Peter Wertheim AM
Although the Senate votes are still being counted, much of the commentary in the wake of the federal election focused on the recrudescence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, which seems likely to win three or perhaps four Senate seats. Alarm bells rang out that this poses a renewed threat to the fabric of Australia’s peaceful, pluralist society.
Pauline Hanson has often denied that her views and her party’s policies have anything to do with racism or bigotry, but it is difficult to see how else one can characterise her numerous public pronouncements attributing negative behaviour and traits to groups of people on account of their ethnic or religious background, most recently “Asians” and “Muslims”.
As obnoxious and unfair as many people find such views, Pauline Hanson is far from Australia’s worst offender on this score. If her critics wish to be credible, they will need to be equally vociferous in condemning racist and bigoted views emanating from quarters other than the radical right of politics.
Two years ago Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Sheikh Ismail al-Wahwah spewed forth a hate-filled public rant accusing “the Jews” of corrupting the world, describing them as “the most evil creature of Allah” and threatening that “the ember of jihad against the Jews will continue to burn. Judgment Day will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews”.
While Pauline Hanson can be accused of promoting racial hatred and bigotry, which impliedly licenses violence against its targets, she has not expressly promoted or condoned violence against any group, as al-Wahwah has done. In fact, she has condemned it. Nor does she claim a divine mandate for her views.
Far too many of Hanson’s detractors seem to lose their voice and their nerve when confronted with public expressions of racism and bigotry coming from within Muslim communities. Social media sites for Muslim Village, Mission Islam and Islamophobia Register Australia have commonly included content or unmoderated posted comments that are just as viciously racist, and supportive of racially motivated violence, as al-Wahwah’s.
The response from much of the community has been silence and indifference, in stark contrast to the reaction to Pauline Hanson. It is important for political and community leaders to take a principled public stand against the promotion of hatred, and the express or implied licensing of violence, against any group based on race, religion or sexual orientation. It is equally important that the stance is consistent, and that racism is called out from whichever part of society or the political spectrum it emerges.
As for One Nation, it is also important that statements of principle about the inadmissibility of racism are accompanied by detailed critiques of its policies. Deep down, most Australians understand that shutting off migration, or choosing migrants on the basis of their ethnic or religious background rather than their skills and capacities, would produce a stagnating economy, fewer jobs, lower living standards, wider disparities in wealth, diminished healthcare and education, regional isolation and increased economic insecurity.
Far from restoring Australia to the imaginary golden age of the 1950s, One Nation’s policies would recreate the nightmare of the 1930s. Version two of Pauline Hanson is therefore as devoid of workable answers to Australia’s economic challenges as was Version one. It should not take long for her, once again, to be found out on economic policy.
What is new is the fact that the negative conception of groups on the basis of ethnicity and religion that underpins much of the Hanson worldview is no longer driven solely by fear and anger generated by economic insecurity. There is now the added dimension of fear and anger generated by physical insecurity and the threat of terrorism.
It would be foolish to deny the depth and breadth of ill-feeling towards Islam and, to a lesser extent Muslims, which currently exists in Australia as a consequence of acts of terrorism that have been committed in many parts of the world by self-identified Muslims in the name of Islam. Of course it is grotesquely unfair to stigmatise Muslims generally for these crimes or to suggest that such crimes epitomise Islam as a belief system.
Yet it is also true that Islamist terrorism draws on authentic, deeply rooted Islamic traditions of proselytisation and religious supersessionism — the fulfilment of its self-designated mission of bringing the whole world under its dispensation by means that do not necessarily exclude the use of violence, fear or deception. The public’s instincts about this phenomenon are far more astute than the ludicrous intellectual contortions of those who insist that the actions of Islamists have nothing at all to do with Islam.
Oddly, One Nation does not have a coherent strategy to counter the threat posed by terrorism and extremist ideologies, only a hodge-podge of largely symbolic measures, which will likely radicalise disaffected young people in even greater numbers.
The patent inadequacy of One Nation’s policies is no reason to dismiss the concerns that have given rise to those policies, and propelled Pauline Hanson back into the federal parliament. The fears of her supporters about their jobs and their chances of buying a home and for their overall future economic wellbeing are not at all irrational. Neither are their fears of Islamist terrorism.
These are not phobias. The threats to people’s economic and physical security are real. The fears are well-founded, even if One Nation’s policy answers are not. It will be the responsibility of the new government and members of parliament to come up with answers that are more credible.
Peter Wertheim is the Executive Director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry