Last night’s Four Corners highlighted the degree of alienation expressed by many young Muslims, including those who have lived all their lives in Australia. The young men interviewed (very few women were featured) felt themselves to be under constant scrutiny as potential terrorists whose religious identity was regarded as incompatible with the Australian nationality. The “dog-whistle politics” that characterised the Howard years seems to have died down for the moment, but it is too early to say whether it has disappeared entirely. And Muslims are staying on the front page if The Australian has anything to do with it.
This morning, the paper reports that the federal government is considering appointments to a new Muslim advisory board. The Muslim Community Reference Group established under the previous government was dominated by conservative religious leaders. It became a lightning rod for internal Muslim community conflicts and recriminations, and was eventually discontinued. The Australian reported that Ferguson is determined that any new government appointed body should represent a wider cross-section of Muslims, and include secular as well as religious figures.
But The Oz may have exaggerated the government’s intentions a little with the headline “Rudd’s quest for true blue Muslims.” In an interview with Crikey this morning, Ferguson hosed down talk of a re-established reference group, emphasising that any such plans were at a very early stage. While the government is “mindful of the need for dialogue” with Muslim communities, it was impossible to say what shape that dialogue might take.
However, whatever the form of consultation, Ferguson says that the government is determined to engage with a wider range of voices, giving more prominence to sectors such as the Turkish community who have not been adequately represented in the past.
The Australian quotes Ferguson as saying “We can’t prescribe how the Islamic community is to organise itself.” But of course, the process of government consultation inevitably makes an impact on community organisation, because it greatly empowers the selected consultees. Conservative religious leaders have been able to reinforce their power within Muslim communities because “outsiders” — media, politicians, and bureaucrats – gave recognition to their self-appointed roles as spokespeople and gatekeepers.
As Ferguson appears to recognise, this external validation can also play a positive role, providing a platform for those who are ignored both by media and by formal Muslim community organisations. Muslim women who have been involved in various forms of consultation over the past few years report that male Muslim leaders who had disdainfully ignored them for years were suddenly eager to seek their input.
However, the issue of “who should represent” Australian Muslims will remain a fraught issue. Most Muslims are not closely connected with any formal community organisation, and do not consider themselves represented by such bodies. So how to chose representatives from those who have resisted establishing formal channels for representation?