On Tuesday night I was in Melbourne attending a meeting organised by the Australian Intercultural Society. It was attended by about 50 people from various Muslim communities in Melbourne, and the Democrats’ Victorian Senator, Lyn Allison, was also there.
Whilst it provided a chance to give the Democrats’ policies and record on a range of issues, the main benefit was the chance to build links, share opinions, explore ideas and encourage engagement with the political process.
The format was basically a conversational, question and answer style. Many questions and comments went to the content and process surrounding the so-called ‘anti-terror’ laws which have been adopted in Australia over recent years. This is a common topic whenever I meet with Muslim people, as they definitely feel they are the targets of these laws, and are therefore much more conscious of how easy it can be to inadvertently caught up in them. It is not just the laws themselves that are a concern, but the rhetoric and culture they reinforce.
I was mildly surprised that there was not a single question or comment in the meeting about current situation in the Middle East. This topic has often come up when I meet with Muslim groups as an example of the double standards of some Western governments.
However, most common of all were simply questions about how politics works, how people can have an impact on decisions and how people can get their points of view recognised and understood. This feeling of being unable to engage meaningfully or safely with the political process, despite a desire to do so, is something which I find in many sections of the community, and it is something I believe there needs to be much more effort to address.
I’ve had attended a number of similar forums and meetings such as this over the last few years and it is patently obvious that all our Muslim communities are wanting is to be equal citizens. They have the same sorts of concerns that all Australians do – to be gainfully employed, to get a good education and opportunities for their kids and not be discriminated against just because they are Muslim or wear a hijab. There is a frustration at what seems to be a continuing and even growing suspicion or mistrust from other Australians, with a feeling that some people fear Muslims are coming to Aust to force Islam on people or to impose sharia law on the rest of us.
It is really only through more connections with the wider Australian community and engagements in public debates and discussions that these sorts of mistaken fears can be fully put to rest. This is a key part of the work that the Intercultural Society does. The danger is that such fears may otherwise escalate and be exploited by people who benefit from inflaming such divisions and ignorance.
It is obviously a matter for individuals and various communities to decide the extent and manner with which they wish to engage in politics, but I believe it is very much in the interest of Muslim communities, and Australia as a whole, for there to be greater engagement than there currently is.
In saying that, I don’t underestimate how difficult it can be when you part of a are a targeted minority group – drawing further attention to yourself and making yourself a potentially bigger target is not normally the first thing that springs to mind. In the past, it has taken a couple of generations for migrant communities to start becoming more involved in mainstream power structures. However, given that we live in a much more globalised world than in the past and also given the significant amounts of fear and ignorance being generated about Muslims, the sooner the ignorance of the wider community can be countered by direct experience of having to engage with Muslim voices in the political process and in political debates, the better for everyone.
This does not mean I am urging all Muslims to join the Democrats (although I’m always happy for us to get new members, particularly in Queensland where we’ve just launched a membership drive), or indeed to join any political party. There are many more ways to become more active in political debates than joining political parties or running for Parliament, and it is up to people to choose what suits them best.
It is the act of engaging in the political process, rather than the particular vehicle people choose to make that engagement which is important. The important thing is to engage more in the debates at community level. There is of course no single Muslim view, any more than there is a single Christian view, indigenous view or Asian view. But until the diversity of Muslim views start to emerge more clearly in public debates, it will be all to easy for ignorance and misunderstanding to prevail, and for misleading stereotypes and narrow views to be presented as the norm.