But Some Of My Best Friends Are Muslim…

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Politicians – particularly Scott Morrison – weren’t welcome in Australian Muslim communities last week. They went anyway. Michael Brull explains.

In the wake of the murder of some 50 Muslims in two Christchurch mosques, the Prime Minster Scott Morrison sought to ride a wave of sympathy for Muslims in Australia. He sought to pose as a long-standing and heartfelt friend of Muslims in Australia.

There are two major reasons this is a tough sell. Firstly, because of his record, and that of his party. Secondly, because of his relationship with Muslims in Australia.

He is now claiming that he is a dear friend of Muslims in Sydney. Plenty of Muslims have tried to stress that he is not their friend.

On March 21, Morrison had a widely criticised interview with Project host, Waleed Aly. Morrison regularly spoke over Aly, refused to criticise any Coalition Islamophobia, and refused to commit to preferencing One Nation last, or below the Greens and Labor.

To defend the sordid record of the Coalition and himself, Morrison turned to referring to his Muslim friends. Foremost among them was Jamal Rifi. He also stressed that after the attack in Christchurch, “I was able to meet with the Imams Council and I have many friends there and basically we hugged when we met, my friends and I. Then we spoke honestly about what had occurred and how people were feeling in the Islamic community and the feelings that were going right throughout the country.”

Morrison went on to say that he has been fighting concerns about Muslims for years, and “that’s why on Saturday after these horrendous attacks, I went to speak to those at the Lakemba Mosque, I was greeted with hugs and tears. Do you think that is the act of someone who hasn’t been working closely with the Islamic community in Sydney for a long time?”

To anyone with much of a memory of Scott Morrison’s record, this was hard to credit. After all, there were multiple credible reports from 2011 that Morrison had urged the Liberals to capitalise on anti-Muslim sentiment, which made sense in the context of his public remarks about asylum seekers.

Indeed, Scott Morrison became Prime Minister in August last year. In response to the attack in Melbourne in November, Morrison made gratuitous and offensive comments, claiming that the attacker’s motivation was due to “what he had been exposed to in his religious community”. He also insisted on the “special responsibility on religious leaders” to be “proactive” in preventing attacks.

Muslim leaders responded with outrage. The Grand Mufti, the Presidents of the Australian Federation of Islamic Council, the Islamic Council of Victoria, and the Australian National Imams Council, among others announced that they were refusing to attend a meeting that the Prime Minister had called for. They said that they were “deeply concerned and disappointed” in the comments by the Prime Minister and other “senior Government Ministers”, which “infer that the community is collectively responsible for the criminal actions of individuals and should be doing more to prevent such acts of violence. These statements have achieved nothing to address underlying issues, but rather, have alienated large segments of the community.”

Remember – this wasn’t a long time ago. It was less than six months ago that the leaders of the peak Muslim bodies in Australia declared that they were going to boycott Scott Morrison. They had swallowed a lot of insults and indignities over the years, and it took just a few months for Scott Morrison to finally go too far.

Morrison is now claiming that he has “many friends” at the Imam’s Council – those same friends who refused to meet with him in November.

For his part, Morrison responded to the snub with pointed dog-whistles. He said that “Continuing down a path of denial only lets their communities down. It makes their communities less safe and more vulnerable.” The premise here is that they are already on a path of denial, which makes their communities less safe. The insinuations continued: “I expect all leaders in Australia, whatever religion they come from, or whatever community they represent, to do everything they can to keep Australians safe.” The premise is that those boycotting Morrison aren’t doing everything they can to keep Australians safe.

And yet, they still met with him after the Christchurch attack. Morrison used those meetings to claim that he was friends with them, and thus claim political capital out of the tragedy. After the interview, ABC journalist Avani Dias obtained leaked footage from Morrison’s visit to Lakemba Mosque. Dias reported that Morrison “failed to mention that Islamic leaders also criticised him and attributed the terror attack to years of Islamophobia”.

Since the interview, a statement from the Australian Muslim community has been publicly released, signed by over 300 Muslims. They include a range of community organisation figures, academics, journalists, activists, lawyers and more. The statement says

“While our political leaders have expressed sympathy over the deaths of our brothers and sisters, there has been little responsibility taken for their own role in creating a political climate that has demonised the Muslim community for decades. Sadly, we remember the numerous times the Coalition have used the Muslim community as targets in vicious debates around immigration, multiculturalism and national security.”

They then give a range of telling examples.

The spokesperson for the statement is Zaahir Edries. He is a lawyer, writer and community advocate. He works extensively on civil liberties issues and law reform matters. I asked him what the impetus was for the statement. He said, “The community is angry after years of being scapegoated for political gain or to be treated as the feared “other” by people in positions of power. We wanted our voices to be clear, and to be heard.”

I asked Edries why the media statement focuses on the Coalition. Edries replied:

“The Coalition is acting like it’s not part of the problem – the shooter praised Blair Cottrell, George Christensen has spoken at Reclaim Australia rallies with the same types of people. We raise those examples because the rhetoric is either not explicitly shut down by the government or alternatively is peddled by the government for electioneering. It’s a clear message to those in power that we see what you are doing and we aren’t going to sit quietly. Pointing out that Fraser Anning’s comments are disgusting does not absolve you of horrid behaviour. The Coalition were openly embracing him after his vile first address in the senate and did the same for Pauline Hanson after disgusting rhetoric around Muslims. We expect better.”

I asked Edries about Morrison’s public statements about his Muslim friends. Edries said “The Prime Minister has cultivated a relationship with a few members of the community who do not represent us and is clearly using this to cover for his party’s history of demonising Muslims. We see through that too.”

In his media release on the statement, he said, “It’s quite clear that the Coalition has repeatedly used the Muslim community as an easy target, painting us as a threat to the rest of the country… The signatories come from a wide cross-section of the Muslim community. Many of them, particularly in health, education and community development, work on the frontlines dealing with the results of racism and Islamophobia on a daily basis.”

Similar sentiment has been fierce and extensive across social media since the attack. There has been widespread fury at politicians and the media for fomenting hatred of Muslims. This has been particularly focused on the Coalition and the Murdoch press. There has also been widespread anger at Muslim organisations, such as the Lebanese Muslim Association, agreeing to host the Prime Minister. Here I will only share a few examples of relatively public examples – this is not an exhaustive sample.

First, there is the case of OnePath Network. Though they are not well-known among non-Muslim Australians, they are a media and video production company based in Sydney, and have close to 1.5 million Facebook followers. They have done excellent ground-breaking work on Islamophobia in Australia, exposing the Murdoch press, and Tawhidi. They put out a “thank you” video, with some 200,000 views, and an accompanying article. They thank non-Muslims for their messages of sympathy and solidarity. And then, they say

But there are a few people who however don’t deserve our thanks, despite their messages of condolence.

To Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who proposed in 2011 to politicise anti-Muslim sentiment to bolster his party’s support.…

To Rupert Murdoch, who argued every Muslim was responsible for extremist terrorism. 

To those Australian Newspapers who published almost 3,000 articles tarnishing Islam and Muslims in a single year.

And to all those who have weaponized Islamophobia for political or financial gain, and are now coming out with words of support… Thanks, but no thanks. We don’t want your sympathy, we want your accountability.

We want you to take account for emboldening the Islamophobic views of the Christchurch terrorist. We want you to take account for normalising the anti-Muslim sentiments he thrived off of and listed in his manifesto. We are in no way saying you are responsible for what happened, but you are most definitely complicit in fuelling this atmosphere of hate. Own up to your actions.

We want you to stop the Islamophobia and hate you’ve helped foster for years on end. Until then, please do us a favour and spare us your thoughts and prayers.

Aamer Rahman, a comedian with some 50,000 followers, said

“I am dumbfounded as to why the [Lebanese Muslim Association] hosted Scott Morrison and stood there nodding while he said his party stood against racism and white supremacy. This is the man who, as Opposition Immigration spokesperson, attended a shadow cabinet meeting to specifically ask his colleagues for strategies that relied on Islamophobia.

His party lined up to hug and shake hands with Hanson. They have repeatedly collaborated with One Nation and others with links to white supremacists. This party has presided over the torture of asylum seekers, the demonising of African immigrants, and the scapegoating of Muslims more times than we can count.

Morrison and his party are responsible for this. If the murder of [50] people isn’t enough to snap people out of this kind of subservient politics, I don’t know what will.”

Journalist Asma Fahmi wrote poignant reflections after the attack in Christchurch. She castigated political leaders and the media:

“In one year there were nearly 3000 negative stories about Muslims in the Murdoch press. Murdoch has blood on his hands.

But it’s not just the Murdoch press. The Australian media has been inflaming tensions to capitalise on advertising revenue for years – let’s face it, Muslims are a cash cow.

A media that still gives oxygen to neo Nazis.

Remember when John Howard used the One Nation playbook against Muslims? He has blood on his hands.

Pauline Hanson, Bronwyn Bishop, Tony Abbott, Jacquie Lambie, Fraser Anning, Bob Katter, George Brandis… the list goes on and on. Our politicians have blood on their hands. Politicians who told us bigotry is ok. That it was part of freedom of speech. That we would take in Syrian refugees so long as they were not Muslim. That Muslim refugees threw their children overboard. That we are all expected to condemn every act of political violence because we were all guilty by virtue of our religion. They all have blood on their hands.

They successfully otherised us.

And ScoMo. He wanted to exploit anti Muslim sentiments as a voting strategy at one point. He has blood on his hands.

Shock jocks like Alan Jones, who incited hatred and violence towards the Lebanese community and Muslims in the lead up to the Cronulla riots has blood on his hands.”

Then Fahmi turned to Muslim communal organisations:

“Imagine if the Muslim community had released a press statement telling our politicians they were not welcome at our mosques because they were part of the problem. That our community is grieving and this was not the time to score political brownie points in the lead up to the election. Imagine if we had the balls to send a strong message. To make them think about the consequences of their words and actions?

Imagine if we told them to stick their CVE funding up their arse.

What did we do instead? We welcomed politicians like ScoMo with open arms. We gave him a platform – and God knows what kind of underhanded deals took place behind closed doors. We are shielded from all the politicking at our expense.

We took photos with ScoMo (note: all community leaders were male in that pic). We threw our community under the bus. Again. We were told we don’t know enough to understand what’s really going on. Patronised. Again.”

For those who didn’t see the photo of Muslims and the politicians, influential Muslim community figure Hanan Dover wrote about it in a scathing post:

“In this current socio-political climate I don’t like criticising my own community but I will publicly on this platform in this instance. Please note that many of us actively argue internally against the kiss-ar*e approach of our religious and community leaders especially when Scott Morrison and his Government have repeatedly humiliated us time and time again. He threw one breadcrumb to our leaders by feigning sympathy and they fell off their feet and did cartwheels & somersaults tripping over their long Islamic garbs. The Morrison Government has been instrumental at fuelling Islamophobia and racism, and permitting white supremacy to thrive under their watch. We are angry because often there is a huge gap between what they decide to do publicly for photo opportunities and the responses at the grassroots level who want them to develop a spine. And they all put the men forward as somehow they are the only representatives of influence in the community when they are not. The only visible female in this photo is not even a Muslim but the foreign minister for the Australian Government (not that we even want to be in this photo in the presence of an anti-Muslim Prime Minister). So, yes, this is another humiliation for the tiresome and active Muslim women who work so hard within our community but worked harder to fight this level of patriarchy that continuously makes us invisible but we push through on our own trying to address the mess they leave behind. I could go on and on but I have other internal social media platforms where I create enough internal chaos wanting our leaders to shudder in their sandals but I just wanted you all to know that there are Muslim women rocking it in our community even though these visible leaders choose to ignore us. We are LOUD”

Perhaps most simply, on 15 March, the day of the attack, lawyer Lydia Shelly wrote a widely circulated post:

“I don’t want to see any politician at any vigils.

I don’t want to see them on my television.

I don’t want to hear them on the radio.

You are not welcome to share in our grief.

You are not welcome to trade in our bodies – the way we look with hijab and our beards.

You are not welcome to weaponise racism then wash your bloody hands in our wudu fountains.

You are not welcome to exploit our grief. To talk about dark days. We are living them.

You are not welcome to share your condolences. To talk about strength in diversity.

You are not welcome to take off your shoes and enter our sacred spaces.

Not today.

Today; you are not welcome.”

Michael Brull

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).

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