The first response of most to the catastrophic tragedy in Christchurch is unlimited sorrow for all those directly and indirectly affected, but most especially for those whose lives have been ended or shattered. “Noor” means light in Arabic. Most of those slaughtered were at al-Noor, the “Mosque of the Light”.
This detail can only add to our grief: such terrifying darkness in a place of light. Meanwhile, race – our primal wound in Australia – is for the moment the topic of the day. Yet many are asking, on social media and in private conversations, whether our current political leaders are blind, deaf – or suffering a catastrophic collective short-term memory loss? In the days since that slaughter of 50 men, women and children in Christchurch, killed by a white supremacist terrorist solely because they were Muslim, we have heard all kinds of statements from the Prime Minister and the Minister for Home Affairs. What we have not heard is anything resembling an acknowledgement of the harm their own political party – and media supporters – have caused Muslims specifically, since at least August 2001 and the extreme, deliberate misinformation of John Howard’s Tampa politicking. Liberals and their Coalition partners have done this through overt and covert racist attitudes, practices and policies. And we certainly have not heard an apology. Not then. Not now.
Instead, we have been told by the Prime Minister to “disagree better”. Newly willing to step into a mosque or two, he also said, “If we allow a culture of ‘us and them’, of tribalism, to take hold…we will lose what makes diversity work.” This statement is correct in essence and would be glorious in practice. However, the actual words, practices and attitudes of his government and of all the LNP governments and oppositions since John Howard’s have been contrary to that. And if Mr Morrison has suddenly forgotten how racism, and specifically anti-Muslim, anti-refugee rhetoric and propaganda, has been used to gain votes and power, then we have not.
Through this century at the very least, and especially as they fled wars in which we have been participants, Muslims in Australia or held indefinitely in off-shore detention by the Australia government have been pilloried, vilified, attacked, rubbished, dehumanised and in every way made to feel they are an unwelcome “tribe”. This has been achieved not just by the far-right parties, not just by the negatively obsessive commentators in the News Limited newspapers and on Sky News Australia, not just by Channel 7 giving Pauline Hanson more airtime than virtually any other politician to share her toxic, hateful views, not just via the more sophisticated version of “rational racism” dished up for “balance” on the ABC, but from the mouths and minds of Liberal and National Party politicians themselves. Yes, there are some more decent LNP politicians at both State and Federal levels, including NSW, who have not spoken out against Muslims or Muslim asylum seekers expressly. Yet let’s note that nor have they publicly chided their more rabid colleagues or their media mates. That silence – in the face of a tidal wave of self-serving propaganda – is as shameful. It is Albert Einstein who noted, “Nothing that I can do will change the structure of the universe. But, maybe, by raising my voice, I can help the greatest of all causes: goodwill among people and peace on earth.”
“Goodwill among people and peace on earth”? The Minister for Home Affairs has form on deflecting blame and avoiding self-responsibility or anything resembling contrition. On 13 February 2008, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered an historic, unconditional apology to the Stolen Generations. It went in part way also towards apologising for the wider horrors of dispossession. Virtually all politicians were present. Peter Dutton – conspicuously – absented himself.
That was an apology that did, momentarily, bring people together. It also faced into at least some of the truth of the abhorrent, state-sanctioned racism that has sought to justify the manner of colonisation and so much that has happened since to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across their many nations. It also challenged John Howard’s intransigent unwillingness to right past wrongs, and his spurious claiming “an apology would reinforce a culture of victimhood and take us backwards”.
Post-Christchurch, Peter Dutton’s attacks on those who disagree with his views have been typically morose, ugly and belligerent. For the moment, he can’t easily disparage Muslims as a group. He’s free though to attack their defenders, creating a shameful false equivalence between the odious remarks and actions of the proudly racist Fraser Anning, and Greens Senator, Mehreen Faruqi, the first Muslim senator in Australia who had the “temerity” to call out conservative politicians for stoking hatred. And here in NSW, as we face into a crucial election, the ALP’s Michael Daley’s single horribly stupid and, yes, racist remark is also being falsely equated with a long history of racism from the right wing parties, bolstered manically by their media supporters, for political game-playing and toxic “careers”.
Is it possible that LNP politicians don’t see the harm they cause – not just promote – when they use the contemptible politics of race to wrench support back from the even more openly racist parties to their right? Is it possible they don’t know what racism – or Islamophobia – is and does? Given that we now have a Morrison-appointed Race Discrimination Commissioner, Chin Leong Tan, who believes calling out racism can be “overplayed” – and who has been largely silent since taking up his well-padded post – wilful blindness or indifference may indeed be their choice. But to go forward with any care for greater cohesion and safety for all, the rest of us need to be awake. Racism exists wherever people are seen not as individual human beings wholly deserving of dignity but as a “type”, a “kind”, an “other”: determined by those judging them to be “not like us”. And not just unlike the dominant group but inferior. And not just “inferior” but needing to be strictly limited in their freedoms and their most intimate sense of personhood. The harm is profound and inescapable.
Through their rhetoric, political leaders have tremendous power to sway public sentiment. Their most persistent attitudes and actions, though, speak even louder. As we rise together to say, “Enough”, it is good to remember that it is our actions, our choices, that also count.
Rev Dr Stephanie Dowrick is a writer and an Interfaith minister and retreat leader working with people of all faiths and none over the last 30-plus years. Her books include Seeking the Sacred: Transforming Our View of Ourselves and One Another. You are welcome to join in respectful conversation here or on her Public Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/StephanieDowrick/