The consequences of blaming Muslims


Lisa Macdonald

The knifing of former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Mamdouh Habib near his home in Sydney in the early hours of August 23 was not a random attack. It was, along with the now frequent vandalising of mosques, abuse of veiled women in the streets, and police harassment of young, Arab-Australian men, a tragically inevitable result of the government's and establishment media's fearmongering about the "terrorist threat" posed by so-called radical Muslims.

Thankfully, Habib survived the attack. The next victim of the anti-Muslim hysteria being whipped up by Prime Minister John Howard's government may not be so lucky.

The attack on Habib occurred on the same day as Howard's much publicised "summit" with a select group of Muslim organisations. Howard said he called the summit to discuss with Islamic leaders ways to eradicate exhortations to violence among Australian Muslims, and thereby reduce the possibility of "home-grown" terrorist attacks.

But a genuine dialogue was never on Howard's agenda. If it had been, the summit would have been far more inclusive and representative of Australian Muslims, and would have dealt seriously with the awful consequences for all of them of the fear and hatred of Muslims that is being generated by the "war on terror".

Responding to wide-ranging criticisms of his exclusion of the majority of Muslim groups from the meeting — including NSW's largest such group, the Lebanese Muslim Association; all Muslim youth organisations; and representatives of the Islamic school system — Howard claimed that there "is a concern that a small section of the Islamic community of this country could be the source of terrorism", and said he would not give a platform to "extremism".

In fact, one of the aims of the government in calling the summit was to turn the spotlight of suspicion more fully onto the Muslim community as a whole. By calling the summit, then constructing it around a totally false dichotomy between "moderate" and "extremist" Muslims, Howard is simultaneously trying to browbeat all Muslims into taking responsibility for terrorist acts while enlisting Muslim leaders in the government's efforts to silence any Muslim who dares to criticise government policy, especially its support for the US-led occupation of Iraq. This is George Bush's "you're either with us or you're against us" approach targeted specifically at Muslims.

Irrespective of the Muslim participants' intentions, one outcome of the summit will be to provide an apparent mandate from the "Muslim community" for the government's pro-war, anti-civil liberties policies. Reporting on the summit to media afterwards, Howard said that "the facts" about Australia's participation in the US-led wars against Afghanistan and Iraq — that they were "necessary" responses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks — must be explained to young Muslims again and again, and that the summit had discussed at some length how Islamic schools could help "fight terrorism".

Just 24 hours after the summit, with the pretence at consultation over and his "mandate" from the Muslim leaders in place, Howard started warning that mosques, prayer halls and Muslim schools will be watched "to the extent necessary" to ensure that "the appropriate denunciations and repudiations of terrorism occur". Howard also made it clear that he rejected outright the one measure proposed by the Muslim groups at the summit to address their own community's suffering — the possible introduction of anti-vilification laws.

Muslim Australians are bearing the brunt of the government's efforts to intimidate and silence dissent to the US-Australian military aggressions, but they are not the only section of the nation in the firing line. In recent weeks the government has floated legislation tantamount to a war on civil rights — including laws that would not only allow the deportation or barring from entry to Australia of political or religious "radicals", but also the banning of any group because of its ideas and the criminalisation of indirect incitement. If enacted, such laws would make illegal the expression of pretty much any dissenting ideas.

Such laws are not far off if the effort that's going into softening us all up for them is any indication. The day after Howard's summit, for example, education minister Brendan Nelson demanded that University of Western Sydney vice-chancellor Janice Reid explain why Mamdouh Habib had been allowed to "peddle his anti-American views" at an open forum on the Bankstown campus, organised by Resistance and the UWS Students Association.

Of course, Western governments are far more tolerant of incitement to violence coming from those who basically agree with their imperialist foreign policy. So, when Christian fundamentalist Pat Robertson declared on US television on August 22 that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez should be assassinated by the US government (because "it's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war"), the US State Department's response was simply that Robertson's comments were "inappropriate" but as a private citizen "he has a right to say whatever he wants".

Had the US and Australian governments shown the same degree of respect for Habib's right to silence in the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, and his right to speak out in Australia against the war on Iraq and on civil liberties, he probably would not have been stabbed.

[Lisa Macdonald is a Socialist Alliance national executive member.]

From Green Left Weekly, August 31, 2005.
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