Sunday, September 03, 2006

OPINION: Howard’s Muslim double speak

Singling out one migrant group is divisive and dangerous, writes IRFAN YUSUF.
There are a small number of migrants resisting integration, They don’t accept Australian values, refuse to treat women as equals and refuse to even try to learn English.

They come from every ethnic, linguistic and religious group. I know elderly Indian Sikhs who find speaking English impossible, despite their best efforts. I know Lebanese Catholics who would disown their daughters if they married outside the faith.

So why does John Howard only mention that segment of this small group forming part of what he simplistically describes as the Islamic population? And what happens when we apply his tests of integration to the realities of Muslim Australia?

This weekend, Muslim women from across the country will be gathering in Canberra for a national women’s conference, to be launched by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward. Sheik Omran isn’t on the invitation list.

Howard might seek a briefing from Goward about how these women are unlikely to be treated as equals.

He might learn something of their oppressive environments forcing them to work in such demeaning fields as academia, legal practice, primary and secondary education, writing, publishing, social work, film production, mothering and law enforcement.

He might also be told of the patronising, sexist and unAustralian topics being covered - independent school education, film, legal rights, law enforcement, mentoring young women and women in business.

Since these women refuse to integrate, the entire proceedings will be in English, a language they all speak as their first language.

Howard may not be aware that such women are the rule, not the exception, in Muslim communities. Much the same situation exists among Muslim men.

John Howard has said some embarrassing and nonsensical things over the years.

However, his recent statements singling out Muslim Aussies are only matched in near-complete ignorance to his 1988 comments on Asian immigration. On all such occasions, Howard’s comments have had little basis in fact.

The Howard government funded a 2004 study of Australian Muslims put together by a team of researchers under Professor Abdullah Saeed of the University of Melbourne.

The study found that the largest ethnic group of Australian Muslims (by place of birth) were Aussie-born Muslims. This group is three times the number of Muslims born in Lebanon.

Howard’s use of the term Islamic population is ample illustration of his relative ignorance of the thousands of Muslim citizens living in his own electorate, let alone the hundreds of thousands living across the country.

To speak of the Islamic community or the Islamic population is as meaningless as speaking about the Christian community.

What kind of Christians? Christadelphians? Low-church Anglicans? Roman Catholics? Jehovahs’ Witnesses?

Perhaps Howard isn’t aware that migrants tend to have many layers of identity, of which religion is only one. Usually the most important aspect of a migrant’s identity is the one where they feel most vulnerable.

My parents arrived in Canberra in 1965. My mother’s first friend here was a Hindi-speaking Jewish woman. Why? Because language was the primary source of my mother’s identity. It was also the area where she felt most vulnerable.

I grew up surrounded by family friends whose parents spoke the language of Bollywood movies – Indian Hindus, Sikhs, Goan Catholics, Fiji-Indian Ahmadis and even a Pakistani Anglican priest.

We used to buy our Indian spices from an Indian Jewish family at Bondi beach. We shared a common language and culture despite our religious differences.

My parents befriended the family of a (now deceased) saintly Indian Muslim historian who taught at the Australian National University.

One of his sons is now one of the most senior Commonwealth public servants, and has been involved in the administration some of Mr Howard’s most popular yet draconian policies.

What possible gains in national security or integration are achieved by singling out one group from a broad church of insufficiently integrated Australians?

And why identify this group according to one aspect of their identity? Why make ethno-religious heritage a vulnerable point?

The monolithic Islamic community doesn’t exist. There are people from various ethnic and linguistic backgrounds who just happen to also be Muslim.

By singling out non-integrated Muslims, Mr Howard is alienating the overwhelming majority who are well-integrated.

Indeed, Mr Howard is helping to manufacture an artificial Muslim community, consisting of even the most nominal Muslims who are fed up with seeing their ancestral heritage picked on.

When even conservative-voting lawyers like myself begin to feel alienated and marginalised by allegedly conservative political rhetoric, the only beneficiary in the long run are extremists.

Islamist extremists from groups like al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah predict Western Muslims will be treated like second class citizens in Western countries (if they aren’t already).

Pseudo-conservative and pseudo-liberal politicians playing racial and religious wedge politics at the expense of nominal Muslims are turning such claims into self-fulfilling prophecies.

The Howard government claims to concern itself with national security. John Howard frequently says that Islamist terrorists fight us because of our way of life. Yet John Howard and some of his ministers are undermining that way of life by assisting terrorists in having a larger pool of marginalised Muslims to recruit from.

*Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and was endorsed Liberal candidate for the western Sydney seat of Reid in the 2001 federal election. This article first appeared in the Canberra Times on Saturday September 2 2006.