Thursday, October 20, 2005

Right Said Ed - Part 1

It is Thursday morning, 20 October 2005 in Sydney, Australia. The time is exactly 12:52 am. I am up panicking about a talk I have to give later today to the Australian Institute of International Affairs. The topic of my talk is “Muslim Minorities & Conservative Politics in the United States and Australia”.

Thankfully, on the previous night, I attended a similar talk by another Aussie Muslim political apparatchik. Ed Husic addressed the Sydney Institute, a privately funded thinktank whose Executive Director is Dr Gerard Henderson. Gerard reckons he is conservative, though in recent times he has written in support of some of the most draconian anti-terror (or rather, anti-liberty) laws to be proposed in any western country.

Ed addressed a packed house on the topic of “Can a Muslim be elected to Parliament in the age of terror?”. His audience included people of all faiths and no faith in particular. An edited version of his talk has been published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Ed started by giving the parameters of his discussion. He told us he was not here to talk about or defend Islam or Muslims. Nor was he going to unload sour graps about how he lost what used to be a formerly safe Labor Party seat. Ed was in no mood to play victim.

Ed reminded us that hardly 1.5% of the Australian population identify themselves on census forms as Muslim. That proportion remained much lower until the 1970’s when the first mass-migration occurred from Muslim-majority countries. Prior to that, Muslims were small in number but enormous in contribution.

Australian Muslims, Ed told us, migrated from over 60 different countries. Most Muslim migrants took up Australian citizenship – well over 70%. This was much higher compared to other large ethno-religious migrant groups.

Ed told us a little about his Bosnian heritage. His parents migrated from the former Yugoslavia. Ed grew up mixing with people of all nationalities – Serbs, Croats, Indo-Chinese, Anglo-Australians and South Asians to name a few. Ed’s father worked as a welder. In his spare time, Ed’s father entertained a steady stream of friends while Ed’s mum prepared Bosnian coffee strong enough to keep guests awake for at least a week.

Ed’s Bosnian Muslim name is “Edhem”. In Arabic, this is the name for the first man and prophet, Adam. Names are an ever-present reminder of one’s heritage, and like many of his “ethnic” friends Ed anglicised his name.

Ed was the Labor Party candidate for the seat of Greenway located in Western Sydney. His opponent was Liberal Party candidate Louis Markus. Ms Markus worked as a social worker for the local Pentecostal Hillsong Church. She used her extensive contacts in this growing church to the fullest effect in her campaign.

Ed had some idea that certain elements in the press and the Liberal Party were keen to use his ancestral religious identity as an issue. Some 2 weeks out of the campaign, notorious columnist Paul Sheehan (ironically also from the Sydney Morning Herald) made a huge issue of Ed’s refusal to speak about his religion.

Refusal? Why should Ed bring religion into a campaign for a secular party in a secular election for a secular government for a secular liberal democracy? Should it really matter what Ed’s parents regarded themselves as?

Further, in the former Yugoslavia, to be a Muslim was an ethnic matter, just as being Serbian and Croatian were ethnic matters. If you weren’t a Serb or a Croat or a Slovenian or a Montenegrin, you must be a Muslim. This despite the fact that there were no shortage of Montenegrins or Croats or Serbs or Slovenians of Muslim faith.

Ed is hardly an exceptionally observant Muslim. He doesn’t carry a beard on his face. Long flowing robes and turbans aren’t his style. If you saw Ed in the streets with his suit and tie and expensive well-polished shoes, you would probably think he was like any other white Aussie.

Ed rarely mixed with Muslims, including Bosnians. He rarely attended Muslim functions with his parents. Ed was just your typical Aussie boy. That someone with such a low-key luke-warm Muslim identity could be the target of a media campaign to “expose” his religion makes one wonder whether Muslim Australians will ever be welcomed as equal participants in the democratic traditions of their home countries.

Ed always saw himself as an Aussie until the morning after he lost the election. On that occasion, his father came to him and apologised.

“I am sorry that we gave you a background to be ashamed of,” were the words Ed’s father used more or less. But Ed would hear nothing of it. By now, Ed was proud, perhaps a little defiant, about his background.

Ed was defiant, but he refused to be radicalised. Ed knew that most Australians were decent people who were still coming to terms with their fears of terrorism and their ignorance of Islamic people and values. It seems Muslims were largely to blame for this state of affairs, especially Muslim migrants treating Australia as a fat cow they could milk to their heart’s content.

And we have been milking the cow. Sadly, some Muslim migrants have made little contribution toward fattening the cow. And one day, when the milk runs out, the cow could well turn into a bull that will devour us all.

As it is now 1:24am and I am extremely tired, I will wait until a later date to tell you some of Ed’s golden pieces of advice for Muslim Aussies.

The author is a Sydney-based industrial relations lawyer who was himself a candidate for the Liberal Party in the November 2001 Federal Elections.

© Irfan Yusuf 2005