Gerard Henderson and Muslims

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Some months back, I examined Gerard Henderson’s rather selective approach to the involvement of churches in politics. Henderson was critical (in my opinion, rightly so) of those who sought to make an issue of Tony Abbott’s relationship with Cardinal Pell. These same people, according to Henderson, only ever seem to entertain comment from the clergy when it supports their pet inner-city trendy causes. On all other occasions, they are critical of the Christian churches having any role in politics.

Sadly, Henderson was himself found wanting in the double standards department, accusing the Catholic and other churches of appeasing tyrants by opposing the Coalition of the Killing in their attempts to protect Western oil interests.

Religion also features quite prominently in one of Henderson’s more recent works. Recently, he travelled to a place some now refer to as ‘Londonistan,’ where he was hosted by conservative think tank Policy Exchange on the topic of ‘Islam in Australia: Democratic bipartisanship in action.’

Henderson isn’t by any means the first Australian writer to write on Muslim communities. Scholars like Abdullah Saeed and Shahram Akbarzadeh have written and edited entire books on the subject. Hanifa Deen’s wonderful Caravanserais includes the migration histories of some of Australia’s oldest and most established Muslim families.

So what does it take to write about Islam in Australia? Well, for a start, some background study. Perhaps some formal training in the subject. Extensive exposure to Australian Muslims might be an idea. A little humility also helps.

Humility isn’t one of Henderson’s strengths. There’s no doubt that Henderson is a highly educated fellow who reads widely and follows a range of contemporary debates closely. He holds undergraduate degrees in Arts and Law and a doctorate in history, and has worked in various roles including as Chief-of-Staff to John Howard when the latter was Deputy Leader and then Leader of the Parliamentary Liberal Party.

That all sounds very impressive. Henderson would certainly be qualified to write about Australian politics and political history. He could discuss public policy formulation quite competently. Few people in Australia would know as much about Bob Santamaria and the National Civil Council as Henderson.

But what about Islam in Australia? What qualified Henderson to write on this vexed and difficult topic that even universally respected scholars approach with caution? What books has Henderson read on the topic? What courses has he completed? How many scholars has he consulted? How many ordinary Muslims has he spoken to?

Henderson’s analysis does make some very important points. Unlike other conservative writers and self-serving Muslim apologists, Henderson doesn’t buy into the notion that Muslims represent a single monolithic ‘community.’ He also acknowledges that Australian Muslims are, by and large, as secular and irreligious as most Australian Christians. ‘Many Australians who regard themselves as followers of Islam do not attend a mosque.’

Henderson also acknowledges that the vast majority of Muslims ‘have settled in well.’ He castigates conservative commentators like Keith Windschuttle and John Stone for their responses to the December 2005 Cronulla riots. ‘Such responses … were ill-judged and, if embraced, would have proved counterproductive … [I]t would be an act of folly to bar those of Muslim faith from entering Australia simply because they are Muslim.’ In this respect, Henderson certainly cannot be described as a sectarian bigot or a racist.

Henderson also acknowledges that there is no evidence linking Muslim independent schools to terrorism or the radicalisation of young people. Further, where students have shown signs of intolerance, they have been dealt with strictly. His comments in this regard are a slap in the face to former Federal Education Minister and now Federal Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson, who at one stage challenged Muslim independent schools to teach Australian values or ‘clear off.’

Yet Henderson’s entire analysis is coloured by concerns about terrorism and national security. It doesn’t so much talk about Muslims as talk at them. Policy Exchange’s press release claimed the study showed Australia’s eight-point ‘model‘ to ‘approach its Muslim population.’ No doubt staff in the PM’s Office and DIAC will be wondering where this eight-point plan came from.

As I wrote in Crikey on 6 September 2007:

[O]nly four of the eight points in the model actually mention Islam or Muslims. The first three points deal with security and the fourth tackles the end (well, sort of) of multiculturalism. Muslims are only involved to the extent that they do not ‘fail to uphold core Australian values of citizenship,’ and ‘it is not enough for self-appointed Muslim community leaders to oppose violent and aggressive jihad in Australia whilst supporting it beyond the shores of the Commonwealth.’ In short, Muslims are a security threat to be managed. They aren’t people to be consulted or involved or even understood.

Henderson’s theory states that government engagement with ‘moderate‘ (a term Henderson doesn’t define) Muslims is a key element of its ‘model‘ in ‘meeting the challenge of radical Islamism.’ This includes government unwillingness to engage with ‘those Muslim religious figures who fail to uphold core Australian values of citizenship.’

Among these is Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali. Henderson claims that ‘the criticisms which John Howard and Kevin Rudd … levelled at al-Hilali’s January 2007 outburst created a climate in which Muslim Australians felt freer to state their own views than would otherwise have been the case.’ In other words, Muslims would have remained silent if the politicians had not made an issue of Hilali.

How Henderson reached this conclusion is anyone’s guess. Muslim community leaders have been criticising Hilali for years. As far back as April 2006, Islamic Council of Victoria spokesman Waleed Aly was writing in The Australian that ‘al-Hilali remains of more interest to tabloid columnists than to Victorian Muslims,’ and that for Muslims living outside Sydney the former Mufti generates a ‘collective yawn.’

Aly has had articles published in numerous newspapers and made numerous statements in the media critical of Hilali. He has been joined by a host of prominent Australian Muslims, including religious leaders.

Henderson’s claims of Muslims not feeling free to criticise Hilaly before Howard and Rudd spoke out are laughable and show how little he knows about the communities he writes about.

Even more laughable is the fact that Henderson’s eight interviews on the subject are all with current and former MPs, former Ministers, security and law enforcement officials. In a study about Islam in Australia, not a single Muslim has been interviewed. That’s right. Not one. Zero. Zilch.

When Henderson talks about the operations of the Muslim Community Reference Group (MCRG), he is happy to get former Citizenship Minister Andrew Robb’s perspective but he doesn’t bother to contact a single member of the Group.

And as if to further compromise the credibility of his hosts, it appears another Policy Exchange study on Muslims and national security used fabricated evidence. Watch the Policy Exchange representative try to weasel his way out of this.

Then again, maybe Henderson has good reason not to interview a single Muslim for a study about Muslims. Natural justice demanded that I at least ask Dr Henderson about this. On the evening of Wednesday 5 September (our time), I phoned him and asked why he chose not to interview any Muslims or MCRG members. He became somewhat irate, dare I say Middle Eastern, at this line of questioning. He also referred to the previous New Matilda analysis, which he claimed had factual errors.

Our conversation ended with Henderson making a request. ‘Why don’t you go and write some rant for The Age or the Canberra Times or New Matilda!’

Here endeth the rant.

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