Increasing Muslim involvement in Australian politics

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.

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  1. The problem is not ignorance, as you claim, but knowledge.

    When the official representatives of the Muslim community support terrorism and Holocaust revisionism, or declare their intent to make Australia an Islamic state, Australians are rightly suspicious.

    As we learn more about Islamists, we trust them less.

  2. Hm, looks interesting. I like the work of the Muslim Canadian Congress too, which has made progressive/liberal interventions into Canadian politics. I am often ranting about the evil influence of fundamentalists of all persuasions, but perhaps it is more productive to support and accomodate these kinds of liberal and interfaith movements. Take note, Mr Pundit.

  3. Perhaps if there was an Australian equivalent of the Muslim Canadian Congress with significant support from the Islamic community, there would be less suspicion.

    Instead, we have the likes of al-Hillaly and Keyser Trad as the public faces of Islam in Australia — provoking justified mistrust.

  4. So called terrorist movements must find power outside of the system as they are rejected by the system. When they are incorporated into the system, the system itself becomes the political powerbase for their agenda and they protect the system.

    A clear example of this is the Nth. Irish peace process. When the republicans were excluded from the mainstream system they had a choice to give up or to attempt to build real power through some other means – terrorism. However once Sin Fein developed an electoral strategy and the British began negotiation with not just Sin Fein but also the I.R.A., then the element of extremism in the republican movement (The “Real IRA”) becme isolated, not by it’s enemies but by it’s own community and power base. Today there is a serious, non violent, experienced, political elite of the Republican movement directing exactly the same political goals as the IRA was striving for.

    Democracy is not (theoretically) the maintenence of one political agenda to the exclusion of others by any means necessary. This is barbarism, even savagery.

    Democracy is the civilised process by which divergent agendas are negotiated and managed.

    People with divergent agendas should be urged to engage in the democratic process rather than be forced outside the system to pursue their agendas.

  5. Andrew

    I work with many muslim people as you know.
    However the head dress of women is not something that huge amounnts of muslims are supporting.
    They mostly think that if they are in Australia a scarf is suffient because its important to be part of Australia.

    Ausies dont get around this their full faces covered.

    This is Australia.

    Its that simply.

  6. The Intercultural Society, Melbourne is a superb group of wonderful and tireless people of goodwill.

    I recommend that, if you have something against Muslims or Jews, you attend events hosted by these inspiring peace-loving people.

    Your hate and hurt will flow away, and you’ll value and enjoy your own life in Australia more.

    Paul Kavanagh

  7. Paul, perhaps Ameer Ali, the head the Federal Government’s Muslim Advisory Group, should attend events hosted by the Intercultural Society.

    His recent public support for the terrorist group Hezbollah, which deliberately targets Jewish civilians with rockets, indicates that he may have need of some lessons in goodwill.

    Alternately, he could just move to Lebanon, and work more closely with his beloved Hezbollah.

  8. EP

    Dr Ali is no longer the President of AFIC.

    It is now a man from WA.

    I know AFIC have had their funds frozen so that has probably created some ill feeling.

    There is no doubt that if you attend some of their meetings you expereince warmth and love.

    Most are very educated and gentleman.

    However with whats happening at the moment its hard not to get angry with the full scale attack from extreamists to wipe out the west.

    Make no mistake its not a village fight this time.

    This is a movement to wipe out the west.

    You cant talk to these people because they have no demands other than to wipe us off the face of the earth.
    I am not sure how many muslim people will act in the long run but I hope some love Australia and will be loyal to us.

    John Howard called them today and I hope they have come to some sort of a cease fire so to speak.

    Thanks for your post EP.

  9. Wendy I don’t think EP mentioned AFIC.

    The government has an Australian Muslim Advisory group. Ali is head of that.

    “The man who chairs the Advisory Group, Dr Ameer Ali has been insisting that Hezbollah is a legitimate political group, which shouldn’t be treated the same way as Al Qaeda.”

  10. Thanks Geoff.

    Its certainly a turn for the worst as AFIC have had their funs frozen.

    He is by all means a most fair man but i think anybody who claims that is certainly trouble with a capital T.

    Sometimes we just have to step in.

    Howards done the right thing but calling them and i guess the balls in their court unless we bounce if out.

    There can no no tolerance to that type of talk.

  11. Hmmm, some very interesting comments all around.
    I find Islam and the left wing of politics to be strange bedfellows. The left wing who are the self appointed champions of liberty, equality, tolerance and womens rights (among other things) shacking up with Islam??!!
    Andrew Bartlett mentioned that Islamic constituents often cited examples of the “double standards of Western governments” well this is perhaps the most glaring example. I neednt list the littany of abuses of human rights, the disgusting and degrading treatment of women, the persecution and intolerance of other religions all practised in the name is Islam for there are volumes already written about this. Suffice to point out the hypocrisy and “double standards” of the political parties that support it.
    Of course apologists for the democrats and other left wing parties will be quick to point out that they certainly do not support this type of behaviour. But they do. By supressing reasonable debate over the challenge presented to western society and democracy by Islam, and continually labelling any such proponents (as I am likely to be) as racists or intolerant, they support Islam by helping to cover up the attitudes and beliefs that encourage such acts as mentioned earlier.

    I also notice that the Islamic community (at least the spokespeople for)in Australia are also quick to pull the tolerance card that has been dealt to them by the left. If the left wing are actually genuine about engaging Muslims in political dialogue, and the Islamic community are actually genuine about being involved in it, then they have to genuinely open themsleves up to critique. This is very unlikley to happen unfortunately as any detailed scrutiny of Islam will show it not to be the peaceloving religion that some would have us believe. Of course there are peaceloving, tolerant Muslims, we call them moderates, but the religion they adhere to does not espouse what they would like it to. These moderates are simply in a state if denial as to the true teachings of the Koran (luckily for us).

    So in summation. The Islamic community would do well to examine their beliefs honestly (even though questioning is discouraged by Islam) and open itself to reasonable critcism. The left wing of politics would do well to recognise the real challenges posed to our society by Islam rather than sweeping them under the carpet and pretending that the Islamic community is “just misunderstood”.
    thank you

  12. I’m just wondering how a football team would react to the call for ‘strength through diversity’ (each team member has his own game plan.)
    Or..a Union “The Workers, united, will never be defeated”

    Or a hen house “Look. we have decided to include this fox in your multi cultural pen.”

    The concept of ‘strength’ and ‘diversity’ are by definition mutually exclusive.

    The more ‘diversity’ is emphasized, the more diverse agenda’s are also.

    Each community has its own version of ‘What is Australia’ and for some, it may will be to change the language from English to some other tongue. Or.. it could be (has been) to alter our foreign policy to be more sympathetic to terrorist organizations.
    Or.. it might be to ban ‘ham’ from council functions (Hume Shire with 13% Muslims)

    That incident alone caused so much community outrage that it alone should be enough evidence to prove beyond doubt that ‘diversity’ in the cultural sense brings nothing but animosity and competing agenda’s.
    How so many are blind to this should be made a subject of academic study in psychology.

    The only explanation I can come up with is that there is a manifest political agenda behind the dilution of any sense of “Australian-ness” that obviously suits “somebody”.

  13. If that’s the only explanation you can come up with David, then I’m sorry for you. Although given the mangled analogies you’ve tried to adopt to (mis)interpret multiculturalism, I’m not surprised.

    A better analogy of your type of football ‘team’ would be making everyone playing the position of front rower (or full forward or goal keeper, assuming you would allow a diversity of football codes), regardless of their skills.

    The only organised group that I know of in Australia that wants to change our foreign policy to be more sympathetic to the waging of war and violence is the federal government (although perhaps I’m doing Labor a disservice by not including them too). That doesn’t seem very Australian to me, but I guess in the face of your ‘war on diversity’, differences of opinion or dissent would not be allowed.

    I can only assume you would prefer a one party state with elections for only candidate, where everyone has to buy their groceries from Coles, which would only stock a single brand of every item, before going for a nature walk through a monoculture of one single tree species.

    Perhaps you should just save time and direct everyone to the novel 1984 as an example of your preferred form of diversity-free society.

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