On 1 September, on Radio 2GB, there was the following dialogue between Prime Minister John Howard and a talkback caller:
PRIME MINISTER: what I want to do is to reinforce the need for everybody who comes to this country to fully integrate and fully integrating means accepting Australian values, it means learning as rapidly as you can the English language, if you don’t already speak it, and it means understanding that in certain areas, such as the equality of men and women, the societies that some people have left were not as contemporary and as progressive as ours is.
And I think people who come from societies where women are treated in an inferior fashion have to learn very quickly that that is not the case in Australia. That men and women do have equality and they’re each entitled to full respect. I think Australia has benefited enormously from immigration
[A]nd I think there is a section, a small section of the Islamic population and I say a small section and I’ve said this before which is very resistant to integration. And this is a worry of their community as much as it is of the rest of the community.
RADIO PRESENTER, CHRIS SMITH: Is there own community doing enough to tell and weed out these people?
PRIME MINISTER: Some are, some are, and some aren’t. Most of the Islamic people I know are as appalled by the attitude of a small minority as you are and I am. But there are some who see appeals for people to fully integrate into the Australian community, they try and turn that into some kind of act of discrimination against them and I think that’s the sort of thing [the CALLER]is reacting against and she’s quite right to do so.
Howard was still defending his comments at the time I wrote a response published in the Canberra Times. On the same day, he climed to have ‘clarified’ his comments.
As usual, Howard was testing the waters. He was blowing a whistle and testing how loud the dogs barked. And boy, did the dogs bark loudly!
Sheik Rupert bin Murdoch’s Limited News went crazy. The Australian‘s Dick Kerbaj started the howling his sub-editors giving his 1 September article the explosive headline: ‘PM Tells Muslims to Learn English.’ (The fact that most Muslims speak better English than Kerbaj speaks Arabic didn’t occur to the headline writers.)
Piers Akerman followed closely behind, showing off his Arab cultural expertise by claiming Syrian-born female psychiatrist Dr Wafa Sultan was really a bloke. (He now claims it was a typo.)
The headlines flowed thick and fast the Daily Telegraph‘s Luke McIlveen exaggerating both the PM’s words and some Muslim responses.
Predictably, Peter Costello tried to out-Howard Howard, while the PM himself went in the other direction telling every man and his Middle Eastern dog more or less that ’99 per cent of Muslims make really good hommus! Only 1 per cent add extreme garlic!!’
On Sunday night, I was relaxed and comfortable in Canberra watching re-runs of Family Guy when Channel 9’s Today Show phoned to ask me to go head-to-head with Andrew Bolt. I reluctantly agreed.
The next morning, a limousine picked me up and took me to the Canberra studio of WIN-9. They hooked me up with a microphone, though there was no screen for me to see either Bolt or my interviewer Karl Stefanovic.
This was supposed to be a cultural show-down, an old-fashioned ‘death match’ from the days of World Championship Wrestling, beamed live across Australia and New Zealand. I was to be the dude defending non-English speaking, wife-beating Mullahs. Bolt was meant to be the reasonable Dutchman defending good ol’ Aussie values.
They played Costello’s sound bite in which he basically said that Muslim leaders need to condemn terrorism so that Muslim converts could get the message that real Islam isn’t a radical violent political ideology. It was the first time I’d heard it. I was shocked. How could this brilliant industrial lawyer now shoot himself in the foot again?
Here’s how the conversation went, more or less:
KARL: Let me start with you, Irfan. In what sense is Peter Costello wrong in suggesting Muslim migrants should preach true Islam and condemn terrorism?
ME: Well, Karl, I have to tell you that I can find nothing wrong in Costello’s statement you just aired.
BOLT: Well I’m really pleased to hear that, Irfan, but there are still crazy clerics and their interpreters opposing the PM and Costello. When will you Muslims oppose these radical clerics?
ME: Andrew, you are right as well. There are extreme clerics threatening people’s lives. There are clerics preaching terror. Then there are clerics opposing stem-cell research that could save people’s lives. There are even clerics threatening the health and lives of women by lobbying to limit access to abortion for those who genuinely need it. It’s terrible!
KARL: Andrew, what do you say about that?
I couldn’t see what happened next, but I could hear Bolt jamming the word ‘Hezbollah!’ into each sentence as many times as possible. I sat back and tried not to snigger. Karl called it game, set and match.
Back in the Channel 9 limo, I switched on my phone. Calls arrived in quick succession from Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane and Allah-knows where else. They were all from women : ‘Good on you. That bastard is so anti-abortion!’ ‘Well done for exposing the real extremists!!’
(OK, I’ll admit they were from my buddies.)
So Howard and Costello have placed the final nail into the anti-Muslim hate speech coffin. Their combined message can be summarised as follows:
Ninety-nine per cent of Muslims are perfectly integrated, speak English, adopt Australian values, and treat women as badly as the rest of us do. Converts need pastoral support to understand Islam isn’t violent or terroristic.
Thanks, John and Pete.
Now the Bolts and Akermans and Albrechtsens and Stones and Steyns and Sheehans and Devines have lost 70 per cent of their content. They can no longer say Muslims have inherently violent misogynistic cultures, or claim Islam is inherently violent, without directly contradicting their political masters.
It also means that Howard and Costello have effectively dismissed Rupert Murdoch’s suggestion that Western Muslims are likely to suffer from dual loyalties. Because every time they make such claims, I’ll be quoting Howard & Costello.
And throwing in a few stem cells for good measure!
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.