As Qanda-gate reaches new heights of absurdity with the news of a prime ministerial decree prohibiting his frontbenchers from appearing on the show, it’s glaringly obvious that yet again, “the Muslim issue” in Australian politics has very little to do with Muslims at all. We are just a convenient proxy in a civil war between non-Muslims. Of course, Muslims have provided a convenient scapegoat throughout Abbott’s term in office and that of John Howard before him, but we have now reached the point where Abbott is scapegoating Muslims in order to scapegoat the ABC. Which in turn has been caught in the firing line of the (undeclared) leadership battle between the Prime Minister and his Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull — a seasoned Q&A veteran himself.
Much has been said about the hazards of allowing Zaky Mallah to appear as part of a live studio audience. However, the problem arose not because Mallah is a loose cannon, but because Tony Jones misunderstood his now infamous comment and (live-to-air) responded as though a threat had been issued when it had not. Mallah has said many stupid and offensive things, but, as is now generally acknowledged, he did not call for Australian Muslims to travel to Syria to fight for the so-called Islamic State. He supports Jabhat al-Nusra — an organisation guilty of equally horrific violence but one, it is worth noting, some commentators are now suggesting is worthy of consideration as an ally in the battle against Islamic State. And he didn’t use Q&A to call upon Australian Muslims to join Jabhat al-Nusra either.
You didn’t need to know the intricacies of Mallah’s politics to notice that. You just had to be listening carefully. To repeat the infamous exchange yet again, when parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs Steve Ciobo said that he would be glad to see Zaky Mallah stripped of his Australian citizenship, Mallah responded: “The Liberals have just justified to many Australian Muslims in the community tonight to leave and go to Syria and join ISIL because of ministers like him.”
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The key word here is “many”. If you are calling upon a group of people to do something, you don’t suggest that only some of them should do it, or even that many of them should do it. Your message is directed at all of them. If Jones had not misunderstood that line as a call to join IS and responded accordingly by ruling it “completely out of order”, then the story of the Muslim extremist using Q&A to issue a call to arms on behalf of IS would never have taken on the proportions that it has done.
As it happens, I dislike Q&A as much as Tony Abbott could ever do — not because it’s a “lefty lynch mob” but because it’s — well, stupid. It makes me yell at the TV, and it’s bad for the national blood pressure. But it’s also the appropriate show for someone like Zaky Mallah. Its studio audience is, by definition, the great unwashed — some of whom have interesting and important things to say (e.g. the Darwin schoolboy who used the show to ask why his friend was about to be deported because he had autism), but plenty of whom vent as many stupid and offensive thoughts as they can manage to vomit forth before Tony Jones says that he’ll take that as a comment.
None of this matters anymore, if it ever did. This is not about Mallah, or about Islamic State, or about Muslims. This is about Abbott versus the ABC, in the same way that the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan was about the US versus the Soviet Union. The people of Afghanistan were just collateral damage. And so are Muslims living in Australia, and so, in due course, will be many others.