Is Islamophobia the new anti-Semitism?

 

Julian Burnside

 

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Introduction

It is a fine thing for a family to remember a loved one with an annual speech. To remember your loved mother each year by a public act of remembering is a truly wonderful thing. In The Tempest, Prospero says: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep´. If Shakespeare was right, this annual oration means that the sleep is not dreamless.

The Rabbi who celebrated her life at the Cremation on Friday 13 March said of Renate Kamener:

We are gathered to show our great love, admiration and appreciation of a remarkable and special woman – Renate Kamener – adored daughter, loving wife and life-partner, wonderful mother, supportive sister-in-law, welcoming mother in law, generous and giving colleague and trusted and valued friend. …

Incidentally, the Rabbi was close to an hour late for the service, because he got the time wrong. Renate was known by all of her friends and family for her appalling lack of punctuality, and a member of the family commented "even in death she keeps us waiting!"

In his 2011 Renate Kamener Oration, Gareth Evans said this:

Renate Kamener was a remarkable woman, and I feel honoured and privileged to have been invited by her family to give this second Oration in her memory. I was first introduced to Renate and Bob, more decades ago than any us would now care to remember, by my then Melbourne

University Law School colleague, and their fellow refugee from the South African apartheid regime, Julian Phillips, and it was in that context that I first became aware of the risks they had taken in opposing that regime, and of their passionate commitment against racism in any form and for human dignity and decency in every form.

He spoke movingly of Renate Kamener’s intense commitment to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, and of what he referred to as “a life of great and recognized service to humanity”.

Renate was born on 8th June, 1933, in Breslau, Germany. As the Rabbi pointed out, “the mention of Germany in 1933 will immediately ring alarm bells for many of you as the year that Hitler became chancellor and began to put into practice his anti-Jewish rhetoric…”

Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism has a long history, but notoriously reached an appalling peak in Germany between 1933 and 1945.

Gareth Evans touched on this in his 2011 Oration. He said:

As no-one here this evening needs reminding, least of all the Kamener family, who like so many others of you have contributed so much to the Australian community since you or your forebears fled the horrors in Europe of the 1930s and 40s, no crime in history has been more grotesque than the Nazi Holocaust, with its comprehensively and meticulously organized extermination of six million Jews. Even if some other mass atrocity crimes, those of Stalin and Mao for a start, have involved even more unbelievably large numbers, none has more fundamentally demeaned our sense of common humanity.

I do not intend to rehearse the miserable history of anti-Semitism. Its traces go back a very long way. It is often overlooked that the document signed by King John at Runnymede on 15 June 1215 and later called Magna Carta contained several provisions which can only be understood as an expression of anti-Semitism. Shakespeare’s plays reflect enduring anti-Semitism in Britain, and the trial of Alfred Dreyfus in 1894 was an expression of deep-seated anti-Semitism in France. Incidentally, it is not widely remembered that the Vichy regime deported Alfred Dreyfus’ granddaughter Madeline. She was gassed at Auschwitz in 1944.

Boat people

As most of you are aware, I have been greatly concerned about Australia’s mistreatment of refugees in recent years. I know many of you have also been concerned, and perhaps for the same reasons.

The origins of that mistreatment can be traced back to the Tampa episode in 2001. The MV Tampa went to the help of a small refugee boat, the Palapa. Most of the people on the Palapa were terrified Hazaras from Afghanistan, fleeing the Taliban. It is often overlooked that Hazaras from Afghanistan now and Rohingyas from Myanmar now are as likely to be genuine refugees as Jews from Germany in 1939.

The captain of the Tampa rescued the people from the Palapa them to Christmas Island: a speck of Australian sovereignty in the Indian Ocean. Those 434 Hazaras escaped the Taliban, a regime so harsh that we saw fit to help the Americans blast it back to the Stone Age just a couple of months later. But they marked the start of a campaign which, in recent years has become a policy of deterrence: a policy designed to make people think persecution at home is better than mistreatment by Australia.

When the Tampa entered Australian territorial waters off Christmas Island, John Howard called in the SAS, who took command of the bridge of the Tampa at gunpoint.

Then there was a stand-off. The rescued Afghans were stuck, sweltering on the steel deck of the Tampa in the tropical sun. The matter went to Court. The case ran four or five days. Judgment was reserved. Then the judge delivered a decision: at 2.15 in the afternoon, Melbourne time, on 11 September 2001. Ten hours later the attack on America took place.

It is a nice coincidence that this event in honour of Renate Kamener is being held 15 years, to the day, after the judgment in the Tampa litigation; on the 15th anniversary of the events which, more than anything else, triggered Islamophobia

The start of Islamophobia

After September 11, 2001, in public and political discourse, there were no longer terrorists, just Muslim terrorists; no boat people, just Muslim boat people. And John Howard started calling boat people “illegal”.

The notion that 434 frightened, persecuted men, women and children constitute a threat to national sovereignty is so bizarre that it defies discussion.

The Coalition have persisted in calling boat people “illegal” ever since. It is a lie. When Abbott won government in 2013, “border control” became “border protection”. It was not easy to watch an interview with Scott Morrison, when he was Immigration Minister, without hearing him talk about “illegals” and “border protection”. (It was not easy to watch his interviews at all, disfigured as they were by his easy personal brand of hypocrisy and dishonesty). It is a matter of history that the Abbott government, whose leading figures were conspicuously Christian, were so dedicated to vilifying refugees, that they renamed the Department of Immigration and Citizenship: it is now the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

But boat people do not threaten our borders in any sense, and we do not need to be protected from them. But government propaganda, never contradicted decisively by the Labor party, has persuaded a significant percentage of the Australian public that we are being protected from dangerous criminals.

Most people, even the most empathetic, would not resist the idea that criminals should be sent to jail. And if boat people are “illegal” then placing them in detention seems natural and reasonable. It does not evoke a reaction of empathy.

The matter is different once you recognize that the people held in detention centres are not guilty of any offence. It looks different when you see that boat people are held in detention for an indefinite time – for as long as it takes to resolve their claim for protection. They may be jailed for months or years or perhaps even forever. No-one can tell them in advance how long they will stay in detention.

What we do to boat people

When boat people arrive at Christmas Island, they have typically spent eight or 10 days on a rickety boat. They have typically come from landlocked countries and have typically never spent time on the ocean. Typically, they have had not enough to eat and not enough to drink. Typically, they have had no opportunity to wash or to change their clothes. Typically, they arrive distressed, frightened and wearing clothes caked in their own excrement.

They are not allowed to shower or to change their clothes before they are interviewed by an officer of the Immigration Department. It is difficult to think of any decent justification for subjecting them to that humiliation.

When they arrive, any medical appliances they have will be confiscated and not returned: spectacles, hearing aids, false teeth, prosthetic limbs, are all confiscated. If they have any medications with them, those medications are confiscated and not returned. According to doctors on Christmas Island, one person had a fulltime job of sitting in front of a bin popping pills out of blister packs for later destruction.

If they have any medical documentation with them, it is confiscated and not returned. The result of all of this is that people with chronic health problems find themselves denied any effective treatment. The results can be very distressing. For example: a doctor who worked on Christmas Island told me of a woman who had been detained there for some weeks and who was generally regarded as psychotic. Her behaviour was highly erratic for reasons that no-one understood. The consultation with this woman was very difficult because, although the doctor and the patient were sitting across a table from each other, they did not have a language in common. The interpreter joined them by telephone from Sydney: about 5,300 kilometres away. Eventually, the

doctor worked out that the problem was that the woman was incontinent of urine. She could not leave her cabin without urine running down her leg. It was driving her mad. When the doctor worked out that this was the cause of the problem, she asked the Department to provide incontinence pads. The Department’s initial response was “we don’t do those”. The doctor insisted. The Department relented and provided four incontinence pads per day: not enough, so that the woman needs to queue for more but the incontinence pads made a profound difference to her mood and behaviour.

In February 2014 Reza Barati was killed on Manus Island. Initially, Australia said that he had escaped from the detention centre and was killed outside the detention centre. Soon it became clear that he was killed inside the detention centre. It took nearly five months before anyone was charged with the murder of Reza Barati. Nobody has yet been brought to court.

Just a couple of weeks after Reza Barati was killed, I received a sworn statement from an eyewitness, Benham Satah. The statement included the following:

“J … is a local who worked for the Salvation Army. … He was holding a large wooden stick. It was about a metre and a half long … it had two nails in the wood. The nails were sticking out …

When Reza came up the stairs, J … was at the top of the stairs waiting for him. J … said ‘fuck you motherfucker’ J … then swung back behind his shoulder with the stick and took a big swing at Raisa, hitting him on top of the head.

J … screamed again at Reza and hit him again on the head. Reza then fell on the floor …

I could see a lot of blood coming out of his head, on his forehead, running down his face. His blood is still there on the ground. He was still alive at this stage.

About 10 or 15 guards from G4S came up the stairs. Two of them were Australians. The rest were PNG locals. I know who they are. I can identify them by their face. They started kicking Reza in his head and stomach with their boots.

Reza was on the ground trying to defend himself. He put his arms up to cover his head but they were still kicking.

There was one local … I recognized him … he picked up a big rock … he lifted the rock above his head and threw it down hard on top of Reza’s head. At this time, Reza passed away.

One of the locals came and hit him in his leg very hard … but Reza did not feel it. This is how I know he was dead.

After that, as the guards came past him, they kicked his dead body on the ground …”

A short time later, Benham Satah was taken into the Wilson Security cabin in the detention centre. Wilson Security provide the guard services on Manus and Nauru, and in your local park. They are incorporated in Panama, presumably to avoid the inconvenience of paying Australian tax on the vast amounts they are paid by the Australian government. The Wilson Security people tied Benham Satah to a chair and beat him up. They told him that, unless he withdrew his witness statement, they would take him outside the camp, where he would be publicly raped by locals.

In 2015 I got an email from a health worker on Manus:

“...The situation as you can imagine is very grim. Around 80% of transferees suffering serious mental health issues. PNG staff are slowly being “trained” to take over various roles with mostly undesirable results. East Lorengau is not working. One refugee is lingering in hospital for over two weeks with undiagnosed stomach problems. One refugee doctor is suffering severe mental health issues....”

Here is an extract from a statement by a doctor who worked on Manus who has spent most of his professional life working in the prison system in Australia:

“...On the whole, the conditions of detention at the Manus Island OPC are extremely poor. When I first arrived at the Manus Island OPC I was considerably distressed at what I saw, and I recall thinking that this must be similar to a concentration camp.

The detainees at the Manus Island OPC are detained behind razor wire fences, in conditions below the standard of Australian maximum-security prison.

My professional opinion is that the minimum medical requirements of the detained population were not being met. I have no reason to believe that the conditions of detention have improved since I ceased employment at the Manus Island OPC.

The conditions of detention at the Manus Island OPC appeared to be calculated to break the spirit of those detained in the Manus Island OPC. On a number of occasions the extreme conditions of detention resulted in detainees abandoning their claims for asylum and returning to their country of origin.

At the Manus Island OPC, bathroom facilities are rarely cleaned. There was a lot of mould, poor ventilation, and the structural integrity of the facilities is concerning.

No soap is provided to detainees for personal hygiene.

When detainees need to use the bathroom, it is standard procedure that they first attend at the guards’ station to request toilet paper. Detainees would be required to give an indication of how many ‘squares’ they will need. The maximum allowed is six squares of toilet paper, which I considered demeaning.

A large number of detainees continue to be in need of urgent medical attention.

Formal requests for medical attention are available to the detainees. The forms are only available in English. Many of the detainees do not have a workable understanding of English and the guards will not provide assistance. ...”

The recent release of several thousand files from the detention centre on Nauru provided a useful insight into what is happening there. The files revealed, among other things, something we have known all along: there have been hundreds of incidents of sexual assault, including child sexual assault. The offences have been committed mostly by guards or by Nauruan locals.

But one document raised less concern than it should have. It was a report that Save The Children had directed their staff that they should not spend longer than 5 weeks on Nauru at a time. More than that would be a danger to their mental health. We have held hundreds of men, women and children in detention on Nauru for more than three years.

But why?

So the question that needs to be asked is this: why has it been so easy to persuade the public that boat people are criminals who deserve to be locked away and mistreated so grotesquely that even children in detention harm themselves or kill themselves?

I fear that the true answer is Islamophobia. Since 9/11 the Western world has been induced to believe that all boat people are Muslims and all Muslims are a threat to our way of life, our very existence.

The idea of people coming to Australia, without papers, without an invitation, causes astonishing anxiety. It is generally overlooked that they come here looking for a place where they can live in safety. Perhaps our reaction is a dim echo of 1788, when the arrival of uninvited boat people led to the rapid – and brutal – extinction of the existing culture. But most Australians miss that little irony.

It is often overlooked that John Howard’s response to the Tampa was explicitly political: he took the position he did in order to win back some previous Liberal supporters who had drifted across to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Little did he realise that, just 15 years later, there would not be much difference between the Liberal party and One Nation.

The LNP response to boat people has gone through three distinct phases.

“illegals”

From the time of the Tampa episode in 2001, refugees were disparaged as “illegals”, “queue-jumpers” and people who had thrown their “Children Overboard”. Each of those tags is false. I mention this because, apart from anything else, it shows that the party which calls itself “Liberal” is perfectly happy to lie to the public in order to pursue policy objectives.

It is a lie to call refugees “illegals”. The word suggests plainly that the person has committed an offence. But it is not an offence to come to Australia, without papers, without a visa, without an invitation, and ask for protection.

The rhetoric of “illegals”, coupled with renaming the Department “Immigration and Border Protection” has been used skilfully, but dishonestly, by Abbott and Morrison and Turnbull and Dutton to convey a key dog-whistle message: that boat people are criminals from whom we need to be protected. It is the crucial lie which makes it possible for Australia to reward the party that promises the greater cruelty to asylum seekers. It is worth remembering the miserable fact that the 2013 Federal election campaign was the first (and I hope the only) time in this country in which both major parties tried to win political support by promising cruelty to a specific group of human beings. If they had promised cruelty to animals, it might not have worked so well.

Unless we are really a country of people who would willingly mistreat innocent human beings simply because they have come asking for protection from persecution: as often as not, fleeing the same extremism we are fighting in the Middle East.

This should not be mistaken as a partisan attack on the Coalition: the Labor party has been conspicuously silent on the subject. Both in opposition and in government, Labor has ducked the opportunity to correct the public debate by telling the truth: that boat people are not illegal, that there is no queue. It is a painful irony that Labor has failed to make the very simple point that Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives every human being the right to seek asylum in any territory they can reach, and that Australia played a leading role in the creation of the UDHR, and that a Labor icon, Doc Evatt, presided over the General Assembly of the UN when the UDHR was entered into force.

But that was a time when Labor values were more than just a marketing campaign formulated by reference to populism, and completely untroubled by humanitarian considerations.

People smugglers

Next, the rhetoric swung to an attack on people smugglers.

Soon after Tony Abbott won the leadership of the coalition, he started criticising the Rudd government for the fact that boat people were arriving in Australia. Rudd, who had introduced some well-designed reforms in July 2008, responded swiftly: he attacked the people smugglers. In April 2009, Rudd said people smugglers were the "absolute scum of the earth" and should "rot in hell". He said that “People smugglers are engaged in the world's most evil trade and they should all rot in jail...”

Rudd’s venom was a response to visible deaths of asylum seekers after an explosion sank a boat carrying asylum seekers off Australia's north west coast. It is possible that Rudd thought abusing asylum seekers was no longer a good look, but people smugglers were fair game. He had overlooked that not all people smugglers can be conveniently fitted into the same miserable moral category. He seems to have forgotten temporarily that his great moral hero, Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, was a people smuggler. So too were Oskar Schindler and Gustav Schroeder.

Schindler’s activities are well-known, from Tom Keneally’s book and the film based on it.

It is worth recalling here what Schroeder did. In May 1939, just months before the start of World War II, a ship called the St Louis left Hamburg, carrying 900 Jewish refugees. Gustav Schroeder was its captain. The St Louis was denied access to every port it approached, despite Schroeder’s efforts. It got as far as Cuba, and was warned off the coast of Florida at gunpoint. Schroeder took the St Louis back to Europe and put his cargo ashore in Antwerp. After the low countries were occupied by the Nazis, more than half the refugees on the St Louis were captured and ultimately perished in concentration camps.

In light of the current political attitudes in Australia, it is worth noting that Captain Schroeder was a people smuggler. Those countries who denied the St Louis the right to land might look back now and ask whether their decision was a policy success or a humanitarian tragedy.

The ferocity of attacks on people smugglers increased when Australians watched, on television, the terrible wreck of an asylum seeker boat on 15 December 2010. It was a shocking sight, and significantly increased the political impact of attacking people smugglers.

Of course it is tragic when asylum seekers die in a desperate attempt to reach protection. It is also tragic when they stay behind and are slaughtered. The key difference is that, when they stay behind and become another statistic in the grim arithmetic of ethnic cleansing, we do not empathise with them; our conscience remains untouched. When we learn that they have perished in an attempt to seek safety here, it seems different.

Why is that? Is it because they have tried to engage us? Is it because the ethics of proximity has begun to operate, so that we feel a heightened sense of responsibility for them? Is it because, seeing their last moments on the TV news, we understand their agonies, although perhaps not the desperation which drove them? Is it simply because, in the unhealthy environment of current domestic politics, their fate is automatically drawn to our attention by politicians trying to exploit the occasion for their own political advantage?

If you had been a Jew in Germany in 1939, would it have been better to chance your arm with a people smuggler (Schindler, Bonnhoeffer, Schroeder...) or stay put and face a different risk? And which is more tragic: to die passively or die in an attempt to escape? One thing is certain: if the Taliban get you, you are just as dead as if you drown.

Rudd was later replaced by Gillard. She reintroduced the Pacific Solution. Then Rudd replaced Gillard, and he cranked up the Pacific Solution to its harshest form ever, as part of a policy of deterrence. The 2013 Federal election disfigured Australian politics: it was the first election in which both major parties tried to woo voters by promising cruelty to a group of human beings (boat people). If they had promised cruelty to animals, it might have been received differently. Between them, during the 2013 election, Rudd and Abbott trashed whatever was left of Australia’s reputation.

By small degrees, sections of the public began to realise that people smugglers were not necessarily quite as wicked as the politicians had made out. The prosecution of Ali al Jenabi, so well retold in Robin de Crespigny’s book the People Smuggler, drew attention to the simple, central fact that people smugglers provide a service which some desperate people need. The existence of people smugglers does not create a demand for them. When you are running for your life, you will take whatever services are available.

Drownings

The graphic scenes of horror as a boat smashed to bits on the coast of Christmas Island gave the Gillard government a new line of attack: the drowning excuse. While it may seem superficially persuasive that we would take steps to prevent people drowning, we need to examine why people risk their lives at sea, and ask whether our concern about drowning is the true reason for our actions: it looks different when you realise that, in our ostensible concern about boat people drowning, we punish them if they don’t drown.

The following facts are uncontroversial:

• Boat-people come here principally from Afghanistan, where the Hazaras are the target of Taliban genocide, and from Sri Lanka, where the Tamils are being persecuted in the wake of their failed liberation movement, and Rohingyas from Myanmar. Those three groups have dominated boat-people numbers in the last few years.

• Hazaras, Rohingyas and Tamils are really desperate in their bid for freedom. Apart from any other consideration, a person has to be desperate to take the risks they in fact take in their attempt to reach safety.

 

 

• Most boat-people who arrive in Australia end up being assessed as genuine refugees, legally entitled to our protection: over 90% of them are ultimately successful in their asylum claims. This compares with a success rate of about 40% among asylum claims of people who arrive here by air on short term visas, such as business, tourist or student visas. The different success rates are readily explained: the boat trip is dangerous: it is a mark of sincerity that a person takes the risks it involves.

• Some of the boats carrying asylum seekers sink, and some of the refugees drown. The number who have drowned is not clear, but it looks like about 2-3 per cent of them since 2000.

 

A person facing death or torture is not likely to be deterred by the prospect of being locked up in a detention centre, or even by the risk of drowning. Desperate people will take desperate measures. The experience of the Jews in the 1930s and the Vietnamese in the late 1970s tells us that. Common sense and ordinary experience tell us that. Over the years I have asked Hazaras I know personally, and who came here as boat-people, whether they had been aware of the risks before setting out. Some did. I asked them why they took the risk: they said that the Taliban represented a greater risk. Others did not: they did not know where they were being taken. For that group, deterrence is not a relevant consideration.

It is also significant that, at present, asylum seekers who get to Indonesia face the real prospect of being mistreated and jailed by the Indonesian authorities if they are caught. In addition, they are not permitted to work or to send their children to school. I suspect that most Australians faced with the same problem would choose the same solution: take a risk and get on a boat.

One of the strangest phenomena in Australian politics over the past decade is that we are apparently willing to revile and mistreat people who act exactly as we would if we had the misfortune to be in their shoes.

Islamophobia

So, we have a number of false explanations for conduct which, I hope, does not reflect the genuine character of this country.

But what is the true explanation?

A leading politician once said this:

“…after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

The person who said those words was Hermann Goering. It is hard to contradict that statement; it is hard not to see it at work right now across the Western world. It is a matter of real concern that anti-Islamic views are apparently driven by our political masters.

A survey in 2015 took a nationally representative sample of 1000 adult Australians. It found that almost 70 per cent of Australians have a very low level of Islamophobia, about 20 per cent are undecided and only 10 per cent are highly Islamophobic. The survey found that women tend to be more worried about terrorism than men. Where a respondent lived did not have a

significant impact. People were more worried about terrorism if they were older, had lower levels of education, were unemployed, were employed in a non- professional role or if they supported the Liberal or National parties. They were less likely to be worried about terrorism if they had regular contact with Muslims, felt tolerant of migrants or had lower Islamophobia scores.

The survey concluded that most Australians display low levels of Islamophobia, and are willing to have Muslims in their family or friendship group (although they are even more welcoming of members of other major religions). There are pockets of prejudice and anxiety directed towards Muslims, for example among the aged and those facing financial insecurity. But the great majority of Australians in all states and regions are comfortable to live alongside Australian Muslims.

Islamophobia, it seems, is being driven from the top and for political advantage.

I do not want to be misunderstood: I deplore Muslim extremism, Hindu extremism, Christian extremism: I deplore extremism and terrorism of all kinds. But I would not readily assume that a person fleeing extremism is an extremist. I would not readily assume that a person fleeing terrorism is a terrorist.

It is no accident that repelling people who are seeking a safe place to live is now framed as an aspect of National Security.

It is no accident that, since 9/11, women who wear a head-scarf in public feel unsafe.

It is no accident that the news emphasises Islamic terrorism, in a way which we did not see during the 20th century, when duelling Christian sects committed appalling acts of terrorism in Northern Ireland.

And I think it is no accident that, in recent years, a number of Australian Jews have expressed their concern at the mistreatment of asylum seekers: they seem to recognise that Islamophobia looks worryingly like anti-Semitism.

And all Jews know where that can lead.