The Guardian 31 August, 2005

Howard’s politics of fear and hatred

The Howard government’s summit meeting with some of Australia’s Islamic leaders is a coldly calculated move to create divisions in that community and in the wider Australian public. It is also an attempt to legitimise the dirty war in Iraq and the government’s fawning and submissive relationship with the Bush administration. Last week’s summit with what the government calls "moderate" Muslim leaders resulted in an agreement to have the Federal Police and the Australian Security Intelligence Service (ASIS) policing the teaching at Muslim schools.

The reason? As John Howard put it, "that there is not a sufficient Australian perspective felt and conveyed by some of the imams". The meeting was attended by the Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty and ASIS general director Paul O’Sullivan, putting the official seal of suspicion on the Muslim community as a whole.

From the time it first came to office in 1996, the Howard government has used the politics of fear and hatred to divide the community so as to implement its agenda, whether that be the introduction of draconian anti-democratic laws, involving the country in a murderous, illegal war or stripping Indigenous Australians of their rights.

The targeting of Muslim schools is in itself racist, but there is a larger objective to do with education and that is taking control of the public school system. The Department of Education, Science and Training is calling for organisations to develop and distribute values education curriculums and to set up and maintain a website on values education.

All schools have, as a condition of their government funding, a commitment to a national values framework through which the federal government demands such things as schools flying the Australian flag.

This tactic has a twofold purpose: gaining more control over what is taught at schools in order to inculcate the right-wing views the government is committed to. They want to begin creating generations of children who come out of the education system with their heads filled with the tub-thumping nationalism so much beloved by Howard, Costello et al.

As Education Minister Brendan Nelson put it in the most crude and abrasive manner, "political correctness" in public schools means that the three Rs being taught are not reading, writing and ‘rithmatic but "refugees, republic and reconciliation".

"We want to make sure that not just those [Islamic] schools, but all schools that educate Australian children, are focused on Australian values to make sure that [students and teachers] fully understand our values, our belief and the way they relate to one another and see our place in the world", said Nelson.

The government’s sowing of the seeds of intolerance and racial hatred has been given its most grotesque form in the war on Iraq. Nelson’s values then, if they are to be defined, must include the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis.

In fact, there are rules at state level that regulate all schools with religious affiliations and the Australian Council for Islamic Education in Schools has a charter promoting tolerance, opposing violence and condemning hatred. In addition, only ten percent of Muslim children attend Islamic schools — the rest go to public schools.

As one member of the Muslim community said, "There is good and bad in every community, but the stereotype always comes back to Islam."

The "Australian values" being bandied about rest on the idea of homogeneous community, with clearly demarcated standards; something which simply does not exist. What the Howard government is doing is rejecting diversity and multiculturalism on behalf of Christian fundamentalism and extreme nationalism.

In an opinion piece in The Age newspaper written on the eve of the summit, Amir Butler, the co-convener of the Australian Civil Rights Advocacy Network, delivered some home truths to Howard. He points out that many were excluded from the summit and have therefore been cast, by implication, as "extremists" — the large Turkish community, the Lebanese Muslim Association which is the largest in NSW, the youth organisations who deal with young Muslims, and so on.

Amir Butler also points to the extent of the divide-and-rule tactics of the government, noting that a disproportionate number of places at the summit were allocated to individuals from the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. Crucially, the summit will determine the body that is meant to oversee the activities and teachings in mosques and Islamic schools.

"This has further fuelled Muslim concern about the meeting. Although ostensibly a representative body, the majority of mosques, Islamic organisations, schools and individual Muslims operate well outside the federation’s influence or control.

"But if the public demands following the London bombings are to be believed, the federation enters the meeting with the clear objective of being given power and funding to police Islamic thought in this country.

"This includes controlling the curriculums in Islamic schools that have always been outside their control, being involved in immigration decisions regarding visiting Islamic scholars, and holding the power to approve or decline the appointment of religious leaders in the community."

He also notes that no individual or organisation holds absolute spiritual authority in Islam and as a result the community is incredibly diverse in its religious and political views.

Nelson’s inflammatory statement that people who "don’t want to live by Australian values and understand them … can basically clear off" brought a response from the Director of Victoria’s Minaret Islamic College, Mohamed Hassan: "I would like to sit down with Dr Nelson to find out from him what is the definition of Australian morality. If he has something we are not doing, then we would be happy to do it."

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