Australia must confront its growing band of far-right extremists
Brenton Tarrant, a right-wing terrorist, was proud of his killing of 50 Muslim worshippers in two New Zealand mosques on Friday. He broadcast his actions live as he methodically shot down his victims. He was full of bravado as he spouted his hate of immigrants and non-whites and identified himself with a bunch of white nationalists and racist advocates, whose focus these days is on the dangers of Muslim refugees and migrants. Tarrant was identified as a 28-year-old neo-fascist who was born in Australia and grew up in Grafton, New South Wales.
This horrific crime exposed the deeply entrenched anti-Muslim racism that has existed in Australia for some time. There is clearly a right-wing, extremist core of racists and xenophobes there, especially those who hate Muslims. But this is tolerated by a much wider audience and enabled by the right-wing politicians and media organizations that have demonized Islam and dehumanized Muslims.
Statements such as those by Queensland Sen. Fraser Anning are a case in point. Immediately after the attack, he issued a written statement blaming the New Zealand Muslims for their own deaths, as well as what he called “the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” The fact that he felt comfortable enough to release such a shameless screed, and appear in the media espousing those thoughts, right after the attacks indicates how common and banal Islamophobia has become in Australia.
Anti-Muslim racism has deep roots in Australia. For decades, Muslim immigration was restricted under the White Australia policy, which was in effect from 1901 to 1973. After the repeal of that policy, Muslim migrants and refugees began to arrive in Australia in greater numbers, but the Muslim community there is still very small — about 2.5 percent of the population — and it appears to be the target of overblown hate, suspicion and fear.
There is little doubt that anti-Muslim racism is not shared by the majority of the population. Witness the revulsion of many Australians at the massacre in Christchurch last Friday. Note also the overwhelming censure of Anning for his hateful remarks: More than a million people have signed a petition to remove him from Parliament.
From my personal experience, I have traveled through Australia a number of times, both with my family and alone, and was met with only kindness and hospitality. In big cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, as well as in rural communities such as Alice Springs, we did not feel unwelcome or discriminated against.
However, it is clear that there is a small minority of right-wing extremists who harbor violent hate toward Muslim Australians. They are aided and abetted by a permissive political culture that tolerates those sentiments. The way some Australian politicians express themselves regarding hot button issues in the Middle East, as well as some of the decisions taken by the Australian government, derive from that anti-Muslim climate and inadvertently feed such negative feelings. The recent decision regarding Jerusalem is the latest example in a long-term, one-sided policy on the question of Palestine. Many Muslims also remember that it was a deranged Australian, Denis Michael Rohan, who tried to burn down Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969.
It is clear that there is a small minority of right-wing extremists who harbor violent hate toward Muslim Australians.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
In a rare censure of the Australian right wing’s campaign against Muslims, the Trump administration branded the One Nation party as a “threat to religious freedom” in a report published in August 2017. The State Department’s “International Religious Freedom Report” noted that One Nation’s federal election campaign had “included cessation of Muslim immigration and limits on some Islamic practices.” It criticized Pauline Hanson, the party leader, for a speech at the federal senate, in which she claimed the country was “in danger of being swamped by Muslims.”
The worst culprits are some of the Australian media outlets, which have found that whipping up animosity toward Muslims is good for business. Last year, OnePath Network, a Muslim Australian media group, published the results of a year-long investigation into Australia’s media coverage of Islam and Muslims. It tracked how five of Australia’s biggest newspapers reported on Islam: The Australian, the Daily Telegraph, the Herald Sun, the Courier Mail and the Advertiser. In one year, they published almost 3,000 articles, about eight articles a day, that referred to Islam or Muslims alongside words like violence, extremism, terrorism or radical. It also found 152 front pages over the year that featured Islam in some negative capacity. Six commentators in particular had 31 percent of their opinion pieces devoted to Islam, mostly in negative and divisive terms, with some devoting as many as 54 percent of their columns to negative commentaries about Islam. The report found that, for the most part, these papers’ coverage of Islam in Australia was “disproportionate, divisive and dangerous.”
It is clear that this negative and disproportionate attention in the media has not contributed to an understanding of Islam and Muslims. A study by Griffith University found that 70 percent of Australians believed that they knew “little to nothing about the religion and its adherents.”
Another study, by University of Queensland researchers, canvassed Muslim communities in Australia and found that less than a third felt the media treated Muslims fairly. The study involved focus groups and surveys of Muslim Australians from a range of backgrounds, including Pakistanis, Syrians, Indonesians and South Africans. The participants were evenly split by gender and ranged in age.
While fear of terrorism is cited to justify anti-Islam attitudes, Australia has rarely experienced incidents of political terrorism by Muslims. The “Islamophobia Register Australia” has found that the majority of Islamophobic insults were not related to terrorism; instead it appears the mere presence and visibility of Muslims and Islam in Australia are the main motivations behind anti-Muslim hate crimes.
In the aftermath of the Christchurch massacres, Australia should take the courageous step of confronting this small but virulent and growing minority of right-wing extremists to ensure they do not commit another atrocity in Australia or elsewhere.
• Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal, and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1