Come on, guys, credit where credit’s due. In their quest to make Australia look ridiculous to a global audience, the dedicated men and women of Border Farce got their timing spot on. Not only did they issue their “badly worded press release” on a day when comedian John Oliver was in town, but their press conference about Operation Fortitude was scheduled to take place right opposite the Melbourne Writers Festival.

I circumvented the protests against Border Farce on the taxi ride to attend writer and filmmaker Tariq Ali’s “Twilight of Democracy” presentation at the MWF on Friday. The driver was from Amritsar, India, and we’d been having an animated, friendly discussion about the Partition of India — about the lives sacrificed for political ambition, about the good old days (decades before either of us was born) when people from Amritsar could go to Lahore for a night on the town. Before the “mutual genocide” of Partition, before the new nation states of India and Pakistan erected a barricade between the two cities.

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Tariq Ali has written about this, I said. He talks about how the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, thought people would still be able to go back and forth across the border after independence and that he’d be able to make regular visits to Bombay, which remained his favourite city.

It can never be like that again, the driver said. The authorities won’t allow it — border security.

The words “border security” jolted my thoughts back to present-day Melbourne, and I asked the driver whether he had heard the news. He had not. I explained.

“Politicians,” he finally said.

Borders and the crossing of them have been the theme of Tariq Ali’s life as well as his writing. He was less than four years old when the border that severed Pakistan from India was locked into place only a short distance from his home city of Lahore, and since then he has spend his adult life occupying the hazardous border-crossing identity of a migrant to the United Kingdom. In an interview conducted in the wake of Border Farce’s Operation Fortitude, he shared his thoughts on the issue of migration in contemporary politics.

“The Australian Prime Minister — well, one thinks that the last one was bad, but then one can always find that the next one is even worse. Politics these days — it’s a disaster. Labor here has the same stance on immigration as the conservatives.

“Australia is a country — as I never fail to point out when I’m here — that was built by migrants. They climb the ladder — but then they kick the ladder away very quickly. I often find this phenomenon among ‘old’ migrants who are quite resentful of the ‘new’ migrants. There’s no solidarity.

“This is something people often forget — that many of the ‘old’ migrants who have settled here are subject to the same crises, the same media, the same politics as everyone else. I remember someone saying to me in shocked surprise, ‘God, the number of black people who read the Murdoch press.’ And you say, ‘Yeah, well, I’m afraid they do because they’re like everyone else. You regard them as different because of their skin colour, but they don’t see it that way’,” he said.

“Australian commentators like John Safran have also expressed surprise at finding migrants from south-east Asia at rallies for Reclaim Australia. I’m always surprised by their surprise. Isn’t this how racism works — always shifting its target, always waiting to be taken up by a new cohort, always available for those on the margins to use as a means of staking a claim in the society that has regarded them as outsiders?” I said.

“Migration of course is the big issue in the Western world, and they’re in denial,” he replied. “In effect, they are the ones who want to make wars and then when it has its effects in the form of refugees, they do not want to accept their responsibility.”

“Within the European Union, workers from some of the Eastern European countries are migrating to find jobs where they can. That has generated resentment among workers and the poor in these countries, but if you’re in the EU you have the free movement of capital and the free movement of labour. It can’t be stopped, unless you pull out.

“These issues are all mixed up — and it’s not racist in the sense that the old prejudice against migrants from south-east Asia was racist. Now it’s about hostility to migrants in a situation where large numbers of people feel insecure and all their certainties have been disrupted. And at the same time, you have a growth in Islamophobia so that refugees from Muslim countries — even if they’re Christian refugees, like many of those from Syria and Iraq — they’re treated as though they are Muslims and regarded as second-class, low-grade citizens. That’s the reality.

“Good people fight against it. But there is a popular trend, as is always the case in times of crisis, when you can scapegoat the poor. The Jews are the classic example.”

And now that Muslims are the favoured scapegoat, Tariq Ali’s assertive atheism does not prevent him from speaking out against Islamophobia.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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