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.