IN 2007 I interviewed, among others, Labor frontbencher Tony Burke for my monograph Islam in Australia, which was published later that year by the British think-tank Policy Exchange. At the time, a number of Australian Muslims had been charged with conspiracy to commit terrorist acts in NSW and Victoria following Operation Pendennis. Multiple convictions followed trials in Sydney and Melbourne. Some found guilty are still serving prison terms.
At the time, Burke estimated that about 10 per cent of the voters in his seat of Watson in southwest Sydney were Muslim. Nearly a decade later, the figure is closer to 20 per cent.
In response to a question as to what message should be given to the leadership of the Muslim communities in his electorate, Burke replied: “Under no circumstances should they promote a victim mentality. I view a victim mentality as being a self-fulfilling prophecy and a dangerous hole that politicians can fall in when trying to get an extra round of applause for a speech … My message is always about cultivating leadership, cultivating success and using that as the motivator.”
Burke’s message is as valid today as it was seven years ago. This is understood by prominent Muslim Australians such as Jamal Rifi who is promoting the success of his rugby league club, the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, in the lead-up to tomorrow’s grand final. Writing in The Daily Telegraph this week, Rifi commented that the Bulldogs, which have a significant support base within the Muslim communities in Sydney, “have already united a fractured community in ways politicians could only dream of”.
Some Muslim Australians have done extremely well in Australian society; others less so. This is the familiar story of immigrants within an immigrant society. But there is a bottom line. All Australian citizens enjoy the benefits of Medicare, free school education and a generous welfare system. Viewed in this light, no Australians are victims in the accepted use of the term.
It would make sense for Australia’s leaders in politics, intelligence, law enforcement and the public service to make this point. Mostly they do. But not all. On Tuesday,The Age published an opinion piece by Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane that was essentially a fudge. He began by conceding that “all of us are rightly disturbed by the prospect of terrorist acts on Australian soil; counter-terror raids in Sydney and Brisbane, and the shooting of teenager Numan Haider in Melbourne, have highlighted community concern”.
Soutphommasane’s reference to the shooting of Haider by Victorian Police failed to mention the evidence that the deceased had wounded and attempted to murder two counter-terrorist policemen. The Race Discrimination Commissioner also declined to remind The Age readers that Haider’s family had migrated from Afghanistan to settle in Australia and that he obtained a good education, had a job and a car, and lived in a fine house. Haider was no victim.
Soutphommasane went on to argue that “Muslim Australians are entitled to a fair go”. This suggests that they do not get a fair go already. It’s another way of saying that Muslim Australians are victims. This led to writer Gabrielle Lord contacting the Australian Human Rights Commission to express her disappointment with the Race Discrimination Commissioner’s comments, which she interpreted as “largely a reprimand to the non-Muslims of Australia”.
Lord’s position is that “rather than chiding non-Muslims for their suspicions, fears (and on occasions bigotry), a Race Relations Commissioner would surely be better advised to address those Muslims in our community who bear a lethal hatred and contempt towards all of us non-Muslims and tell them this will not be tolerated”.
Her reference was to the comments on Facebook and Twitter by Islamists railing against those they depict as kafir — or infidels. This group of so-called infidels includes atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews and more besides.
Soutphommasane’s article ignored one other point. Take Khaled Sharrouf, for example. After serving jail time following conviction in the Operation Pendennis case, Sharrouf left Australia illegally on his brother’s passport to fight for the so-called Islamic State in Syria.
The Race Discrimination Commissioner also failed to remind The Age readers that much of the race-related crime in southwest Sydney in recent years has been Muslim-on-Muslim violence as Sunni and Shia extremists attack each other.
Soutphommasane’s rush to depict all Muslims as victims leads to an unpleasant double standard at times. Appearing on the ABC’s The Drum on August 6, he was asked about (former) Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mike Carlton’s aggressive emails to his critics. These included Carlton’s dismissal of a reader as a “Jewish bigot”. Soutphommasane responded: “Look, I’m an agnostic on this.” It is unlikely that he would have been agnostic if a right-wing columnist had referred to someone as a “Muslim bigot”.
On Thursday, Soutphommasane appeared on ABC News Breakfast and ABC Radio 702, among other places, implicitly criticising Tony Abbott’s comment that he finds the burka “confronting”. The Race Discrimination Commissioner also declared that he had “not seen any expert security opinion or analysis to date which says that the burka represents additional or special security threat”.
It seems that he is unaware of the case of Mustaf Jama, who was wanted for the murder of a policeman in Britain. Jama apparently got out of Britain by disguising himself as a woman in full burka attire.
Abbott did not say he felt confronted by the hijab — a headscarf that is not dissimilar in effect to the covering worn by Christian nuns in Western societies a half-century ago. He did not even mention the niqab, which covers a woman’s face except for parts of the nose and the eyes. His comments were directed to the full head-to-toe burka, which features a grill hiding the eyes.
Abbott has never attempted to universally ban the burka within Australia. He simply said that he finds it confronting.
Many Muslims find bikinis confronting, but that does not necessarily mean that they want to ban such swimwear in democratic societies.
As Lord has pointed out, it makes sense for all groups within Australian society to engage in self-reflection, without a rush to victimland status.