There is a strong culture of denial when it comes to the existence of prejudice in Australia. After the Cronulla riots, John Howard said, "I do not accept that there is underlying racism in this country.” When Eddie McGuire said that Adam Goodes could be used to help publicise King Kong the musical, it was simply a “gaffe”. When Julia Gillard was routinely ridiculed and delegitimised based on gender – political failings aside – many denied it had anything to do with sexism.
Last week Ed Husic was subjected to appalling attacks on social media and talkback radio after he was sworn in as a Parliamentary Secretary on the Quran. Again, that’s been widely regarded as the work of those who are not representative of Australia.
The abuse hurled at Husic from members of the public was swift. They took almost immediately to his Facebook page to express their rage at the man who dared to take his oath on the Quran. One user describes Husic as a “disgrace to Australia”. Others repeatedly describe him as “unAustralian” and “disgusting”. The sentiment creeps rapidly and at times, all Australian Muslims are attacked as untrustworthy and violent, with one user writing “I wouldn't trust Australian born muslims, they wouldnt think twice about killing other australians in the name of allah (sic).”
The commenters on Husic’s Facebook page would have us all believe that it’s not too long now before Australia is converted to sharia law. There will be beheadings and behandings galore! And once he’s done introducing shariah law, he will be using taxpayer dollars to fund a jihad against any (particularly stubborn) remaining infidels.
One Facebook user, posting with a very patriotic pseudonym, Dinki Di Sheila, informed Husic that he has “created history of the worst order, to swear in on a Koran!! This is Australia with Australian Laws”.
Dinki Di Sheila appears to be ignorant of the fact that, under Australian law an individual can swear an oath on any holy book they choose. The only essential requirement set by the Attorney General’s department is that “every member taking an oath should take it in a manner which affects his or her conscience” as explained here.
Many were quick to condemn the vitriol directed towards Husic, including opposition leader Tony Abbott who said to reporters at a press conference in Melbourne that he “respects [Husic’s] choice and… thinks the Australian people should as well.” Andrew Bolt explained to his readership that “Husic represents Australia us at its our best and “a few gutless trolls mean nothing”.
Here is where I disagree. These “trolls” mean everything – and for two reasons. First, because unfortunately they are not just mythical creatures living beneath a distant bridge somewhere – only poking their head out to terrorise the unsuspecting. They are real people, they are the electorate, they form a part of our society.
And second, because there something flimsy about the condemnation of such religious vilification given political interests have cultivated the perfect conditions for such trolls to not only exist, but to thrive.
They are the voters who respond to the “Stop the Boats” slogans of the Liberal party. They are the readership of the “We let them in. Now they threaten" genre of blog post. They are the people whose collective passion is a source of votes and hits, whose fear is manipulated to suit a given agenda (including extreme and inhumane stances on asylum seeker policy).
They can be relied upon for their collective hypocrisy about the fact that the Anglo-Celtic Australia they are so terrified of losing was founded on the blood of the nation’s Indigenous people — against whom state-sanctioned racism thrives today.
The easy way out would be to continue with our denials and to blame the anti-religious sentiment aimed at Husic on a few outliers, but the longer we keep our blinkers on and dismiss the racism, sexism and anti-religious sentiment that exist in our community as gaffes and private jokes, the longer we prevent ourselves from forging a path forward which stops such prejudice from flourishing in our national psyche. Token condemnation is not good enough.
In response to the attacks he faced, Husic’s graceful response was that it is a part of democracy that people can express such concerns. And that is true. It is a part of democracy that people are entitled to their free speech. What is undemocratic is the fear-mongering and political opportunism that have created the script for the free speech mobilised against Husic.
We would do well as a nation to bring these prejudices out of the realm of fantasy and hold our political leaders and media personalities to account for their part in creating them.
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