Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Islam and Australian Politics: Can a Muslim get elected to Parliament During the War on Terror
I would like to thank Gerard, Anne and the Sydney Institute for the chance to speak with you tonight.
A few years ago I would never have imagined myself talking to The Sydney Institute about Islamic issues and contemporary Australian politics.
But a lot has changed in four years.
It’s well established now that September 11 re-directed our lives both individually and collectively.
Even the phrase 9/11 invokes a reaction, perhaps silent, but undeniably evident.
Since 9/11 secular, predominantly Christian, Western societies are actively contemplating their relations with Muslims.
My address to you tonight is part of this contemplation.
Tonight will not deliver an in-depth lecture on the cornerstones of Islam.
As a former party political candidate in a Federal election – who is Muslim – I don’t intend to burden this talk with partisan points.
My arguments tonight are not framed upon a sense of victimhood or belief in denied opportunity. And I don’t come here to unload sour grapes.
I certainly won’t be pointing fingers at people within my party. I don’t seek to make myself stand out by trampling the reputations of others.
I have received great party support, spearheaded by the former NSW ALP Secretary Eric Roozendaal, maintained strongly by his successor Mark Arbib and buttressed by the goodwill and hard work of volunteers from local ALP branch members – and non ALP supporters who wanted to lend a hand on my campaign.
Right upfront I should tell you: neither I nor anyone else who was part of my campaign team believes I lost the election solely because of my religion.
A scare campaign about interest rates and the capabilities and limitations of our former Federal Labor Leader helped weigh down Labor’s vote in Greenway.
I would like to build tonight’s address on positive foundations – so as to look forward, so that we can strengthen relations at a critical juncture in home affairs.
Islam in Australia
It’s estimated that 1.5 per cent of all Australians identify themselves as ‘Muslim’.
Muslims immigrated to this country from all corners of the globe, over the course of nearly 150 years.
Islam first came to our shores with the arrival of around 2,000 to 4,000 Afghans in the late 19th century.
At around this time – in the 1870s to 1880s –many Lebanese Muslims started migrating to Australia, although, according to Fethi Mansouri, they identified themselves as Syrians – only to be later classified as Asians under the then Immigration Restriction Act 1901.
Noticeable growth in our local Muslim communities only occurred after 1970. This was driven largely through the migration of Lebanese and Turkish Muslims.
Lebanese born Muslims make up around ten per cent of Australia’s Muslim population, Turkish born around eight per cent.
Many Muslims who migrate to Australia are eager to forge a close bond with their new country.
In research by Michael Humphrey, we know that very high numbers of overseas born Muslims take enthusiastic steps down the path of naturalisation, which Humphrey argues reflects Muslim identification with Australia.
Within Middle East immigrants, the take up of citizenship is 74 per cent – nearly 92 per cent among Lebanese-born migrants.
Humphrey argues that liberalised citizenship laws helps cement stronger identification with Australia, as opposed to the situation in Europe. This is an important point to reflect upon.
However as I said earlier Muslim immigrants arrived from all over the world – from nearly 60 different countries.
Given this, it is not accurate to lump Islam as a monolith. Just as world outlooks might vary between Catholics, Protestants and Anglicans, the same can be said within communities of Sunni, Shite and Ahmadiyya Muslims.
A sizeable section of the world’s total Muslim population lives within the lands of the continent that is one of our greatest trading partners – Asia. Within Asia there are 400 million people who call themselves Muslim.
And within this region, Malaysia and Indonesia are strong examples of how democracy, market economies and Islam can co-exist. Malaysia – in the memorable words of Bob Carr – is punching above its weight, transforming itself into a model of pluralistic Islam.
The reason I’ve listed these facts is to highlight two important points:
·The ethnic diversity of Muslims means you cannot apply a ‘one size fits all’ interpretation to their motivations and political outlook.
·Secondly, there are compelling reasons for us as a nation to build a greater understanding of Islam, and to appreciate the various world outlooks of the different people who call themselves Muslim.
My own upbringing – importance of education
I mentioned earlier that Muslims were drawn here from 60 different countries across the world. One of them was the former Yugoslavia, chiefly Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Both of my parents migrated from the former Yugoslavia in the late 1960s.
Dad worked, as a welder. He travelled away from home regularly to follow work.
Mum stayed at home to mind my brother, sister and I.
We grew up in Western Sydney.
Getting educated was a big deal in my family.
We attended local public schools in Blacktown, Blacktown South Public School and Mitchell High School.
Dad didn’t want us to take blue-collar jobs. He lived through recessions and redundancies. He said blue-collar workers suffered worse through downturns. He said he never wanted his kids to have to go through that.
So he pushed us to learn. He wanted us to become doctors or lawyers – a dream job of ethnic parents.
Conveniently overlooking their advice I took up an Arts degree at the University of Western Sydney, my brother became a mechanic and my sister took up Arts at Sydney Uni, then transferred to UWS.
While their children’s education choices denied them the chance at gaining free medical and legal services in their later years, my parents were happy to see that we took on further education.
Besides emphasising education, my parents were big on tolerance. And this wasn’t a surreal concept to be learnt through book or lecture – our family breathed the value.
We maintained close friendships with people from different backgrounds -- Catholics from Mauritius, Croatia, Albania, Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Church of England Aussies.
And some of the funniest things I saw growing up was coming home to see Dad talking theology in our lounge room with Jehovahs’ Witnesses or Mormons.
I don’t think they knew what they were getting themselves into when they knocked on our door.
But they received traditional Bosnian hospitality with cake and coffee strong enough to keep you awake for days.
Religion as a political issue 2004
I knew religion was going to be an issue during the federal election. I knew people would raise my religion whenever I stood for public office. I wasn’t naïve.
I could put myself in the shoes of others who wonder “Can a Muslim represent me in Parliament, if he or she has no connection with my take on the world?” Muslims aren’t the only people to confront this.
The test for anyone running for Parliament should not focus on their religion. It should focus on the potential contribution they might make to elected office – chiefly, how will they help their local community?
I always saw myself as just a regular Australian, who happened to be Muslim. I never saw myself as a Muslim candidate. I ran because I wanted to get things done for the area I grew up in.
The first time that many people knew I was Muslim was during the campaign. And many of these people had known me for 10 years.
When people are asked to list their religion on their census form they put down their answer, while probably only going to church one or twice a year. I can relate in my own terms to the way people refer to themselves as ‘cultural Catholics’.
In July 2003 I was endorsed unopposed as the ALP candidate for Greenway.
Coming as it did after the strain of One Nation and September 11, I interpreted my preselection as proof positive that religion was not seen as a disqualifier for preselection in the ALP or contemporary Australia.
Then, one year out from the 2004 election, pollsters were calling homes across Greenway, probing voters thoughts on a variety of federal matters. One question stood out.
·“Of the following people who would you be more likely to vote for: a married man, three children, regular church goer, a woman with two children, or a single 33 year old man (the last description was about me)?”
I knew 2004 was going to be a religious year.
By June 2004 I had to deal with a stream of media inquiries that were along the lines of – “you’re a candidate in a tightly contested marginal and we just want to do a profile on you and your campaign.”
This wasn’t just from Sydney media – this was national and interstate interest, from Victoria to Western Australia.
However these enquiries only occurred after a wave of interest in my opponent’s religious background.
Fortunately, there was one media outlet in the country to shine a spotlight on what was actually going on here.
In July 2004 Christian Kerr from Crikey wrote an in-depth piece focussed largely on the media’s discovery of God in the seat of Greenway.
In a broad ranging, well researched article, Kerr asked why so much interest in one western Sydney seat? And he asked whether the Liberal Party had “found a nasty way of picking up Greenway”.
Only after the Kerr piece did the media interest subside –temporarily.
I took a decision that if the media wanted to talk about issues involving the things that mattered to local people, I would be more than happy to talk.
While I can appreciate the news value of having candidates of different religions face off in a marginal electorate, I declined media requests for interviews that wanted to focus on religious issues. Was that a mistake?
I was certain then that my focus be on the issues that mattered to locals.
The local media responded.
Flick though the Blacktown Sun, the Advocate or Western Weekender and you would find balanced coverage of local political debate.
For fourteen months, I could show how I had raised issues through the local media and was responsive to them.
The local media really set an admirable benchmark for balanced coverage, which I thought deserved commendation.
The name game
Another thing I noticed during the election was interest shown by sections of the Liberal Party in my name.
For example, Labor campaign workers at pre-poll booths would come and ask me what my real name was. When I would ask why, they would inform me that Liberal Party workers would ask them – while handing out how-to-votes to people walking in to vote – and ask why I wouldn’t go by my real name on a daily basis.
Also imagine my surprise to see a prominent Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan kick off his column on me by referring to me as “Edham” Husic in his lead paragraph.
By election day, there wasn’t even a hint of subtlety.
At a polling booth at Riverstone, with voters lined up waiting to cast their ballot, a Liberal Party worker on the top of his voice called out: “Ask Ed Husic what his real name is and ask him why he doesn’t go by it every day.”
I remember when I was growing up, asking my dad why he and mum gave me the name I have.
My Bosnian name is Edham Nurredin Husic.
Dad explained that part of my name was supposed to mean “the flame of God”.
Actually, when I was very young I nearly burned down my bedroom wall playing with matches – but unhelpfully dad never bought my defence based on ancient name interpretation!
Like many other children of ethnic parents, it’s jarring to spell out your real name. But names are not only tied to our culture and history – they are a daily, ever present, link back to your parents.
Many people from ethnic backgrounds will – in our country’s case – Anglo-cise their names. Overseas ethnic names might be reformed into a local variant. It’s a cohesive gesture. We do it to fit in.
So everyone from school days knew me as Eddie or Ed.
But sometimes people think it’s important to reveal the ethnic names of others in the interests of ‘transparency’.
Interestingly, Paul Johnson in his work “Modern Times” comments that during 1948-49 the growing anti-Western feeling in Soviet Russia transformed into anti-Semitism.
According to Johnson, Stalin hated Jews and loved telling anti-Semitic jokes. Yiddish publications were banned. Prominent Jews vanished. Even Khrushchev, then one of the bullies, encouraged factory workers to beat up their Jewish colleagues -- and those with Russified names had their ‘real’ Jewish names printed in the press, “an old Nazi technique,” Johnson says.
From a broader perspective, I hope we can agree that this practice doesn’t have to become a feature of marginal seats campaigning.
Under the radar
There were other incidents that occurred during 2004.
After finishing a round of doorknocking I received a worried call from my campaign office telling me about a brochure that was being distributed. It focussed in potentially negative ways on my opponent’s religious background.
The leaflet was being distributed in Kings Langely, a strong, Liberal leaning section of the electorate.
I took that pamphlet straight to my opponent’s campaign office. I spoke directly with her campaign manager and told him on the spot that I did not fight politics on this basis, neither did my campaign team, and I wanted him to know we would take strong action against people spreading this material.
He certainly accepted those assurances, adding that he had spoken with his ALP contacts, who told him that underhanded campaigning was not my style.
Just before election-day, I learned about the distribution of another pamphlet, this one claiming that I was a devout Muslim fighting for a better deal for Islam in Greenway.
The sheet was a dummied version of one of my campaign ads, designed to mislead a reader into believing it was put out by me.
I was also told there was a phone banking campaign that repeatedly rang voters with identified strong religious beliefs to let them know that I was Muslim.
Even Mark Latham, while at a community forum in South Australia, was asked by a supposed ALP member about the wisdom of preselecting Muslim in a bible belt seat. It turned out later the person was not an ALP member.
These events just reaffirmed in my mind a thought that had travelled with me through the campaign – the way that continual, sometimes supposedly neutral, references to religion were conveniently helping to underscore what people believed to be my big negative.
Remember, in October 2003 pollsters were asking people if they would vote for a church-goer.
Fast forward to election-day, I heard voters being told they should support my opponent because she is a “good Christian”.
Obviously there was a big, organised effort to keep this issue alive. Was Ed a real dinkum Aussie? Could he be relied on? Would he be fighting for you or for Islam?
We can debate for ages whether this was a deliberate, constant tactic – of making religion an issue of active consideration during this campaign, either through media or under the-radar channels. In one sense, of course, you’ll never absolutely know. Then again, you’re never meant to.
Election as a turning point
As I said earlier, I always considered myself as a regular Aussie, who happened to be Muslim.
But when I woke up the day after the election I didn’t completely feel like a regular Aussie any more.
I actually felt – for the first time in my 34 years – that I had this brand stuck on my forehead.
I might not have understood or appreciated what it was like to feel part of a sub-group that was treated differently – but I got a good sense of what it was like.
I have no evidence to believe that my opponent was involved in any of the grubby stuff. I lost largely because of the wider issues – particularly unease in aspirational Sydney about Labor’s leader.
Whatever your politics, I believe that this use of religion as a campaign tactic was unbelievable in our country. It was worse than galling.
It was unAustralian. And its ramifications are significant for Aussies of all backgrounds. That’s not as it should be.
While my own future and where I will end up is unclear, I know I still want to be involved in politics.
I want to speak out against the things that took place last year. Being quiet doesn’t help.
The use of religion in that election as a political tactic was wrong.
Not because it stopped me from being elected. A different scare campaign tripped me up, one about interest rates.
It was wrong because it weakens our community. It diminishes. It divides to conquer – at a time when we should be drawing together a united front, with all faiths working together to promote a secure, safer community.
Know also that these tactics rippled through the minds of many Muslims. The proof? In the age of the Internet, word travels in moments and remains cast in cyberspace. Websites as far as Bosnia, or the United States or even Iraq carry copies of articles detailing these election stunts.
But I get another sense of that ripple when I meet another Muslim who learns who I am. The minute they say “You’re the guy …” I know what they’re recalling.
The Liberal Party – re-elected in Federal Parliament, tasked with the critical role of making people comfortable with new national security measures – is now trying to convince Muslims that they have nothing to worry about.
That Muslims are recognised citizens. Their religion isn’t an issue. But at this point in time, trust is much more valuable when it is earned not demanded.
There’s no denying that Muslims in Australia would like to see someone of their faith elected to an Australian Parliament. It’s not an isolated ambition – it spans faiths.
And there is a disappointment – laced with deep concern – when a view forms that religion or ethnicity is a potential hindrance on the path to elected office.
Examples of this type of situation can be found overseas. The 2004 Californian state legislature elections are a case in point.
In that race Democrat Ferial Masry, a Saudi-born Arab American woman, faced a late minute under the radar manoeuvre that some believed denied her success. If she had been successful she would have been the first Saudi American elected to public office in the US.
In the last days leading up to that election a taped telephone message was broadcast to registered Republican and independent voters with mentions linking 9/11, terrorism and Ferial Masry's name, purportedly in the context of discussing illegal immigration.
Masry’s son was a registered Republican who was stationed with his U.S. Army Reserve unit in Iraq. His mother publicly defended him and his fellow soldiers from war opponents. She lost to her Republican opponent.
From what I have been able to learn the US, with its 250 million population, four successful candidates of Muslim background were voted in by a minimum of 60 per cent in their electorates.
In New Zealand and the UK MPs have been elected with Muslim backgrounds. In Australia, there is one MP who is Muslim, sitting in the Victorian Parliament.
I spoke recently with the head of the Forum on Australian Islamic Relations Kuranda Seyit, who said that at this point in time, it was critical Muslims are elected to democratic parliaments.
The reason was simple: it would send a signal to both moderate and extremist.
Not only because it reflected a determination by the broader community to allow opportunity for engagement with people from all walks of life -- but it was reaffirmation that Muslims were choosing a better path than that offered by extremists.
Bringing together the cross, star and crescent under the one roof of our national Parliament would be a great step forward, but there is another pressing priority.
How do we ease the fear that divides people of different faiths and backgrounds at this point in time?
I think it was Bill Clinton who said, “people vote for a future, not for the past.”
We need to have a clear view about the future we want. That future is one of acceptance and inclusion, earned through an investment in a number of important measures now.
The biggest step Muslims can take is to recognise people are scared. They see so-called Muslims doing terrible things to others in the name of religion. People wonder if they too will be a victim.
Suggestions that there is some subterranean theological struggle between faiths over the minds and souls of Australians are overblown and serve only the purposes of extreme religious recruiters.
Australia is not ‘heart on your sleeve’ religious.
A Pew Research Centre study found Americans are the most religious in the OECD world – 59 per cent there say religion plays a “very important role in their lives.”
But, as Australia’s history demonstrates time and again, we’re big on security, on feeling safe.
We have to acknowledge fear.
Muslims fear too. They include the moderate Muslims not interested in politics, but getting a job, paying the bills, making sure the kids finish homework before dinner.
The ones who are scared of going out in the street wearing a hijab.
The ones who worry if they will get a job with their Muslim name.
The ones anxious about how they went in job interview when quizzed about their views on Al-Qa’ida -- for non security related employment.
Or the parents that worry about nominating Islam as their child’s religion on official paperwork.
Every one of those last four instances is real, passed on to me by Muslims who felt these concerns, lived those experiences.
Let me state clearly – the fear about security is particularly strong. I don’t seek to balance out these fears or underplay the security concerns people have.
But we have to acknowledge fear.
And we need to know that fear and misunderstanding is stunting the natural flow of relationships between people.
Again it’s important to think about the future, not the past.
If Muslims want a better climate in which to be received they can actually do things themselves to foster this climate:
·They should say loud and clear that violence and terrorism are not valid means of political expression – terrorism is murder. Say it without caveat. Muslims cannot afford to be defensive – and they should never justify murder dressed up as religious activity. You can never point to events in Iraq and think that offsets terror somewhere else.
·Muslims should join with others in highlighting the valuable role of tolerance in building a cohesive society that gives little room for people to feel alienated or excluded – or humiliated. The interfaith dialogue that is happening every week is exceptionally important.
·Muslims will need to expect that thoughtful, critical analysis is a function of a healthy liberal democracy. The consequence of accepting this proposition is that there may be some that criticise Islam – just like they do of Christianity or other religions.
·To receive understanding and tolerance, you need to extend it to others. You can’t call for tolerance and be anti-Semitic.
The other point worth bearing in mind is that not all Muslims dislike the United States.
While recent US foreign policy may have caused great concern for people here and abroad, I still believe the US can be a positive force, as occurred in my parents’ homeland, as occurred with the US pushing to include Turkey in the EU.
The US has a far better track record on democracy and human rights than a lot of other countries in the world.
Let’s face it, if it wasn’t for their intervention in Bosnia, we would never have had the Dayton Peace Accords. How many other Srebrenica’s would have occurred without the US standing up and telling Europe ‘enough is enough’?
The good news is – most Muslims accept these points.
The problem is that doesn’t quite make news like a cleric arguing the September 11 never happened, or that sending Muslims to university is bad.
Some media commentators invest huge belief in the notion that religious leaders will miraculously transform the opinion of their followers with a few sermons.
Personally, I think Imams should heed the Prime Minister’s calls to stamp out any sympathies that might exist for those people carrying out murder in the name of religion.
Having said that I think the Prime Minister could do more to denounce fear mongering and vilification of Muslims.
To keep saying that people from all faiths, loyal to this country and its dreams, have a place and should be embraced.
To say it’s not right for Muslim women to have to wipe someone else’s spit off their attire.
And the Prime Minister should say loud and clear that fear campaigns against Muslims in this country are un-Australian – especially those conducted during election campaigns.
And if I could be so bold to suggest that any Prime Ministerial address to the nation that talks about improving security in Australia could be strengthened by an including reference to these points.
From a wider perspective other pointers can be found on what should be done.
You need look no further than the incisive work released recently by Anthony Bubalo and Greg Fealy of the Lowy Institute here in Sydney. One of the things that stood out was their advice:
·To think about education and the war of ideas in broad terms – to fight the ideas that underpin terrorism. Adapting a Blairite proposition for current times, I think it’s important we are “Tough on terrorism – but also tough on the causes of Terrorism”.
As I said at the start there were a number of reasons why I decided it was important to speak today.
I mentioned the thoughts I dealt with the day after the election. But one more incident stands out – it’s one of the reasons I’m here today.
The day after the election my family came over to run through the events of the last 24 hours. As they were leaving my dad said “I’m sorry about the result”.
I thanked him but then he clarified: “No, I mean, I am sorry if who we are stopped you from winning.”
I told him straight away never to drop his face in shame for who he is. I don’t and I never will.
Elections come and go. There are winners. There are losers. Life moves on.
In the meantime, you hope that regardless of political opinion we can recognise the value of people from all walks of life who do good in the place they call home.
Law abiding citizens, who work hard, bringing up their children in a loving environment, silent but solid members of their communities.
They should never feel that have to apologise for who they are, where they come from or the fact they believe in God. In this day and age, faith in the face of cynicism is to be admired.
I could have made one of two choices after October 9 last year. I could have been resentful, nurtured humiliation, retreated into a simple ‘black/white’ view of Muslim relations in Australia.
But I chose a better way. The way that recognises that Australia is a great country.
A country that provides opportunity for self-improvement.
A country whose people are recognised as warm, friendly.
A place where if you’re loyal to your country, and want to do good things for it, your efforts and commitment will be welcomed. And they are.
I strongly believe that understanding can shine a powerful light into dark corners.
Right into those places where intolerance and fear drives people to do things that – in better, calmer times – they know cause nothing but pain and hurt.
I’m standing up for tolerance and understanding. I’m standing up because I can see I better future.
And that future does not hinge upon whether or not we elect Muslims to Australian Parliaments.
I thank you for your time.
(This is the full address of Ed Husic to the Sydney Institute on 19 October 2005. Ed Husic was the ALP Candidate for the Federal Seat of Greenway in Western Sydney for the 2004 Federal Election.)
You are a nasty religious islamist bigot, who has no place in Australia, and if you were locked up, or shot on sight while running or rolling, no one would ever miss you.
Great article, and I hope there are many more like it.
Let us see what Yusuf says about 2001.
You fail to mention that you were denied entry into the 2001 Sydney Liberal Party Campaign Launch, despite being a candidate, (that could not be replaced under electoral nomination laws), because you were too much of a dangerous security risk.
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Look forward to reading more of your insightful post!