It’s late 1995. I’m sitting in my office in a small law firm in suburban Sydney. The receptionist buzzes me and puts the call through. It’s an old factional ally from the Young Libs who is contemplating a run against Paul Keating in his own seat at the next election. My friend doesn’t expect to win. At best, he wants a swing of over 5 per cent.
Keating’s former electorate of Blaxland takes in much of the Arabic-speaking heartland of south-west Sydney. The Imam Ali ben Abi Taleb Mosque in Lakemba, with Sheik Hilaly’s house next door, is just outside the electorate, but much of its congregation are Keating’s former constituents.
"Mate, we need to stitch up preferences before the election to maximise the swing. This bloke rang me and told me he was setting up an Islamic party. He’s going register it at the Electoral Commission and says he wants to do a preference deal. Can you talk to him? His name’s Keysar. You want his number?"
It would be the first time I spoke to the man who would eventually become a household name in Australia. Who would become Aussie Islam’s unofficial and unelected spokesman. Who, together with a certain Sydney sheik, would turn Aussie Arabs and Muslims into a combination of household joke and serious threat to social cohesion. And who many Muslims (to use Keating’s phrase) might well describe as "unrepresentative swill".
At the heart of just about every media controversy involving Muslims, you’ll find Keysar throwing in his 2 cents worth. Average Aussies will be watching or listening. Until recently, they wouldn’t have known their Muslim countrymen and women were also watching and listening – and cringing about what their friends and colleagues would be asking them the following day.
And not just Muslims. On Sunday, I joined a group of comedy fanatics at a screening of the Axis of Evil Comedy Show. A frustrated young chap approached me.
"Irfan, what are we going to do about Keysar? Can’t you shut him up? We have enough problems as it is."
We? Who is this guy? Why is he talking to me? I’d never met him before. He sensed my dismay and introduced himself. He even volunteered his background – Lebanese Orthodox Christian. Keysar’s victims form a very broad church indeed.
But is it really all Keysar’s fault? Or is he just trying his best to respond to the veritable tsunami of prejudice against a faith and a community (or set of communities) he deems his own?
Back in June, Roger Cohen wrote in Der Spiegel that "fear-mongering about Islam is a global industry. It thrives on ignorance".
Since the London bombings, certain cultural warriors have used newspaper columns and talkback shows to incite a monocultural revolution. The tabloids have been even more virulent, using any excuse (including meat pies and religious art prizes) to engage in sectarian and racial bigotry.
They’ve been helped along by ministers and backbenchers in what used to be the Howard government. Whether it be Peter Costello pontificating on sharia or John Howard complaining about YouTube or even Bronwyn Bishop comparing hijab-defenders to Nazis, pseudo-conservative elected officials have enjoyed themselves at the expense of 2 per cent of the Australian community with some link to Islam (along with those deemed Muslim by virtue of their appearance or their non-Anglo names).
Throughout this onslaught, Keysar has seen it as his business to defend what he sees as the honour of Islam. Much of the time he’s been the right side, even if his choice of expressions and venues (such as A Current Affair) haven’t been the best.
When Sheik Hilaly’s cat-meat comments surfaced, even his best friends were begging the Sheik to use some gaffe tape. In defending Hilaly’s indefensible comments, we all hoped we’d seen the end of Keysar’s public face. Especially when Monica Attard caught Keysar being selective in truthfully interpreting Hilaly’s words.
Since mufti day ended, sectarian wedge politics just hasn’t worked so well. Howard’s attempts to use the Haneef prosecution failed miserably. He reaped what he sowed in the form of the Lindsay pamphlet. Following the change in government, we’ve had some nervous times when cultural warriors at The Oz made an issue of the Griffith Islamic Research Unit and the innocuous Tabligh Jamaat. But all that was short-lived. Keysar spoke, and was largely ignored.
So finally Aussies who feel inclined to tick the "Muslim" box on their census forms enjoyed some breathing space. Finally Keysar kept us out of the news. Finally we could get back to the office without having to explain his latest controversial remark. Peace at last!
"You wish", Keysar must have said to himself when he appeared on Triple J’s Hack program last week announcing he was on the prowl for a second wife. I could just imagine a whole bunch of Muslim fathers saying to their teenage daughters: "OK, time to lock you up, my darling". Except this time, the daughters would be responding: "Sure, Dad! Anything to get away from him!!"
As this is a family-friendly website, I won’t be typing what else the daughters will probably be saying. I’m sure they will be far less polite than Virginia Haussegger was in Saturday’s Canberra Times who writes of Keysar’s "large belly and hips thrust confidently forward".
And as I grab the White Pages and look up Jenny Craig’s number, allow me to leave you with one thought. Haussegger writes:
"I know for every word I use to hurl abuse at the deeply entrenched misogyny in Islam, 1000 words will be fired back by feisty Muslim women, angry at the suggestion that they are in any way oppressed. And I hear those claims. I just can’t see the evidence."
She has a point. But why complain to Muslim women? Virginia should be telling this to her colleagues in TV, radio and print who continue giving airtime to Keysar and his polygamous-wannabe mates while ignoring ordinary Australian women who just happen to be Muslim.