Well there you have it. Laurie Ferguson has found the solution to the problem, the more than $440 million that the previous government wasted on the “Muslim Community Reference Group” can now be spent on a smaller group made up of seven that includes academics, business and sports people. Problem solved!

This hyped approach tells people that “a lot of Muslim youth in my electorate that are totally irreligious, or its marginal to their existence and they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Koran.”

Firstly, what problem are you trying to resolve? What are the objectives of the group? Surely starting with the group before stating its objectives is like putting the cart before the horse. I won’t buy the old story of “factors contributing to the radicalisation of young Muslims”, this issue has already been the subject of research and literature and has been done to death.

Secondly, democracy dictates that those people with an issue make representations about their issues, the suggestion that a third party can dictate to a section of the constituency who their representatives should be is a repeat of the mistake that the Howard government made with the Muslim Community Reference Group.

Thirdly, if “a lot of Muslim youth … are totally irreligious, or its marginal to their existence”, then how does this differentiate Muslims from other Australians? And if Muslims are the same as other Australians, then why do they need a reference group?

By now, most Australians should be tired of this tried old government practice that catapults to the front page the mention of the word Islam in conjunction with a government initiative. Many ordinary people do not want to hear about Islam and the government and many Muslim and non-Muslim Australians have been thrilled with the past seven or eight months where Islam did not grab so many headlines as it did in the preceding years since September 11.

But that was too good to last, generally, the slow period that succeeds an election can be like the calm that precedes the storm, nothing seems to galvanise emotions and polarise views as quickly as the mention of the word Islam and there you have it, the front page of The Australian and the debate is reignited about who represents Muslims in Australia.

This debate ignores a very important premise, that Australians, Muslims or otherwise, will represent themselves, when they have issues. Muslim Australians have been pleading to be accorded the same respect and access as other Australians, we do not want more and we do not want less. This does not preclude us from grouping our representations through the organisations that we choose. We are the same as everybody else – human.

Some of us prize our faith, some don’t, this is a personal issue. When one of us breaks the law, others in the community expect that this person will receive the same treatment as any other Australian, that is, if he is Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or practising Christian, then some basic religious rights are accorded, but apart from that, he or she is like any other person. Similarly, when this person succeeds in something, he or she expects the same respect as any other Australian.

We are not seeking to be placed on a pedestal nor in a display case, we are the same as everybody else – human.

This is the very aspect of our make-up that governments have consistently failed to recognise, they have failed to see our common humanity and have refused to mend the rift that they themselves created when they treated Muslims as some sort of mysterious “Other”. Any doctor who has operated on a Muslim will tell you that we share the same blood and same strengths and frailties and same aspirations as everybody else.

We want our country to be safe, we want our families to be safe and we want our children to succeed in school and in the workforce and contribute to their country. We, like Christians and Jews, want our children to be good citizens so that they can go to Heaven.

So why re-ignite the debate?

If the government wants another Muslim Community Reference Group, it must convince the Australian public why it needs such a group, then it must state the aims and objectives of this group. If the public agree to the need for a group, the government must then show how the members of this group are placed to meet these aims and objectives.

There is one reason for which I would see an academic and this reason is to ask what he did with the donation that my organisation gave to him to support some research program.

As for a sportsperson, his or her performance on the field might give me a sense of pride, but off the field, sportspeople are not the people who line up to hear my concerns.

There are three things for which I may see business “types” (as Laurie puts it), a business opportunity, a job or a donation. We do not see the government dictating which “academics, business types, sporting types” or mainstream leaders are to represent other faith groups unless they are elected to the various societies and organisations that have been established by that faith group or unless they are nominated by those societies for such positions.

If a fraction of the money that was used for the previous reference group was kept to boost the Community Settlement Scheme that has operated under the Multicultural Affairs portfolio for years, that would have served a greater purpose than all the other reference group schemes put combined.

Peter Fray

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