Saturday, September 30, 2006

Muslims, The Brethren & Aussie Values

Imagine a religious community which forbids its adherents from using computers, from eating with non-believers, from attending university and from voting. Imagine if the group was led by a Lebanese sheik.

One can only guess John Howard’s reaction to such a sect. “These people need to integrate. They need to adopt Australian values. This sort of culture could breed home-grown terror.”

One can also imagine Brendan Nelson’s response (were he still education minister). “I will write to their schools and impress upon them the importance of observing Australian values. Otherwise, they can clear off!”

Perhaps Treasurer Peter Costello would talk about such a sect as manufacturing generation of young people caught in a “twilight zone”, not feeling comfortable in their parents’ culture or in broader Australian culture.

No doubt Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock would be concerned about allegations the sect was actively engaged in breaching Family Court orders in relation to children. Joe Hockey would be most concerned the group was potentially assisting its members by channelling money through secret accounts to avoid falling foul of Centrelink.

Select newspapers owned by a certain American citizen would no doubt be running hard with the story. The Australian would publish editorials about how this sect has little respect for Australian values. Its op-ed and letters pages would be flooded with pieces from former supporters of Sir Joh on “ Australia ’s Muslim problem” and “the Islamic cancer in our body politic”. Its favoured education writer would use his Menzies Foundation credentials to speculate about funding for the sect’s schools.

The tabloid duo in Sydney and Melbourne would be carping away, using the story as yet more proof that Muslims just don’t wish to integrate and their dual citizens are a bunch of social security cheats.

Meanwhile, conservative think tanks would publish comment on the social and economic dangers posed by this sect. They would invite theatre critics to lecture on more “big ideas” of how Muslim activities represent a threat to our Western culture.

Security commentators and self-declared terrorism “experts” would issue fatwas on possible dangers posed by such fundamentalist beliefs, and possible links of the Muslim sect to al-Qaida and Hezbollah.

Of course, all this is hypothetical. I’m not aware of any Muslim sect in Australia which insists on such isolationist thinking and living. However, viewers of Four Corners on 25 September would be aware of a Christian sect accused of engaging in such conduct.

The Exclusive Brethren have every right to practise their form of Christianity. They have every right to stop their members from going to university, eating with non-Brethren, marrying outside their sect and voting.

But when any religious group is accused of engaging in deliberate breaches of the law, our law makers should be the last to defend them (or at least the first to call for an investigation). Hence, John Howard’s description of the Exclusive Brethren in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 27 as merely “an organisation within the law” which has “a different, a more disciplined” version of religion is most disturbing.

Mr Howard frequently lectures Muslims about Australian values. These include mateship, respect for the law and equality for women. However, such rules clearly do not apply to Christian sects which bankroll campaigns benefiting Mr Howard’s (and indeed my own) side of politics.

Australians of all denominations have expressed concern about what they perceive to be Mr Howard’s anti-Muslim sentiments. Many would argue that Mr Howard and other politicians are engaging in a campaign of vilification of Australians of Muslim heritage. Howard has defended critics of Islamic religion even when their comments are based on ignorance.

Mr Howard refused to silence backbenchers and NSW Upper House member Fred Nile who called for hijab to be banned from public schools. Howard even refused to contradict them.

(Of course, the Niles and Bishops of this world are silent when it comes to headscarves worn by women from the Brethren.)

But the PM will not tolerate “some vilification campaign” (to use his words) against Christian sects. He will not call upon his ministers to investigate potential breaches of social security and family laws against them. He certainly will not follow conservative politicians in Victoria and New Zealand who have disassociated themselves from the Brethren.

Perhaps what Muslim groups need to do is ensure their leader lives and works in John Howard’s electorate. Perhaps Muslims should start publishing advertisements attacking the Greens and other parties who don’t share their conservative views on social issues.

Better still, perhaps Muslims should declare themselves to be a Christian sect.

One of John Howard’s former staffers, Dr Gerard Henderson, wrote in The Age on May 25 2004 of

...the one significant blot on [Howard’s] record in public life … a certain lack of empathy in dealing with individuals with whom he does not identify at a personal level: for example, Asian Australians in the late 1980s and asylum seekers in the early 21st century.

Cynics might suggest that apart from having white skin, conservative social views and Christian symbols, it’s difficult to see how Mr Howard can identify with the Exclusive Brethren on a personal level. At the very least, the responses of Howard and his ministers to the Brethren show that it is the Coalition which desperately needs to adopt Australian values.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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