Kevin Rudd must make tackling the growing problem of Islamophobia in Australia a key priority.

After nearly 12 years of populist, race-driven politics under John Howard, racist and xenophobic Australians feel justified in vilifying minorities and believe religious bigotry is tolerable. This will be Howard’s enduring legacy – the price the country has paid for his retro-form agenda, highlighted by his war on so called “political correctness” which included appropriating Pauline Hanson’s agenda, decrying a “black-arm band view” of Indigenous history and demonising Muslim Australians, asylum seekers and African refugees.

He also exaggerated the threat of terrorism to fuel fear of the ‘other’ and promoted anger towards law-abiding Muslim Australians for electoral gain. Think Tampa, Children Overboard, Haneef, the dishonest justification of the War in Iraq and claims African refugees couldn’t “integrate’.

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The latent underbelly of Australian racism and nationalism tipped into public violence two years ago during the Cronulla Riots and the new Prime Minister needs to appreciate the danger of leaving Howard’s legacy unaddressed.

The vile attack on the site of a proposed Muslim School in South West Sydney, in the aftermath of Labor’s landslide win, soured the victory for tolerance and highlighted the potential for a backlash against resurgent multiculturalism by racists emboldened by the Howard years and an often complicit media. Police are continuing to investigate the incident, which involved an Australian flag being suspended between pigs heads impaled on stakes on the vacant lot in semi-rural Camden where there has been strong, organised local opposition to the school.

The new Labor government will need to show strong leadership in combating racism, particularly as it relates to Muslim communities – arguably now the most vilified group of Australians.

The seriousness of Australia’s moral decline towards official racism became starkly apparent to me during my attendance at the recent International Diversity Conference in Amsterdam. I anchored a discussion group about cultural diversity and the media and, in that forum, the distance we’ve fallen became patently obvious.

There were several Australians in the room and the discussion quickly turned to the coverage of multiculturalism in our country and, from
there, to a critique of the political drivers behind what we agreed was increasingly narrow and racist reporting. This didn’t surprise me – although there was catharsis in the shared disgust. What did unsettle me, though, were the reactions of other international contributors to the discussion. Most notably, two Afrikaner South Africans in the group. They sat with jaws open and gasped while we debated the issues. “Do you mean they’ve abolished multiculturalism” they asked incredulously. “Yes” the Australians answered collectively. As a young Canadian post-grad student astutely observed: “What you’ve told us reminds the rest of us just how quickly the gains can be lost and the clock turned back on

Academic study undertaken during the Howard years offers further evidence of the way in which racism has become entrenched. As part of a study of media coverage of cultural diversity in which I was involved – Journalism in Multicultural Australia – research by Murdoch University concluded that:

While non-Anglo Australians are almost inevitably represented as “bad”, “sad”, “mad” or “other”, in the current political climate, the focus of the fear has overwhelmingly been Muslim terrorism which has in turn led to a suspicion of all things Muslim. (Phillips &Tapsall, 2006)

Further, Professor Peter Manning, whose PhD research examined the print reporting of Muslims, has accused Howard era politicians of “stoking up the embers of racist hatred (in a nation) … awash with misunderstanding about Islam”.

Meantime, Sydney academic, Scott Poynting argues that political opportunism and the sensationalist headlines triggered by it, led to, and gave licence to, racist attacks in shops, streets and workplaces. And, in a study drawing on his and others’ research which factored in the 2001 asylum seeker debate, the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission concluded that:

The need for action is urgent. In the current environment of fear and suspicion fostered by terrorism and the ‘war on terror’, our multicultural values of social equity and respect for diversity are at risk of diminishing.

Kevin Rudd has a chance to arrest the decline: he must take a stand for tolerance and revive multiculturalism as official policy while using his role to educate bigoted Australians out of their irrational, terror-fuelled fear of all things Islam. This is not a job he can afford to put on the back-burner – it requires immediate action and serious investment if we are to avoid another Cronulla or worse.

The lessons of “home-grown terrorism” which thrives on disaffection, ostracism and bigotry should be motivation enough.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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