As Europe grapples with the greatest displacement of people since the Second World War, one of Fairfax’s most prominent columnists has called for Australia to minimise its intake of Muslim refugees fleeing the Middle East, and instead give priority to Christians.
Regular columnist Paul Sheehan argues allowing the intake of Muslims fleeing conflicts in the Middle East will import what he sees as an irreconcilable “schism” between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
“What can or should Australia do? There is nothing we can do about the ancient Sunni-Shia schism, but we can protect those who have become collateral damage – Christians,” Sheehan writes.
“There is no chance the electorate wants to import the Sunni-Shia schism into Australia via a large influx of Muslims dislocated by this conflict.
“Would it be in breach of our discrimination laws to prioritise Christians as refugees? No. I’ve checked,” Sheehan later writes, declining to elaborate further.
In a bizarre transition, the piece opens by referencing the tragic images of Aylan Kurdi – the three-year-old refugee who was photographed on a Turkish beach after drowning during a sea crossing – and the large number of children killed in conflicts in Syrian civil war. Sheehan then makes a case for increasing Australia’s intake of Christian refugees, apparently unconvinced that the thousands of Muslim children included in the statistics he quotes are equally deserving of help.
In his blog post this morning, Andrew Bolt plugged the article, quoting it at length.
Joumanah Elmatrah, CEO of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights, said Sheehan’s thinking arose from a racist line of reasoning that sees all Muslims as warlike and intrinsically conflict prone.
Nowhere in the piece does Sheehan reference the role of the Western-led invasions of Afghanistan or Iraq in the destabilisation of the Middle East.
“To suggest that the Syrian conflict is purely a Sunni-Shia divide is at best a statement that is very poorly informed and at worst is just Islamophobic,” Elmatrah said.
Sheehan has a long history of criticising the place of Muslims in contemporary Australian society and culture, and has used his platform at Fairfax to promote the arguments of halal conspiracy theorists including Kirralie Smith.
“It seems to be the Australian right very much take the view that Muslim migration itself is problematic, and that when there are conflicts in Arab countries that Muslims are generally the perpetrators and are not the victims of any sort, and don’t suffer from the atrocities of war,” Elmatrah said.
CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Kon Karapanagiotidis said it would be “bizarrely un-Christian” to accept only Christian refugees.
“Since opening 14 years ago, we’ve had thousands of Muslim people through the doors at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, just as we’ve had thousands of Christians,” Karapanagiotidis said.
“Everyone is looking for the same thing – a safe place to raise their children, a chance for a better life where they aren’t constantly looking over their shoulder in fear, the freedom to practice their religion and cultural beliefs.”
Refugee Council spokesperson Tim O’Connor said Department of Immigration figures showed that over the last decade the majority of refugees resettled in Australia had been Christians.
“Refugee status should be granted to those who are persecuted,” he said.
“Selecting one religious group for resettlement over another will only exacerbate sectarian conflicts and potentially make the situation much worse for those, particularly from minority groups, who remain in those countries.”
Sheehan’s comments are unnervingly similar to the infamous remarks of Australia’s then Minister for Trade and Customs, T. W. White, who argued in 1938 that Australia should not take a significant number of Jews fleeing Europe as “we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration”.
Elmatrah said Sheehan had ignored the fact Australia had already settled many Muslims through its migration and humanitarian programs and that they had integrated “quite peacefully” without altering the national character.
“The Shia-Sunni divide that he refers to, that he says will be imported by Muslims into Australia, has not been a significant feature of Muslim settlement here,” she said.
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