We don't want to fight but by Jingo if we do
We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too
– G.H. Macdermott
If you were able to transport yourself back to the working class music halls of London in the late 1870s, you might come across a performer known as ‘The Great Macdermott’.
London at the time was in the first full flush of its Victorian splendor, an imperial metropole made of equal parts international capital, moral improvement, coal smoke and industrial poverty. Britain was at the height of its global ascendancy, a latter day Rome that could boast nearly a quarter of the world’s landmass as colonies.
Macdermott was a minor star on the vaudeville circuit, a man whose talents have been almost completely forgotten to history, save for his abiding contribution to our political argot: the concept of ‘Jingoism’, the populist pursuit of aggressive foreign policy for the purposes of asserting national pride.
If you’ve picked up a copy of a Murdoch tabloid newspaper in the past month, you’ll know exactly what Macdermott was singing about. Like the threat posed by Russia to the British Empire in 1878, Australia’s sudden obsession with terrorist fears and passion for foreign aggression is wholly unrelated to the true scale of the threat posed.
This week, we saw Australian jingoism is its full fever. We learned that the Abbott government, not content with embarking on yet another dubious war in the Middle East, was quite prepared to launch a sustained assault on half a million Australian Muslims for political gain.
The targets of the new culture war were not foreign terrorists or domestic extremists, but, sadly and predictably, Muslim women.
The dog whistling began with Palmer United Senator Jacqui Lambie’s tongue-tied mumbling about the security risks posed by women in burqas. It then moved into the Coalition, as Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi and Queensland National MP George Christensen made provocative anti-Islamic statements in Parliament and on their own social media accounts.
Bernardi then formally asked the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop, to ban the wearing of the burqa anywhere in the Parliamentary building.
By yesterday afternoon, Bishop, and her counterpart in the Senate, President Stephen Parry, had issued a ruling that Parliamentary visitors to the upper and lower chambers would now have to sit in the sound-proof glass enclosures – typically, where school children sit. In theory it was about “security”. In reality, it was a hysterical over-reaction to the rumour of a protest by women wearing veils.
As Mariam Veiszadeh points out in a perceptive article in Fairfax Media today, the very fact we are talking about the “burqa” – a largely Afghani dress that is not widely worn in Australia – shows the depth of the ignorance and prejudice at play. The majority of Australian Muslim women that cover their face wear the niqab, and many more wear the hijab or head scarf.
Of course, there are many Australian women of Islamic faith who don’t cover their heads at all. Alongside the Islamophobia, the patriarchialism of this debate is stunning. Yet again, we have white Christian men telling women of colour how to act and how to dress. As Ruby Hamad pointed out more than three years ago, “the real trouble with the burqa-banning bandwagon is that it is obliterating any chance of a progressive female Muslim voice.”
Thinking citizens can take little solace in the fact that, by week’s end, Prime Minister Abbott had signaled that he would attempt to persuade the Parliament to reverse the ban.
It was over-reach, not contrition. Only two days ago, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, was openly telling Coalition MPs that the best way to frame their opposition to Islamic dress was in terms of security risks.
Some have criticised the way the media has reported the burqa ban story. That’s understandable: the mendacious and atavistic nature of the subject matter is calculated to enrage. More important and substantial issues are being ignored in the rush to report.
But the story is being covered because of what it represents: a move by the elected legislature of our nation to discriminate against a group in our society on the basis of their religion, in the context of a highly-charged social debate about war, terror and insecurity. In a democracy, cultural and religious freedoms are precious things. It is entirely in the public interest that journalists are reporting on their restriction.
It’s revealing that in the rush to impose the new security regulations, no consideration seems to have been given to the possibility that a Muslim woman may one day be elected to the Parliament. In a country that once prided itself on its tolerance and multiculturalism, it’s astonishing how little media or political representation is afforded to the very citizens who are the subject of this feverish debate.
It’s clear that, whatever the perceived political benefits to the Coalition of its war party rhetoric, the domestic debate is now running in dangerous and uncontrolled directions. Social tensions are manifestly being inflamed for irresponsible reasons. Jingoism can be a dangerous card to play.
The burqa farce may seem like an own-goal from a divided and ill-disciplined government. It is that, but it is also a classic case of political opportunism.
Playing the Islamic card is textbook Tony Abbott: utterly ruthless and utterly irresponsible. In opposition, Abbott didn’t hesitate to trash public confidence in democratic institutions such as the Parliament, judging that more damage would accrue to the Labor government than the Coalition.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that Abbott and his party are only too happy to throw a burning torch onto the bonfire of Australia’s incipient multicultural tensions.
And the government is hardly stepping back from the precipice. This morning the Prime Minister was again beating on the drums of war, confirming that air strikes by Australian fighter jets against the Islamic State are about to commence.
“Australia is reluctant to reach out to conflicts thousands of miles away, but this conflict has reached out to us,” Abbott said this morning.
He could almost have been saying that “we don’t want to fight, but by Jingo if we do…”
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