017 Iranian presidential elections.

Rafsanjani went onto hold other influential positions. He also founded a university and wrote a 20-volume commentary of the Koran.

How will he be remembered? Iraqis, including devout Iraqi Shia, will recall him as the man who led a war effort against their country even as they resented Saddam Hussein. Lebanese and Israelis will remember Rafsanjani as the man who gave them Hezbollah. Militias claiming to represent Syria’s Sunni majority will remember Rafsanjani as wavering over Iran’s support for the Syrian regime.

And young Iranians? For them, Rafsanjani was a key leader of Iran’s self-styled Islamic Revolution. This remains at heart an ideological revolution even if most people it rules over have never seen the ideological and political struggles of the revolution’s founders. They have never seen the repression of the Shah, but experience on a daily basis arguably lesser repression of the theocrats. These young people never saw Rafsanjani imprisoned and tortured by Iran’s US-backed Shah and his vicious Israeli-trained SAVAK secret police. They are young people who don’t resent Western culture in the manner of Rafsanjani’s generation. And they are unlikely to share in the millions, which Rafsanjani and his family amassed during his time holding various positions in the revolutionary regime.

First published in Crikey on 12 January 2017.

Friday, May 04, 2018

CRIKEY: Guess who’s coming to $150-a-head anti-Islam dinner?


Who on Earth would turn up to Kirralie Smith's "Defending Freedom of Speech Halal Choices" fundraiser? Spoiler: it's Bernardi. And Christensen. And attention-starved Ross Cameron.


The other day my mate and I went to Nissin World Delicatessen, a popular supermarket for expats in central Tokyo. In the meat section, I saw imported meats from Australia, the United States and New Zealand. The Kiwis do roaring business here in Japan, and the huge, loud halal signs don’t seem to worry anyone. In this majority Buddhist nation, and even among its expatriate community (many of whom would be nominally Christian), the idea of eating the flesh of a cow or lamb slaughtered in the name of Allah isn’t going to lead to a House of Councillors inquiry.

The same is largely true in Australia (apart from the futile Senate inquiry into kosher and halal certification). Indeed, most halal-related litigation Muslims involves halal butchers suing halal certifiers, halal certifiers suing other certifiers and religious bodies seeking to enforce contracts in which certifiers promise to pay some stipend. Halal v Halal.

But now Australia’s fractured far right has joined the halal fray, largely a case of yesterday’s anti-Semites becoming today’s anti-Halalcertifites. As Dr Shakira Hussein notes, kosher certification was once used as a means to attack America’s Jewish minority. Now the same racist themes are being used to attack halal certification and the tiny minority of Australians who identify as Muslim, including ones like me who are happy to eat halal-uncertified McDonald’s in Tokyo.

Kirralie Smith and her colleagues from the Q Society/Halal Choices/Australian Liberty Alliance have found themselves defendants in a defamation claim brought by one of Australia’s major players in the halal meat game. Smith posted a video on Facebook headlined “Mosques promote bigotry. Islam is divisive”. She mispronounces the name of the dreaded faith as “Izlaam”, claiming that it isn’t a religion in the same way as Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism or Christianity. She claims Islam is a “totalitarian ideology” with both political and military aspirations. She also says that we don’t want people who behave violently against those who disagree with them.



But Smith has come across a Muslim businessman who prefers not to get angry but instead to use the non-sharia civil law system via defamation proceedings. She needs every dollar to defend the court case and has organised public events in early February in Sydney and Melbourne to raise funds. For just $150 you get

... a sparkling welcome, a variety of fine finger food and a generous serve of free speech. Article 19 UDHR applies. Drinks at bar prices. 

And where does the money go? The promotional material states:

All proceeds and donations go towards the legal expenses incurred by Q Society of Australia Inc, Kirralie Smith, Debbie Robinson et al. in the defamation action initiated by Mr Mohamed El-Mouehly (Halal Certification Authority Pty Ltd) before the NSW Supreme Court.

It continues:

This is a landmark case with considerable ramifications for freedom of expression in Australia.

How does litigation pursued in accordance with a jurisdiction legislated in Australia since 1847 have considerable ramifications for freedom of speech?

Indeed, how often do you see senators and MPs involved in fundraising for one side or the other in a free speech case? Even in the case of Danny Nalliah’s defence of religious vilification claims brought by the Islamic Council of Victoria, entertainingly covered by Hanifa Deen’s book The Jihad Seminar, Peter Costello delivered an Australia Day message to a meeting organised by Nalliah and had been the recipient of Nalliah’s prayers, but that’s about it.

Peter Costello also won’t be on the podium of the ALA event. Neither will Danny Nalliah or Fred Nile or even Pauline Hanson, who has campaigned heavily on Islam-related stuff (from halal meat certification to sharia law to toilets in the Tax Office building). No one from the United Patriots Front or the Reclaim Australia mob will be present.



Indeed, were it not for the presence of Cory Bernardi and George Christensen, the event would hardly have been worth reporting on. This event is more conspicuous by who will be absent than present. The Islamophobic space in Australia has some powerful media and political backers. But its hardliners are deeply divided, mirroring the divisions in the Australian far right, for which hatred of Muslims has replaced hatred of Asians and Jews and other “Others”.

In the electoral stakes, at 0.66% of NSW Senate votes Kirralie Smith came well behind One Nation (4.1%), Fred Nile (2.7%) but ahead of Danny Nalliah’s Rise Up Australia Party (0.17%). When it comes to the “Islam-critical” sector, as John Howard once never said,

The things that divide us are more important than the things that unite us. 

Instead of other prominent Muslimphobes, Shariaphobes and Halalphobes, the podium will include a crime writer, an ageing hard rocker and some bloke named Ross Cameron. And now a couple of Coalition backbenchers.

First published in Crikey on 10 January 2017.