If you’re a Green on the same side of George ‘everyone has a right to be a bigot’ Brandis, that should be enough to give you pause for thought, writes Michael Brull.
Recently, a group of neo-Nazi thugs terrorised Charlottesville in the USA. When criticising neo-Nazis, no-one argued that this was bad because it might cause Jews or black people to hurt innocent white people. The idea that racism is bad was considered enough.
If Jews are people, and racism against them is wrong, then there is no need to make convoluted and dubious arguments about the dangers of provoking Jews.
Likewise with sexism. Have you ever heard the argument that making offensive remarks about women is bad, because of the possible side effects it may have on men?
The point is straightforward. If you regard a group of people as intrinsically having worth, you don’t need to justify treating them with respect. It is enough to note that they have been treated with disrespect. Their dignity is implicit.
In Australia, like other countries, that fundamental premise does not hold in relation to Muslims. It is not enough to suggest that someone has acted in an offensive way towards Muslims. Certain progressive types have decided the best way to counter Islamophobia is to show that actually, Islamophobia is unpatriotic, and doesn’t serve our national security interests.
This was how Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young chose to confront Senator Pauline Hanson, in response to Hanson’s recent decision to wear the burqa to Parliament.
Hanson-Young, invoking the wisdom of organisations like ASIO, said “Pauline, I think you need to really reflect on the fact that security experts, foreign policy experts have said that what you did last week will now be used as the recent kind of fodder for promoting extremism”. Hanson-Young ramped up the threat from ISIS, saying “It is extremely dangerous. You are putting the entire country at risk.”
Hanson-Young claimed that Hanson’s stunt was “doing ISIS’s work for them”. It should be noted, most attacks and attempted attacks by people claiming connection to ISIS in Australia have been typically carried out by teenagers, marked by amateurism, limited access to weaponry, and no more than a handful of casualties at a time. Inflating the danger posed to Australia ultimately inflates the menace and potence of ISIS. Thus, Hanson-Young could equally be accused of “doing ISIS’s work for them”.
Attorney-General George Brandis offered a similar critique of Hanson in Parliament. Though emotional whilst speaking, his response included the following:
Senator Hanson, for the last four years, I have had responsibility pre-eminently among the ministers subject to the Prime Minister for national security policy. And I can tell you, Senator Hanson, that it has been the advice of each director-general of security with whom I have worked and each commissioner of the Australian Federal Police with whom I have worked that it is vital for their intelligence and law-enforcement work that they work cooperatively with the Muslim community.
Thus, to offend Muslims isn’t bad for its own sake. Brandis says that “to ridicule that community, to drive it into a corner, to mock its religious garments is an appalling thing to do”. Yet ultimately, it appears it is “appalling” because of the advice he has received from the police and intelligence agencies.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull defended Brandis’s comments with his own version of conditional support for Muslims. He said, “Our best allies, our indispensable allies in the battle against Islamist extremism, against Islamist terrorism, is the Muslim community. Most of the victims of these terrorists are Muslims. So let’s be quite clear about that. They are our best allies in every respect”.
These statements all offer a conditional opposition to Islamophobia. We shouldn’t demonise Muslims if the police and ASIO think it would be counter-productive. But what happens if ASIO and the police tell us to spy on Muslims, thread snitches throughout their communities, launch constant heavy-handed raids in Muslim suburbs, and devise counter-terrorism laws that curtail civil liberties of Muslims?
In the case of Liberals like Brandis and Turnbull, we already know the answer. In the case of Hanson-Young, we get incoherence. If she believes groups like ASIO understand how to prevent terrorism, and are “experts” we should defer to, then shouldn’t she disagree with Greens opposition to counter-terrorism laws?
For the last 15 years, federal governments have again and again eroded our civil liberties, with draconian measures directed primarily at Muslims. George Brandis has played a starring role in many of those measures. For just one example of many, consider this report from September 2014 in the Guardian.
Bridie Jabour notes that Brandis signalled “the government may widen the scope of control orders to make it easier for police and intelligence agencies to ban people from being in certain areas or speaking with certain people if they are suspected of engaging in terrorist activities but there is not enough evidence to charge them.” They would allow people to be held without charge for a fortnight.
Brandis also pushed a bill which “increases surveillance powers as part of the government’s national security measures”. Human Rights Watch warned of another bill which threatened to criminalise “the legitimate actions of whistle-blowers, journalists and human rights activists.”
At another time, Brandis also hoped to criminalise Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, arguing that “advocating extremism… to achieve political change” is “not a legitimate use of free speech and has no place in our society”.
Groups like ASIO and the police – Hanson-Young’s apolitical “experts” – are always asking for more powers to oppress and harass Muslims. If Hanson-Young opposed those measures, wouldn’t Hanson be justified in saying that she was doing ISIS’s work? Couldn’t she rightly complain that Hanson-Young was ignoring the experts she used to place so much faith in?
Opposing Islamophobia for instrumentalist reasons is not only unprincipled, it is also self-defeating.
It is enough to say that Muslims deserve to be treated with the same respect as anyone else. It is enough to say that gratuitous insults and provocative stunts are offensive, and shouldn’t be directed at stigmatised minorities. Arguments about who is helping the terrorists will ultimately be turned against those who oppose our wars, expanding police powers, and spying on Muslims.
Furthermore, any arguments about the effect of Hanson’s stunt are ultimately empirically unproven. There are cases where the connection between Western actions and the rise of jihadi terrorist groups is better established. For example, Western support for the government of Saudi Arabia, or the invasion of Iraq. Yet here too, there are also principled reasons to oppose those policies.
If we think Muslim lives matter, then Hanson’s stunt is a petty misdemeanour compared to the murderous atrocities committed against Muslim countries for decades. Hanson hasn’t destroyed any Muslim countries. As far as Islamophobes go, Hanson is a rank amateur. She will probably never have the power to institutionalise Islamophobia like high-brow Islamophobes.
When Brandis rebuked Hanson, Greens and ALP politicians stood to applaud him. Senator Penny Wong praised him for his leadership in opposing Hanson’s bigotry. Wong previously refused to take a position on Australian military exports to Saudi Arabia, as it wages a devastating war on Yemen.
The United Nations has warned – again – that aside from the outbreak of cholera, nearly 7 million people are on the brink of famine. This is the Islamophobia of the powerful in Australia. Supporting ASIO spying, Muslim snitches, threatening millions of predominantly Muslim people with famine, but being offended by an inane stunt by a clueless racist. Muslim lives, rights and dignity don’t count – unless ASIO says that further insult might be counter-productive.
Senator Hanson-Young presumably thought her criticisms of Hanson were a kind of clever rhetorical trick. She thought that positioning herself closely to Hanson’s moral universe would offer a means to reach through to people who are scared of Muslims and terrorism.
Ultimately, this kind of move just corroborates Hanson’s position that we should be scared of Muslims, and that they’re only a hair’s breadth away from posing a risk to the “entire country”.
The Greens will need to do better than this to stand against Hansonism and the apparatus of Islamophobia in Australia. Finding themselves on the same page as George Brandis is a clue that they’ve gone wrong somewhere.
* Disclosure: Michael Brull has recently joined the Greens.