I’ve often heard it asked, “Is Australia a racist country?” only for the question to be railroaded by a series of semantics: “What does that even mean?”; “How can a country have a collective mindset?”; and “You can’t confer a universal attitude onto a population of 24 million, surely?”
Politicians and commentators tell us there are such things as Australian values. The same quibbling arguments about whether Australia is collectively racist apply to so-called national values.
In 2006 then-Treasurer Peter Costello gave a speech that outlined what the John Howard government meant by Australian values. The fundamental Australian value, it seemed, was respect for the rule of law. But this value is shared by much of the modern world; there is nothing that gives it a particularly Australian flavour.
It seems that when people talk about Australian values they mean character traits that are ubiquitous in Australia. They are not universal; they might not even be held by the majority; but they are so widespread it is impossible to lead a life that engages regularly with Australian communities without being routinely exposed to them.
Mateship is commonly discussed, as is an irreverent disdain for authority and a laid-back sense of humour. These are not controversial suggestions. But then we come to racism.
If we use the same test as we just used to establish Australian values to establish whether Australia is a racist country, the results are grim. Consider four of the most prominent Australian Muslims: Waleed Aly, Usman Khawaja, Anne Aly and Yassmin Abdel-Magied. Of these four individuals Khawaja alone avoids controversy. The mild-mannered cricketer only attracts the scorn of the media when dropping catches for the national cricket team.
Three others on this list, Waleed Aly, Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Anne Aly, exemplify everything that the conservative wing of Australia’s media demands of its Muslim minority. Waleed is a lawyer, an academic and Australia’s most popular TV presenter. He advocates a sort of liberal, inclusive Islam, he speaks approvingly of the principles of conservatism, he loves sport and has a laid-back sense of humour. He has met every demand the media has unreasonably made of Australian Muslims. And it is still not enough.
Edward R Murrow famously made the distinction between dissent and disloyalty, but modern Australia makes no such distinction. If Waleed utters anything short of unmitigated praise for the Australian government, then The Spectator, Quadrant, Sky TV, The Australian and the metropolitan Newscorp tabloids instantly descend on him with a ferocity they never used on his predecessor Charlie Pickering.
Last month many of them endorsed the claim that Waleed was a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. The number of threats to his life floating about the internet is incalculable. This is what happens when a Muslim man stands tall in Australia.
But what about Muslim women? If there was one Australian Muslim who was above reproach, it would surely be the Member for Cowan, Anne Aly. The clarion call of the xenophobic right is: “Why don’t moderate Muslims speak out against terrorism?” Anne Aly did not merely speak against it, she devoted a career in counter-terrorism to it. Her anti-extremist credentials are unmatched by anyone else in the Australian parliament.
But last Anzac Day Anne Aly was subjected to a deliberate and malicious disinformation campaign alleging she had refused to lay a wreath at a dawn service. The willingness of those who soon began posting abuse on her Facebook page to believe the allegation without confirmation and to interpret it as evidence that Islam is hostile to Australia is unmistakeable evidence of the racism that is pervasive in Australia.
They want to see Australian Muslims who take a position of prestige in our community vilified until they are brought down and put back in their rightful place, a place they clearly view as inferior to the place of non-Muslim Australians.
And then we come to Yassmin Abdel-Magied. Like Waleed, she adheres to a kind of liberal, feminist Islam and like Waleed takes a secular approach to national governance. But while Waleed immersed himself in the soft left world of legal academia and journalism that so irritates certain elements of the right, Yassmin channelled her first-class honours degree in engineering into a career at that most sacred of free market institutions, BHP Billiton. But when she stared down unhinged attacks from by Jacqui Lambie and had the temerity to suggest that Islam could be a feminist religion, the abuse once again came thick and fast.
As Jane Gilmour has noted in Fairfax media, Yassmin’s comments on April 25 were unremarkable in a sea of human rights-related remarks made with allusions to Anzac Day. What some Australians would not abide, however, was a Muslim woman asserting the right to invoke the Anzac legacy in a political argument as though she were their equal. This was a bridge too far and so they want her gone.
While the attacks on Waleed tend to be more general, the attacks on Yassmin manifest in a more sinister, threatening form. They tend to revolve around getting her sacked. The power balance here is clear. Waleed with his Gold Logie is too big and too powerful to be destroyed. Yassmin is 26 years old. Despite her enormous achievements, she does not enjoy anywhere near Waleed’s accumulated security.
Yassmin has now left Australia for London. After months of sustained abuse, she has had enough. Conservatives have driven her out, as they will drive others out. And when they’ve driven every last one out they will survey a nation bereft of clever, liberal, patriotic Muslims and triumphantly declare that Islam offers nothing to this country.
This is Australia in 2017. If you are a Muslim who rises to prominence and dares to defend your faith you will be the subject of a sustained attack from prominent politicians and media entities, which will in turn beget relentless attacks from thousands of like-minded racists. It is ubiquitous, not universal, but prevalent enough as to render it unavoidable. We may therefore only conclude that racism is indeed an entrenched “Australian value”.