Saturday, August 20, 2005

Giving Voice to Liberal Extremists

The PM says he will not talk to extremists of a faith community. Fair enough. The Opposition leader says that all persons in a faith community should be consulted. Fair enough.

The debate on religious extremism is an issue of national security. Extremists try to create violence and conflict, and generate support for violence overseas. They have an extreme agenda and seek to marginalise themselves and their presumed opponents. The views of extremists are not consistent with those of mainstream Australia.

If Mr Howard’s rhetoric on extremism was consistently applied to all religious groups, we could take him seriously. If Mr Howard’s party members applied the policy in practice, I could take him seriously.

Yet I am a disgruntled Liberal Party member who has been sidelined and maligned by religious extremists inside the Liberal Party.

In 2001, I stuck my neck out in difficult circumstances and ran as a Liberal candidate for a safe ALP seat of Reid. The election took place in the context of Australia’s involvement in the war against terrorism. Australian troops were in Afghanistan, and the news was saturated with images of September 11 and video footage of Osama bin Ladin and other al-Qaida operatives.

I took a risk. I was verbally (and in some cases almost physically) attacked and maligned by many fellow Muslim Australians. My legal practise was compromised and my health suffered. I succumbed to a virus that led to my having to take 18 months off for illness some 3 months later.

To this day, many Muslim Aussies criticise me for standing as a Liberal candidate. Ironically, many Afghan asylum seekers (especially Hazaras and Tajiks) were happy with me.

It was during this campaign that I met the uncle of 2 girls killed when a leaky boat carrying asylum seekers sank and many drowned. An Afghan Muslim activist, Mehbooba Rawi, set up the meeting for me. She wanted to me hear the story of a traumatised Muslim Australian man and take it to the highest levels.

I heard the man’s story. I was devastated. The man was depressed, in tears, finding words difficult to come by. I sat there in the eerie silence of the Park Road mosque in Auburn listening to this man whose heart spoke louder than his tongue.

I could not hold back. I telephoned the NSW Liberal Party State Director, Scott Morrison. I pleaded with him to let me say something. Or at least to arrange a meeting of the PM with this man.

ME: Scott, we have to do something about this. Seriously, we have to speak out. I have to. Forget politics. This is human life.”

Mr Morrison was adamant.

SM: No, Irf, no way. You can’t do this. You have to stay silent on this. Trust me on this one. This is all part of the strategy. These people could have been terrorists.

IY: But John, this guy is an Australian citizen. His two teenage nieces drowned. Why can’t he speak to his own PM?”

SM: Irf, forget it. If you so much as say one word about this, the PM will publicly disendorse you. You saw what happened to others. You could be next.

IY: Why can’t we give voice to this guy? He is opposed to the Taliban. His family fled the Taliban.

SM: I know, Irf. I hear what you’re saying. But mate, you have to understand. You and I both hate Pauline Hanson. Part of this election is about burying Pauline. We do that by looking like her.

So there you have it. A key electoral strategist was telling me that I could not raise the concerns of a Muslim Australian citizen. So much for grassroots politics. So much for humanity. So much for liberalism.

I did raise the issue. I did go to the press about it. I did speak openly about how I felt about all this. I did express my sympathy with the man and with thousands of other Afghan and Iraqi Australians who felt demonised in this war on terror. I did express their emotions, even if others wanted to silence me.

And I did this without Scott Morrison even knowing about it. I sat down with the editors of an Urdu newspaper and we drafted an advert. There was me on the back page of the “Overseas Weekly”, my big ugly mugshot hiding the physique of a beached whale. And there I was telling anyone who could read Urdu that I would make sure these kinds of policies were overturned.

Did anyone in the Liberal campaign team find out? Yeah, right! As if they could read Urdu. But most Afghans, Iranians, Iraqis and Pakistanis could. Many showed up on election day to my headquarters at the Nezahet Sufi bookshop. They handed out “how to vote” material for the Liberal Party. Actually, they handed it out for me.

Interestingly enough, I could see some of them cutting up the “how to vote” papers. I asked them why they did this. The paper had a mugshot of me on one side, looking like a Turkish used car salesman. On the other side was John Howard.

“We only want your photo there. We don’t want to see Howard.”

I had to give them a long lecture about electoral laws before they put the scissors away.

Reid voters must have been stunned to see so many Afghans and Iraqis handing out for me at the polling booths. It was these asylum seekers who helped me gain a 5.1% swing on a 2-party preferred basis for the PM. It was these asylum seekers who enabled Coalition Senators from NSW to win easily. People like Senator Marise Payne owe their political existence to these brave men and women.

© Irfan Yusuf 2005