From Cronulla to Canberra: racism gets the official go-ahead

Issue 

Graham Matthews

On February 13, Danna Vale, federal Liberal MP for the NSW seat of Hughes, weighed into the debate over RU486 warning that the number of abortions being carried out each year would eventually lead to Australia becoming predominately Muslim.

Vale's inflammatory and ill-informed comments brazenly revived the "populate or perish" slogan of the White Australia policy. It is one more reactionary step in the powerful racist propaganda campaign to justify Western imperial war and occupation in the Middle East.

This follows hot on the heels of a series of other racist outbursts by politicians and media commentators who, since last December's Cronulla riots, assume they have a licence to race-bait Arab Australians and Muslims.

The victims of the Cronulla attacks have been turned into the criminals. Politicians of both major parties have whipped up public ire against "Middle Eastern gangs", "Middle Eastern thugs" and "grubs" by shifting the focus of public outrage to a series of revenge attacks after the racist attacks on December 11.

The campaign to do this was begun by NSW Liberal leader Peter Debnam. On January 13, he accused the NSW Labor government of being "soft on ethnic crime" arguing that the police were focused on apprehending the white rioters of December 11, rather than the Middle Eastern youths from south-western Sydney who were involved in the revenge attacks.

In the January 14 Sydney Morning Herald, Debnam accused the ALP of being "indebted" to certain ethnic groups and "Middle Eastern gangs", and said that this was the reason the police had not arrested those involved in the revenge attacks. Three days later, Debnam was quoted in the Herald demanding that the NSW Labor government "lock up 200 Middle Eastern thugs" whom he alleged were involved. By January 18, Debnam had upped his hit-list to 1000.

Racism fanned

Debnam's racist hysteria has been fanned by the Herald's right-wing columnist Paul Sheehan who, on January 14, criticised the NSW government for only going for the "soft targets" — the arrests of 14 people for anti-Lebanese violence at Cronulla, and the three-month jailing of a Lebanese immigrant for burning the Australian flag. Sheehan was fuming that the police had not arrested anyone connected to the revenge attacks.

Sheehan joined Debnam in blaming the NSW Labor party for the Cronulla riots, the revenge attacks and the so-called "ethnic crime" problem. They both asserted that Labor's supposed inaction is due to political debts owed to the Lebanese Muslim community from alleged branch-stacking in Lakemba in the late 1990s. In his Herald column on January 16, Sheehan accused NSW Premier Morris Iemma (MP for Lakemba) of being "totally ineffective in dealing with the festering sore of these criminal gangs".

Iemma jumped into the race-baiting fray and, on January 20, promised to increase the number of police investigating the "revenge attackers" from 28 to 100. He also announced the formation of a permanent "Middle Eastern organised crime squad".

On January 23, the commander of the police squad investigating the Cronulla riots argued, "Arab community leaders have failed to inform on men involved in revenge attacks", and singled out Sheik Taj El-Din Hilaly, leader of the Lakemba mosque, and Keysar Trad, president of the Islamic Friendship Association as the main culprits.

As the NSW Labor and Liberal parties scrambled to out-do each other's racist stereotyping, the judiciary was busy dispensing lopsided justice toward those involved in the riots and revenge attacks. On January 12, magistrate Paul Falzon sentenced Hadi Khawaja to three months' jail for the "crime" of stealing and burning the Australian flag adorning the Brighton-le-Sands RSL club on December 11. According to the January 13 Herald, Falzon argued: "Had Khawaja entered the club and taken a trophy and broken that, or smashed a window, for example, the significance of the crime would not have been as great ... The emotional injury [of burning the Australian flag] in this case is somewhat amplified in what he's doing."

In another case, a white Australian, photographed beating a Middle Eastern man with a beer bottle at Cronulla on December 11, was freed from jail after serving just 29 days, according to the February 10 Herald.

Racist war propaganda

Pip Hinman, a convener of the Sydney Stop the War Coalition, told Green Left Weekly that anti-Middle Eastern racism had been deliberately cranked up by federal and state governments to justify the invasions on Afghanistan and Iraq, and the associated attacks on civil liberties in the name of the "war on terrorism".

"Muslims and Arabs today are what the so-called Yellow Peril was in the days of the White Australia policy. These communities are being systematically demonised and terrorised. What the federal and state governments are doing today to promote racism overshadows anything that Pauline Hanson was able to do."

Khaldoun Hajaj, an outspoken member of the Sydney Arab Muslim community, told Green Left Weekly that putting more police on the beat to target so-called ethnic crime would never solve the social problems faced by Arab and Muslim communities. He described this as the "easy solution for politicians who lack imagination and creativity" and who "seek to lay blame, because that's the ultimate electoral winner for them".

Hajaj said that more employment and education opportunities, and better public transport and social infrastructure are what's needed. "The problem is an alienation from the mainstream, and the lack of opportunity and equality."

"There has been no analysis of the problems that have contributed to the alienation of the Muslim community — unemployment, racism, discrimination and poor access to public transport, education and health care. All this contributes to an environment where people feel they have no stake in society, and it's then that they start behaving in a mob kind of manner. It's no different from the way the Cronulla population has behaved historically", Hajaj added, saying, "Often they've been referred to as the 'insular peninsula'."

Hajaj said that while the riots were in Cronulla, the reprisal attacks took place 15-20 kilometres away in Brighton-le-Sands, a multicultural area with no history of systematic discrimination against Arabic or Muslim people. "This should send the message that we all have a stake in making things work."

Asked about various right-wing commentators' claim that multiculturalism had failed, Hajaj replied: "What's failing Australia is the multiculturalism that has been devised by opportunistic governments and power-hungry bureaucrats whose modus operandi strengthens their power base. If multiculturalism is about mutual respect, tolerance, truth and civil society, then it must be given a chance to flourish."

From Green Left Weekly, February 22, 2006.
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