Around 300,000 Australians tick the “Muslim” box on their census forms. They don’t have to tick the box. In fact, they don’t have to tick any religion box.
But the public image of these people is determined largely by the statements, actions and responses of (and reports about) the more religiously observant among them. Why?
Laurie Ferguson, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs, had some sound answers which my old pal Dicky Kerbaj has reported in front page story in the 11 March edition of The Australian:
Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs Laurie Ferguson told The Australian yesterday… religious leaders were not representative of the mainstream Muslim community …Well hurrah for Mr Ferguson! I know few people (including imams) more qualified to speak about the variety within Muslim communities than an MP with more Muslims and a greater ethnic and linguistic mix of them in his electorate than any other Federal Member of the House of Representatives.
“A lot of it is about symbolism; it's about who gets promoted and who gets identified and who gets an option to be seen by Australian society.
“Australia has produced (Muslim) academics, business types, sporting types and it's often not celebrated enough."
Mr Ferguson said the idea that all Muslims were religious was a "misconception" he wanted debunked.
Sadly, Monday’s episode of Four Corners largely repeated the tired old stereotypes and interviewed the usual suspects. The only young Muslims we heard from were habibs with omogaud accents and long beards together with their young macho students.
(And girls wearing Lebanese-style head scarves. Though they couldn’t get a single word in.)
By the end of the show, a tourist watching in their hotel room could be forgiven for believing our nation was just one huge battleground between redneck skips and alienated Arab/Lebanese Muslims. The vast majority of (non-redneck) Anglo-Europeans and (non-alienated Aussie-born) Muslims (many of whom are also Anglo-Europeans) were left out of the “Dangerous Ground” picture.
So how do the 40% of Aussie Muslims born in Australia and having ancestry from over 60 different countries actually feel about foreign policy, youth alienation, national security and other issues about which they are supposed to be obsessed with? The simple answer is: I wouldn’t have the faintest.
And I doubt anyone else does. Because no one, in particular no religious body claiming to represent Aussie Muslims, has bothered to ask these forgotten Muslims what they actually think.
One important message from the Four Corners episode was that the most effective weapons in fighting terrorism are communities. But how can you engage communities until you actually know who they are and what they are thinking? Or do we just rely on the kinds of middle-aged male religious leaders that our former PM placed on his Muslim Community Reference Group? Or self-serving young “leaders” of one ethnicity playing the same “gate keeper” games as their elders?
UPDATE 1: The Austrolabe blog's insightly comments on the story can be found here.
Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf
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