Our Foreign Minister has a problem with understanding the criminal law. Yesterday he said:
Every time there is somebody arrested and facing charges, there’s some sort of controversy about 'oh the poor thing, he must be innocent...'
Just imagine how that statement will be read by his counterpart in New Delhi. Imagine how the Union Minister of State for External Affairs E Ahamed (an Indian Muslim who himself has two children working as doctors overseas) would feel about Mr Downer’s apparent reluctance to embrace the presumption of innocence in criminal trials.
Howard weighed in as well, reminding us all of the truism that
... [t]he Federal Police are integral to the fight against terrorism in this country ...
So why doesn’t Mr Howard consider helping our Federal Police by enabling them to overcome the many cultural barriers so lucidly described by Sushi Das in The Age on 23 July 2007?
Even if we’re mad enough to believe conservative psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple that terrorism should lead us to discriminate against Muslims, our law enforcement officials should at least understand that there are huge cultural, linguistic and even theological differences between a Mohammed from India and a Muhammad from the United States.
Of course, the hysterical attacks by Downer and Howard on Labor Premiers suggest a deeper problem. The government hoped to use this issue as a cultural/security wedge issue, with terrorism fears and anti-Muslim sentiment carrying them over the electoral line.
Yet for so many Indian migrants, Haneef is being viewed as a bright young South Asian boy pilloried just because he followed traditional Indian custom of looking up relatives overseas and sending remittances back home.
It gets a little worrying when (as Das shows) law enforcement officials (and tabloid newspapers) find suspicion in behaviour common to any diaspora Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan or Nepalese (not to mention Asian, Eastern European, South American etc).
South Asians typically put language and culture before religion. The concerns raised by Indian media don’t come as a surprise to me. Nor do comments I hear almost everyday from family friends and colleagues of Indian extraction.
Just yesterday, one South Indian (nominally Christian) clerk said to me: "Irfan, the way they are treating Haneef thing is getting me worried. I send money back to my family all the time. Will I be on the front page of the Daily Telegraph?"
Still, our law enforcement officials can take heart. Even countries as experienced as India (in relation to the case of Mohammad Afroze) and the United States (in the case of Salman Hamdani) can screw up anti-terror investigations.
The lesson of all this is that we cannot allow irrational hysteria and prejudice to make us too alarmed to be alert.
First published in the Crikey daily alert on 24 July 2007. Cartoon courtesy Crikey.
Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf
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