The adage that “when you point one finger at another, four other fingers point back to you” aptly describes the Australian prime minister’s statement after his country’s withdrawal from a cricket tour in Zimbabwe last month. “The Mugabe regime is behaving like the Gestapo towards its political opponents,” said John Howard(pic). The statement is not surprising coming from Howard, known for his strong support for any policies adapted by European and American leaders. The Howard government recently outdid its Western masters in the war on terror, announcing that it would begin banning and restricting materials that it deemed to be promoting ‘terrorism’.
The announcement alarmed activists who are already worried about the way in which Canberra is living up to its status as deputy sheriff for the US. It is common knowledge that the latest book-banning move did not target works bearing titles such as “How To Make A Bomb”. Nor did it mean removing books praising Hizbullah – the kind of book that could not have made it into the Australian bookshelves anyway, thanks to the intensely Islamophobic campaign being championed by a tiny, but vocal and powerful, segment of the country.
The threat to reinstate the old practice of confiscating reading materials has come true. In one recent case, Australian customs seized several titles that had been sent by a Malaysian publisher to a Muslim bookseller in downtown Sydney. Among them is one titled A Young Muslim’s Guide to the Modern World by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a US-based Iranian-born academic who is not even remotely political in most of his works, as well as another book on everyday Muslim do’s and dont’s which has become almost a household name among Muslims: Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam. Although the books have since been returned, probably after the Australian authorities realised how silly they had been to confiscate them at the first place, it shows just how strongly panic alarms can be set off by anything that sounds Islamic, never mind if the authors are harmless even by Western academic standards. Last year several Australian universities, fearing a breach of sedition laws, voluntarily removed “Islamic fundamentalist” titles from their libraries.
The incidents of September 2001 in the US, the Iraq debacle and the ongoing ‘war on terror’ are precursors to change for better or worse is a foregone conclusion. The brunt of their impact was felt mostly by Muslims in western ‘democracies’. Cynics argue that it took the war on terror to jolt some of these Muslims, who came to live in western societies solely because of the freedoms they offer, over the fact how fragile such ‘freedom’ in these western countries is. Now Muslims who flee the very ‘restrictions’ in their countries feel that these Western governments are now going back in time, and behaving almost exactly like their Muslim counterparts in suppressing many of the democractic cosmetics, such as the right to defend one’s self, and freedom of speech.
Calls in some parts of Western societies to take a “hard look at Islam” are nothing new, especially since 2001, and Australia (although geographically not western) is no exception. So embattled are the Australian Muslims that many prominent Australian Muslims take pains to prove their multiculturalism and their openness to other cultures. Multiculturalism has now become from being fashionable to almost a cliche among Muslim intellectuals and community leaders in their quest to be accepted by the Australian mainstream. As a result, the Muslim leadership in Australia conduct themselves within a reactionary framework.
Today, Muslim leaders cannot hope to convince others about their moderation without filling up their curriculum vitae with photographs showing involvement in multiculturalism and inter-religious dialogues. Similarly, it is not strange to see Muslims trying to discredit other Muslims, often simply by accusing them of “promoting hate” and not being “multicultural”.
Even with all the efforts by Muslims to drive home the point that Islam is accommodating, the fact that the Howard government now resorts to what Western governments would condemn as ‘medieval’, the practice of book-banning elsewhere, shows how much progress has been made vis a vis distortion of Islam in the media and the public arena.
Muslims in Australia comprise nearly 2 percent of Australia’s population (approximately 300,0000), and are often said to be the most diverse Muslim minority in the Western world, originating from more than seventy countries, including China. While the majority came from Lebanon, Turkey and other parts of the Middle East, today around 40 per cent of Muslims are Australian-born. Yet unlike other non-whites, the Muslims have attracted the most attention, usually negative, from policy-makers and media debates. While part of the fault lies among Muslim community leaders themselves for neglecting the huge moral crisis within their society, thus making Muslims prone to all sorts of labels. The biased and sometimes racist policies of successive Australian governments have systematically brought the Australian Muslim community to the state it is in today: isolated and almost permanently ‘reactionary’. Such was also the situation when Shaykh Taj al-Din al-Hilali’s speech in a mosque not long ago was repackaged by the Australian media to prepare for several weeks of Islam-bashing, laying bare the Muslim community’s helplessness, lack of focus and absence of leadership in dealing with others as well as with itself.
How desperate the Muslims are to correct their image in the framework of the current Islamophobia was seen recently in a working paper released by the Lebanese Muslim Association, one of Australia’s most influential groups. The report lamented that Muslims had themselves to blame for the state of affairs: “We have become the new communism, particularly in the West, and some people in our community are so repulsed by our actions it is making life unbearable for us and our offspring,” it said last March, even suggesting that imams to volunteer as fire-fighters in the raging bush-fires of that time to show their worth to the Aussie public.
The book-ban is only the latest in a series of back-peddling incidents by Canberra on democratic practices: the ‘anti-terror’ laws, the increase in information blockage by the authorities, and court suppression orders. Under new “anti-terror” laws adopted in December 2005, any act of “praising” terrorism (which includes even merely sympathising with the social and economic roots of ‘terrorism’) can land one in prison.
Australia’s mainstream media, notorious for their Islamophobic reporting, have come out strongly against these measures to ban reading materials and curb press freedom, although these new laws designed to force Muslims into ‘moderation’ are in fact a long-term product of the anti-Islam bias by the Aussie media themselves. On May 10, major media groups announced a joint effort to fight restriction on freedom of information by Howard’s government. Muslim activists, however, will be wiser not to hope that these people can fight for the Muslims’ right to those same ‘freedoms’.