08 May 2002, Roland Jabbour
Centre for Arab Islamic Studies
Recent global events have taken a devastating toll on Australia’s Arabic community. Israel’s latest assault on the Palestinian Territories has compounded the frustration and marginalisation of our community, adding to the negative impact of widespread media stereotypes and political scapegoating of Arabic Australians. Australia’s response to issues such as ethnicity and crime, asylum seekers, September 11, and what has been termed as a “War on Terrorism” has isolated and marginalised Australians of Arabic and Islamic background. Australians of Arabic origin are being expected to repledge their loyalty to Australia.
The latest escalation of Israeli violence on the Palestinian Territories has compounded this isolation and the frustration of hundreds of thousands of Australians of Arabic descent.
The consequences of events in the Palestinian Territories on the community have been significant direct consequences involve vilification, marginalisation, frustration and anger long term impacts include disempowerment and a deeply ingrained negative perception of the Australian Arabic community as a whole.
Within the Arabic community, frustration, distress, anger and sadness are common reactions to the situation in the Middle East, and are intensified by both the blatant hypocrisy and double standards evident in the Australian government’s position regarding the conflict in the region.
The double standards are glaringly obvious when we compare our government’s reaction to this crisis, with similar human rights violations and conflicts around the world. Our government took an active and direct role in the cases of East Timor, Kosovo, South Africa and Iraq, intervention that was justified by the need to either enforce the implementation of UN Resolutions, or to defend and protect the great Australian tradition of the moral values of justice, freedom, and a “fair go” for all.
In the case of Israel, despite its continuing occupation of Palestinian land and the ongoing atrocities and human rights violations committed against a civilian population in direct contravention of outstanding UN Resolutions and international conventions, Australia’s silence is deafening.
When asked, our Prime Minister offers only a few bland comments about “ending the violence on both sides”. Such comments indicate a total disregard of the history behind this conflict: Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. Such comments also seem to assume parity between the aggressor and the oppressed, and between cause and effect. Howard’s statements also go against growing international condemnation of Israel’s military incursions, and demonstrate an apparent disregard for universal human rights.
The refusal by the government to recognise Palestinian suffering, to interact with the region in a meaningful manner, and to dismiss the concerns of Arabic Australians as somehow less significant than others, increases the despair already felt by Australian Arabic families who are devastated by the latest violence.
Through its Middle East policy, it is clear that our government lacks the vision, the wisdom and the commitment to develop its own independent foreign policy, rather choosing to wait for America’s response to global events and simply and unconditionally follow suit. Such policy (or lack of it) serves US interests in the region and often works against the interests of Australia. By following America, Australia compromises its potential trade interests and its highly regarded reputation in the Arab region.
How significant is that trade? In comparative terms, Australia’s trade balance with the Arab region is in excess of 3 billion dollars in positive terms, compared to our balance with Israel, which is currently in deficit to the tune of 200 million dollars.
It is clear where Australia’s national interest lies, and that our government is compromising it with current lack of independent policy, and a complete disregard of our international reputation. We no longer occupy the moral high ground, and our ethical standing has been shattered. We can no longer legitimately criticise human rights abuses abroad when we so clearly prioritise the value of human life. We selectively condemn and ignore human rights violations around the world, depending on the direction of US foreign policy and national interests.
One life worth more than another?
A common thread through representations of the Middle East conflict in Australia is this prioritising of one life over another. Never has this been clearer than in this recent escalation, and never has its effect on the local community been more upsetting or acute.
This is exacerbated when Arab Australians see little media consideration for Palestinian victims, whose deaths are merely statistics, and never given a human dimension. Devastation over the loss of a homeland, its infrastructure, and – ultimately – of lives, is compounded when such grief and anguish is rarely represented in the Australian media.
The media’s role in the conflict continues to anger and frustrate Arabic Australians. Sections of the media directly contribute to the increased in racist rhetoric, and the scapegoating of local communities by beating up issues of difference and fear, downplaying our similarities as Australians. Right now Australians want a scapegoat and the media can, at its worst, provide them with one.
While there is no doubt that the media has come a long way in representing the conflict, Australian sources in particular remain fearful of publishing analyses of the conflict that may criticise Israel, for fear of being tagged “anti-Semitic”. Even articles published in Israel itself, criticising government policy, are rarely, if ever, printed in Australia. Recently when Four Corners played a BBC program “the Accused” which discussed allegations of Sharon’s complicity in war crime’s the ABC came under quick and dramatic fire for being anti-Semitic and contributing to anti-Jewish sentiment.
This marginalisation through the media and by government feeds and legitimises a very real increase in racism towards the local Arabic community.
The link between vilification and public rhetoric has never been clearer. Whilst the media continues to tell us that they merely publishing “what the people think”, and that they have no responsibility for inciting racial abuse, evidence tells a different story. Recently a Melbourne paper published a comment stating that Australia should “Nuke all the Arabs”. The next day the same phrase is repeated in graffiti at a train station. The publication of such views legitimises them, and allows others to feel free to express racist sentiments.
We know that the rise in racial vilification is not isolated, but rather widespread and on the rise. The AAC has comprehensively documented attacks on individuals, on places of worship, and on businesses, as well as verbal and physical attacks on individuals.
The AAC has had a 20 fold increase in reports of vilification following September 11. We have seen in the past that events in or involving the Middle East, result in this incident rate peaking in Australia. Teachers, students, workers, and families are targeted with verbal attacks, are subjected to discrimination in the workplace, discrimination in the playground, and, as I have explained, discrimination in the public sphere though media stereotypes and a lack of government concern.
So how can we actively work to mediate and lessen the impact of these events on the Australian Arabic and wider community?
Playing the victim is not the answer. It is no solution to portray ourselves as victims and to plead for support. Rather we must take an active role and seek to redresses misinformation, counter stereotypes and address scapegoating within Australia. We must work together to increase awareness of issues that affect our community and ensure that a more balanced perspective is presented in the public debate.
We are already on the way to achieving this aim. At the AAC we have noted distinct and dramatic changes in public perception over the past few years. While racial vilification is on the rise and seemingly spiralling in its intensity, the perpetrators are a minority.
How is this change in public perception demonstrated? The AAC receives more calls than ever from journalists seeking an Arabic perspective to balance an article; we have noted an increase in the amount of positive and supportive correspondence we receive from the wider community.
Despite all this, times such as this highlight the failure of the dated concept of multiculturalism, to adequately address the concerns of minorities in Australia. Influenced by the “us” and “them” mentality that filters though to community relations, in 2002 multiculturalism remains merely a concept, not a reality.
Australia must define a new multiculturalism, one that demonstrates a willingness to understand the complexities and the importance of diverse communities, and how international issues affect Australian citizens. We must work towards an appreciation of cultural diversity and embrace multiculturalism not as a symbolic gesture but as a reality.