Demonising Muslim Australians

September 7, 2005

Headscarves worn by Muslim women should be banned in public schools, federal Liberal backbencher Bronwyn Bishop declared on August 28, because they are "a symbol of defiance" and "an iconic symbol of the clash of cultures".

Bishop told the ABC on August 29: "It's not about headscarves per se, it's about a clash of cultures where there are extremist Muslim leaders who are calling for the overthrow of the laws that indeed give me my freedom and my equality as defined by the society in which I live."

She went on to equate freedom of religious expression with Nazism: "Now, this morning on a debate with a Muslim lady, she said she felt free being a Muslim, and I would simply say that in Nazi Germany, Nazis felt free and comfortable. That is not the sort of definition of freedom that I want for my country."

PM John Howard declared that he doesn't agree with Bishop, but it's clear that he has sympathy for her position: "I don't support it", he told the media on August 29, "but somebody's got a right to express that view". Howard's main objection seems to be that such a ban wouldn't be "practical".

Bishop's views are entirely consistent with the Howard government's campaign to fuel fear and suspicion of Muslim Australians. This fear campaign is essential to its efforts to justify the bogus "war on terror".

Bishop is not a Coalition maverick on this issue. Her vicious attack on Muslim women is just the latest in the continuum of racist policies and statements by the Coalition government.

In November 2002, Christian Democratic Party religious bigot Fred Nile called for Muslim women to be banned from wearing the full-body covering chador (because it could be used to hide terrorist weapons!). Howard's response? "Fred speaks for the views of a lot of people" and it would "obviously" be better if Muslim women were less conspicuous, he said. Howard publicly condemned Nile's comments only after sustained public outrage.

Muslim women are the softest targets in the government's and gutter media's demonisation of Muslim Australians. They are the most visible and therefore easiest scapegoats in the Howard government's efforts to persuade the public that Muslims are "alien" to the "Australian way of life" and opposed to the values and freedoms supposedly enshrined in "Western society".

But what exactly are those "Australian values"? The immigration department website sets out a few — loyalty to Australia and its people, and respect for rights and liberties, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom to protest.

Yet the Australian government flouts these values every day. The government locks up asylum seekers for years on end for the "crime" of being desperate and poor. It is seeking to introduce new industrial relations laws that will severely undermine workers' right to organise. And it works hand in glove with the media monopolies to ensure that Australia has the most concentrated media ownership in the world.

Now, Bishop and her cronies, by calling for the hijab to be banned in schools, are assaulting freedom of religion.

Bishop also attempted to justify her attack on the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab in terms of women's freedom and independence. Yet as a member, at times in cabinet, of the Coalition government she has actively supported government policies that lock women up in detention centres, cut working-class women's wages and conditions, and force sole mothers off welfare and into highly exploitative jobs.

Feminists, and all progressive people, should unequivocally oppose bans on the hijab — it is an issue of religious freedom, but also of women's right to choose what they wear. Only Muslim women can make the decision to wear or not to wear the hijab.

From Green Left Weekly, September 7, 2005.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.