Australian conservatives thrive on hysteria. During the 1980s, the paranoia was about Iranian revolutionary Shiism and Soviet communism. The Iranians were kept under control by our buddy Saddam Hussein and his chemical weapons. But the Soviet influence was threatening our moderate democratic Sunni Muslim friends, like dictator General Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan.

I doubt too many Australian conservatives would have supported the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan as almost all would have supported the Afghan mujahideen (a word generally translated in those days as “freedom fighters”). Who knows how many young Australian Muslims went to fight in Afghanistan? Who knows how many wanted to? I know I certainly did. And if I had gone, it’s unlikely the prime minister or attorney-general would have stopped me or cancelled my passport.

For decades the conservatives cosied up to Islamists (the religious Right) of Muslim communities and countries. Why? Because Saudi-style Islamists were anti-communist. It seemed everyone from John Howard to Ronald Reagan to Maggie Thatcher suffered from Charlie Wilson’s syndrome. When my friend is my enemy’s enemy, he becomes an even stronger friend.

Now that the commies are well and truly done and dusted, the cultural warriors of the Right have discovered their old friends are now their enemies. After 9/11, George W. Bush’s “Islam is a religion of peace” rhetoric did not go down well in his backyard, though his “crusade” rhetoric certainly did.

After the July 7, 2005, London bombings, the spectre of “homegrown terrorism” placed the spotlight on Muslims born and/or raised here. In response, then-prime minister John Howard chose to appoint a “Muslim Reference Group” consisting of (almost exclusively Sunni) men of roughly his own age but lacking his political guile, media savvy or English language skills.

“Some press releases being issued by Muslim organisations are sounding more like undergraduate politics essays than the work of seasoned media and political operators …”

One of these men was the then-mufti of Australia, Sheik Taj el-din al Hilaly, who also doubled as imam of the Lebanese Muslim Association (LMA). Then, as now, the LMA’s membership rules specifically barred full membership to women as well as to men not of Lebanese heritage. Later, when Hilaly was caught making extremely misogynistic remarks, Howard led the charge against both him and the community he claimed to lead. That huge swathes of that community (or rather, communities) had for years rejected Hilaly’s leadership on a host of religious issues (including the dates of festivals) seemed to escape Howard’s notice.

When the issue of anti-terror laws came to be debated, Howard was a prime minister in his prime. During his first meeting with his hand-picked Muslim Reference Group, Howard managed to convince the group’s chairman, Dr Ameer Ali, to support the proposed laws before any bill had been drafted.

Howard first presented a draft bill to a meeting of premiers and chief ministers in October 2005. Former ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope posted the draft on his website. In a farcical move, Howard then proposed a parliamentary debate on Melbourne Cup Day. Howard got his desired laws. The result was a small number of convictions, a large number of acquittals and an extremely embarrassing and expensive saga involving an Indian doctor named Mohamed Haneef.

July next year will mark the 10th anniversary of the London bombings. The hysteria hasn’t died down. If anything, it has become worse with news that around 150 Australians have now joined the (extremely un-)Islamic State (IS) and are based in Syria, Iraq or Turkey. Exactly what role they are playing is unclear, though we have seen images of an IS fighter with untreated schizophrenia holding what appears to be a dead man’s head.

Australia’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies have asked for increased powers. After the brutal beheading of an American journalist made front pages across the Western world, selling stronger terror laws to the Australian people should be a walk in the park for for any prime minister. Almost as easy as selling a budget or legislating to increase freedom of speech.

It should. But we’re talking about the Abbott government.

The proposed terror laws include provisions on metadata that should generate a coalition of opposition — unifying Muslims, civil libertarians, IPA-types and consumers of sex industry products.

But instead of looking at the broad picture, the language used by many organisations claiming to represent the 400,000-odd Australians who tick the “Muslim” box on their census forms has been insular to say the least.

Some press releases being issued by Muslim organisations are sounding more like undergraduate politics essays than the work of seasoned media and political operators. Others  — including Muslims Australia, the national umbrella body of all state Islamic societies — are ignoring the issue altogether.

Then you have the ridiculous situation where some Muslim “leaders” are meeting with Abbott (with some using grovelling speech) while others are choosing to boycott, thinking their stance will somehow break Abbott’s resolve or undermine his push or deny him a photo op.

As the first anniversary of the Abbott government approaches, Australia’s tiny sector of self-appointed Muslim leaders are in the process of handing him his first and long-awaited political victory. Let’s just hope the lawyers, civil libertarians and porn consumers can do a better job.​

Peter Fray

72 hours only. 50% off a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

Our two-for-one offer with The Atlantic was so popular we decided to bring it back.

But only for 72 hours.

Use the promo code ATLANTIC2020 and you’ll get 50% off a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year of digital access to The Atlantic (usually $70). That’s BOTH for just $129.

Hurry. Ends midnight this Thursday.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

Claim Now