Howard’s selection process is flawed and doesn’t inspire confidence it will get better, IRFAN YUSUF reports.
PRIME Minister John Howard and his ministerial minstrels want Muslims to learn some genuine Australian values. In doing so, they have been misleading by example.
Different ministers provide differing lists of Australian values. Howard speaks of equality for women, an Australian value so treasured that, in the past seven years, reported incidents of domestic violence in Howard's home state of NSW have increased by about 50 per cent. He then condemned certain isolationist practices of Muslims before defending a fringe Christian sect with even more isolationist practices. Perhaps he was trying to encourage Muslims to run covert political campaigns against his enemies.
Former education minister Dr Brendan Nelson warned Muslim independent schools to clear off if they refused to emulate an English illegal immigrant and his donkey. Treasurer Peter Costello advised Muslims against implementing sharia, before listing a set of Australian values that would find pride of place in an elementary sharia textbook. He followed this up with a lecture calling on Muslims to embrace the separation of church and state, his message being delivered to a conference of a Christian lobby which wants religion to play a more active role in Australian statehood. Health Minister Tony Abbott spoke in less patronising tones, perhaps a reflection of his own experience of being lampooned for holding unfashionable religious views. Abbott encouraged Muslims to engage in more self-critique.
One value all ministers would agree on is the need for Muslims to embrace democracy. This means encouraging fair elections and ensuring government is representative of the governed.
Once again, Howard is misleading by example. He is so committed to Muslim democracy that he will be deciding which Muslims will form part of the new Muslim community leadership that makes up his Muslim Community Reference Group. Howard will hand-pick which Muslims he consults on matters potentially affecting all 360,000 Muslims (not to mention more than 19million other Australians). He won't leave the choice to Muslims themselves. He has not even invited nominations.
Howard's record in his first reference group provided interesting outcomes. At least 50 per cent of Muslims are female. At least 50 per cent of Muslims were born after 1969 (the year I was born). Turks represent the largest ethno-religious community. Yet Howard's first reference group had only a handful of women and hardly any young people. And no Australian Turks.
Instead, Howard chose to surround himself with a group dominated by middle-aged migrant men with poor English skills and unable to challenge him on policy. He could then drop a few bombshell comments and watch as his hand-picked Muslims would scurry around. He could then attribute their behaviour to the entire Muslim population, thereby creating a useful diversion from more pressing political issues plaguing his administration. His methodology is simple. He picks which Muslims he will talk to. He will then make nonsensical or provocative statements knowing his hand-picked Muslims will overreact. He will then blame all Muslims and shrug his shoulders as his problems with industrial relations, Telstra, Medibank Private, right-wing branch- stacking and AWB leave the front pages.
It is likely the next group of men (and a few token women and youth) Howard chooses for his next Muslim reference group will also satisfy the caricatured Muslims he has found so politically useful. They will be people who do not reflect the composition of a largely young, educated and home- grown faith-community.
His next reference group will be unlikely to have prominent Muslim women. He is likely to overlook Muslim business people, doctors, accountants, lawyers, bankers, journalists, public servants, sportspeople, local councillors and academics. He is unlikely to choose Muslims who have significant contacts and networks in the broader community which they can use to challenge him and mobilise opposition to his domestic and foreign policies. He is unlikely also to appoint people who can challenge him on a political and public policy level in public and with a certain degree of media savvy. He is unlikely to pick Muslims who do not meet a stereotype. He won't pick ones of perhaps a lesser degree of religiosity but greater expertise. Such Muslims exist in substantial numbers. For his patronising agenda, these Muslims are a problem. But for Australia's social cohesion, they are an essential part of the solution.
I hope Howard proves me wrong. I hope he selects prominent Muslim business people and professionals, journalists and academics, sportspeople and public servants. I hope at least 50 per cent of his reference group are women, and that at least 50 per cent are aged under 40. In short, I hope he selects Muslims who best reflect the reality of Muslim Australia, not just another group of middle-aged male sycophants who oscillate between blind acceptance and even blinder reaction.
Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer who has acted for Muslim peak bodies and independent schools. First published in the Canberra Times on Tuesday October 10 2006.
Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf
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