Is Australia surrendering its egalitarianism?

Turkish bowls at a Brisbane CBD market

TWO very close friends are off on an extended European holiday later this year and last week asked, via email, whether there was any truth in a rather alarming article they had been sent.

The article, European ‘No-Go’ Zones for Non-Muslims Proliferating, seemed to have come from an American online publication, The New Media Journal, which promotes itself as offering an “independent, conservative-leaning selection of internet news articles”.

My friends had been spammed by troublemakers and the timing was no big surprise.

The disreputable Dutch provocateur and far-right politician Geert Wilders has been visiting Australia, sparking riots by those who recognise just who Wilders really is and how much social discord he has caused elsewhere with his strident anti-Muslim stance.

One ABC News report noted that the majority of protesters at his Melbourne appearance were ordinary folk, not Muslim hardliners by any stretch of the imagination and, in most cases, not even Muslims.

Even Australia’s right-leaning Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, has denounced Wilders’ slanted depiction of Muslims.

The underlying issue is that Wilders, and the article my friends were sent, tar every Muslim with the same brush, from the ultra radical to the most moderate.

Whose interest does that serve? Does it play on the suspicions of those who know little about the Muslim faith or its people? Of course it does.

But, hang on a minute. Doesn’t Christianity have its extremists, too? And Judaism? Why would the Muslim religion be any different?

The truth is, they all have their ratbags. But Muslim extremists in this country are in the very, very small minority, and – as with other faiths – their ideas are as anathema to moderate Muslims as they are to the rest of us.

To begin to assess the “truth” of the article itself, try Googling either its headline or “The Gatehouse Institute” which is said to have first published it. Results of those searches show almost none are from recognisable, reputable news outlets.

This suggests, sadly, that there are a number of far-right groups setting out to cause trouble and using the internet as a tool to spread misinformation, cast suspicions and foment dissent. The UK and US, in particular, have quite a number of these small, typically white supremist and purportedly Christian organisations which are every bit as hateful as the most radical Muslims.

If the article were true, then the mainstream media coverage – globally – would be significant AND you would see clear travel warnings on official sites like smartraveller.com.au … by the way, that site is a must if you’re heading overseas. At present, there are no European nations in DFAT’s Do Not Travel advice on that website.

Sure, there are places on this planet that really are unsafe for the unwary, but try travelling across one of the largest Muslim nations, Turkey. Non-Muslim tourists consistently return home raving about the warm reception, great food and rich heritage they experienced there.

Instead of falling victim to those who would stir up trouble, either in person or online, Australians should defend in the most strident terms our rich, multicultural society. Especially over the past 50 years – with very few exceptions – our multicultural Aussie society has got along just fine.

As for the singling out of Muslims, how many Australians even realise that they have been in our country since before the First Fleet arrived? Back then, the newcomers, or visitors, were most likely from the nearby Indonesian archipelago.

In the 19th century the numbers grew as Afghan camel drivers arrived to help open up the red centre of our dry nation and, as historian Dr Nahid Kabir notes in her book, Muslims in Australia, the nation’s first mosque opened at Maree in South Australia in 1861.

After World War II, Muslims arrived from a growing number of nations – Malaysia, Bosnia, Turkey, Lebanon, Indonesia, Iran, Fiji, Albania, Sudan, Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh among them. By the end of last century, Muslims were resettling here from more than 60 countries.

In more recent times, Muslims have immigrated, via perfectly legal channels, from the South Pacific, northern and southern Africa and many more places that remain “exotic” to most Australians. With them. like their predecessors, they have brought a wonderful array of cultures, customs, beliefs and cuisines.

Yet, increasingly, the Australian political, media and public discourse is tainted by a constant, fearful and often unwarranted focus on the arrival of increasing numbers of asylum seekers, especially those who happen to be Muslim.

But how many Australians realise that, in total, the proportion of Muslims in this country society barely exceeds 2 per cent? Therein, perhaps lies the problem.

At such a low percentage – and with their likely residential concentration mostly in metropolitan areas – the other 98 per cent of Australians have probably had limited opportunities to meet or interact with someone of the Muslim faith.

You only need to spend some time with people from these vastly different Muslim backgrounds to know that, by and large, they share pretty much the same concerns as we do.

They worry about getting a good education and a good job, about keeping their families safe and healthy. They pray – in a host of different ways – for good fortune and more often than not reach out to people in need, regardless of their faith, in their darkest hour. They have been known to turn up in numbers as part of our own Mud Army – on more than one occasion – and offer assistance to all victims, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

We have – and should cherish – freedom of religion in Australia. We don’t need campaigners like Wilders and his ilk stirring up hatred and misinformation, wanting others to convert to THEIR way of living or to THEIR faith. We don’t need to import such hatred and division. It has no place in an egalitarian society.

Such troublemakers have warped agendas akin to vicious, scheming bullies in a schoolyard. They provoke conflict and stand back to watch their insidious handiwork while others suffer the bloody noses.

They play on the public’s fear of the unknown.

We should give them the good old Aussie two-finger salute and find out for ourselves by mixing with a few Muslims of different backgrounds.

How to start?

  • Attend Eidfest – this year in early August – to experience a colourful, food-filled festival that celebrates the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting during daylight hours and a time for reflection and making sacrifices for those who are not as well off
  • Dine in one of our excellent Turkish, Middle Eastern or north African restaurants
  • Buy and consume some halal food … It tastes just like it would from a non-halal source
  • Better still, share a meal with a Muslim family
  • Read a Muslim community newspaper – another friend, Rehana Bibi, edits the Queensland Muslim Times if you can get your hands on one – to get a taste for what Australia’s Muslim community is concerned about … you will find no real shocks and plenty of positive initiatives that help the wider community.

Yes, Muslims do have some very different customs and beliefs, but so do the rest of us if you think about it, some of them more than strange to those from different backgrounds to our own.

And think back over the decades about the newcomers to Australia of each post-war generation: the Italians, the Greeks, the Vietnamese, the Cambodians.

Let’s not repeat the mistake of isolating Muslims because we THINK they are so different that they present some sort of danger to non-Muslim Australians.

Defend Australia’s well-earned reputation for being egalitarian and embrace them instead.

Vive le difference.

———-

ADDENDA:
The Global Mail’s Eric Ellis has been Fact-checking the Geert Wilders Road Show
Tim Soutphommasane weighs in on racial matters on Brisbane Times
The Age’s columnist and radio and television presenter Waleed Aly speaks eloquently about silent racism

———-

Words: Trina McLellan, Reporting for Work

Picture: Peter Bull, PBull-Media

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