After being picked out of a hat as a “random Muslim” to fly to Canberra for the Issues Deliberation Australia (IDA) conference on Muslims and non-Muslims in Australia, I must admit I accepted the ticket with some trepidation. Glancing at the program I saw the first plenary session had former prime minister Bob Hawke chairing a session with Archbishop Cardinal Pell and speaking alongside Melbourne’s Sheikh Mohammad Omran. Other sessions included speakers such as Janet Albrechtsen, Wassim Doureihi from Hizb ul Tahrir and Denis McCormack from Australians Against Further Immigration. I thought to myself - this was going to be an interesting few days.
The idea was to gather 350 random Australians, add another 50 Australian Muslims into a steaming pot, stir it up with views from all sides of the political spectrum and leave it to simmer for a few days in Canberra. Far from turning ugly, the Deliberation ended up being a real eye opener for both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Before the deliberations, an initial survey by IDA and Newspoll showed nearly half of Australians, 49 per cent, thought that incompatibility between Muslim and Western values was a big contributor to terrorism. After the deliberations, the number who held that opinion dropped significantly to 22 per cent.
Asked whether Muslims coming to Australia had a bad impact on national security 44 per cent of Australia agreed: after the deliberations that figure nearly halved to 23 per cent.
Before deliberations, over a third of Australians, 35 per cent, thought that Muslims were a threat to the Australian way of life. After meeting Muslims, living with Muslims, being able to humanise Muslims that figure fell to 21 per cent.
It shows that when we humanise each other, deconstruct our conceptualisations of the “other” and address each other’s concerns as our own concerns, positive integration is possible. So if that’s the case, what’s the problem?
While I am the first to admit Australian Muslims need to make more effort, a large part of the responsibility lies with government policy. Our politicians are too busy playing politics because they don’t have policies to address the concerns of Australian Muslims.
Let’s be honest, many Australian politicians don’t want Australian Muslims to integrate, because in the broader scheme of things, scary hairy, bearded, Muslim bogey men help us define who we are not, plus they’re a great political football come election time. However, the prevailing fear that Muslims, constitute some kind of fifth column has found expression in serious institutional barriers to Muslim integration.
Just ask Dr Kevin Dunn, an expert on racism in Australia who has mentioned this fear in his ground breaking research: “There is a lot of community fear about Islam and when we compare people’s attitudes to Muslims, compared to their attitudes, say, to Asian Australians or Indigenous Australians and other so called ‘out groups’ you do find that right now it's Muslims who suffer the highest degrees of intolerance.”
So when the “John Howards” of this country talk about Muslim integration, what they really want is segregation. But the truth of the matter is, Muslims are integrating. A glance at all the “random” Muslim participants at the Canberra deliberations who are doing incredible things would attest to this, but it is at a regrettably slow pace.
It appears Muslims are knocking loudly on the door of mainstream Australia but the problem is many of us are too scared to open it. Because opening the doors would mean having to work next to Muslims, live next to Muslims, or God forbid, even allow our daughters to marry Muslims.
The problem is, if we don’t address these barriers to Muslim integration, we can all look forward to a disastrous future. One only needs to look at the French riots and the Muslim “ghettos” of Europe as a glimpse of what lies ahead should we choose to alienate and disenfranchise a large section of our community further.
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