Research shows nearly half of Australians hold anti-Muslim views, and a new political party aims to tap into this feeling, argues Benjamin T Jones.
News that an anti-Islam lobby group, the Q Society of Australia, plans to launch a political party to contest the next federal election should be cause for alarm. Based on the principles of Dutch MP Geert Wilders, a successful result for the new Australian Liberty Alliance (ALA) has the potential to legitimise extremism and normalise far-right rhetoric in Australia’s political discourse.
The Australian political landscape is still coming to terms with the successful launch of the centre-right Palmer United Party at the last federal election. Conservatism is enjoying a political renaissance in Australia. It is predicted that after this weekend’s state elections in South Australia and Tasmania, the Coalition will control all governments at state and federal level, save for the ACT.
The Q Society is attempting to seize the rightward swing of the political compass and fill the void once occupied by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. It recently gathered in Melbourne for the 1st International Symposium on Liberty and Islam in Australia. In a video message of support, Wilders denounced:
… politicians who don’t share our values and foolishly declare all cultures are equal.
The new party has a clear agenda in presenting Islam as an unwanted and inferior other. Commentator Alice Aslan has suggested that the refusal to recognise Muslims as “real Australians” is a key contributor to Islamophobia in this country.
In February 2013, Wilders toured Australia amid much controversy and protest. In a speech at Sydney’s Roma club, Wilders used the pretext that Islam is a political ideology, not a race and not a religion comparable to Christianity or Judaism, to unleash a torrent of invective.
Islam was openly called “evil”, “intolerant” and a “mental prison”. The prophet Muhammad was called a “warlord”, “terrorist” and “paedophile”. The crowd roared approval as Wilders called for a “spirit of resistance” and a ban on immigrants from Islamic countries.
While it is unlikely the ALA will enjoy immediate electoral success, the fact that it seeks to occupy a legitimate political space presents problems in itself. Professor Deepa Kumar of Rutgers University has written extensively on the legitimisation of Islamophobia since the 9/11 attacks. She notes that:
… the politics of liberal Islamophobia at the top of the society enabled the extreme Islamophobia of the right.
When prejudiced views are articulated by those holding a respected office, they automatically gain a degree of social currency and the message becomes far more effective.
Professor Humayun Ansari at the University of London has produced similar findings in the wake of the 7/7 bombings. In response to two 2011 studies that suggested a majority of Britons thought Islam was violent and incompatible with the “British way of life”, Ansari suggested the legitimisation of Islamophobic rhetoric was key:
So what or who is fuelling this belief? I believe that political rhetoric and the media has a lot to answer for. In a whole host of speeches and acts since July 2005, Islamophobic discourse has become normalised and become more coded and subtle.
The political elite represent a key forerunner of the hegemonic voice in any society. As British legal academic Maleiha Malik has argued, language has been a powerful tool in normalising xenophobic stereotypes and anti-Muslim prejudice. The inclusion of extreme, discriminatory rhetoric in the accepted political discourse will contribute further to the process of Muslim othering.
The example of Wilders’ own Freedom Party in the Netherlands sets a worrying precedent. Many dismissed the party as a fringe right-wing group beyond any mainstream appeal when it won nine out of 150 seats at the 2006 election. But after four years in parliament, Wilders’ anti-Muslim rhetoric became less shocking. In 2010, the party more than doubled its representation, winning 24 seats.
Despite ceding ground at the 2012 election, the Freedom Party still commands 10% of the national vote. Having formed an alliance with Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, Wilders has realistic ambitions for the European Parliament elections in May.
As the ALA prepares for a national launch next year, the federal government is debating changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. This makes it unlawful to do or say something that is likely “to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone on racial grounds.
While the Q Society insists that anti-Islamic sentiments are not racist, a new mood is taking hold in Australia. Strong attacks on minority groups, often without the right of reply, are being accepted in political discourse under the auspices of free speech. With the Coalition enjoying nationwide electoral success, members of the extreme right are eager to put their conservative stamp on the national discourse.
One Nation tapped into a xenophobic vein and enjoyed temporary popularity on a general anti-immigration platform. The ALA has the potential to be even more divisive and harmful than One Nation. It aims its aggression at a specific, already marginalised group.
A 10-year national study released in 2011 suggested that nearly 50 per cent of Australians hold anti-Muslim attitudes. The ALA will aim to exploit existing suspicion and intolerance while giving its own extreme rhetoric the authority of political debate.
The ALA presents a character test for Australia. If the party succeeds at the next federal election our parliamentary standards will lurch further to the right. Victimisation of minorities will be introduced as part of the normal political narrative.
Islamophobia feeds into our worst instincts and needs to be courageously opposed, not elevated to parliamentary status.
Benjamin T. Jones is a historian at the University of Western Sydney.
This article was first published at The Conversation.
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