Should politicians discuss Islam?

It comes as no surprise that Malcolm Fraser is again criticising the Howard government. He wrote in The Age yesterday:

Today, for a variety of reasons, but not least because the Government has sought to set Muslims aside, discrimination and defamation against Muslims has been rising dramatically. Too many have taken the easy path and accepted the Government’s contentions that Muslims aren’t like us and therefore it doesn’t matter if discrimination occurs and if access to the law does not apply. We have forgotten that discrimination once it starts, spreads.

Fraser is so busy reading between the lines of what the PM says that he has forgotten to read what is actually on them. If you go to Howard’s website and do a search you can find his statements on the Sheik Hilali affair (and indeed on previous Sheik Hilali affairs), along with his statements on Islam in Australia. Howard’s views can be summarised as follows:

* it is important for Islamic Australians to be integrated into Australian society
* that integration is threatened by a minority of members of the Islamic community with repugnant beliefs and unacceptable behaviour (on the treatment of women, on terrorism)
* he stresses that these are minority views, but they colour general perceptions
* Australians should be tolerant of other religions (eg on women’s head covering, opposing violence, not the government’s job to decide who should head religious groups)

This is not setting Muslims in general ‘aside’. Instead, it offers sensible if obvious advice on how we can avoid setting Muslims aside, which many members of the Australian Islamic community were following anyway during the Sheik Hilali controversy. A tolerant society requires some basic shared rules about how we interact in public, and that includes both not harassing Muslim women who cover their heads and non-Muslim women who show some cleavage.

Fraser, by contrast, seems to believe that politicians should remain silent. In comparing the post-war era with the present, he says:

In Australia, political parties did not play politics with race or religion. Political leaders of those years knew the world had to do better if civilisation was to survive.

It’s funny how the White Australia policy keeps vanishing down the memory hole to reconstitute the Menzies years as a period of liberal enlightenment, but leaving aside the historical accuracy of this account is it a sound analysis?

Unlike Fraser, I do not believe that politicians have a large influence on how Australians see each other. Public opinion research suggests that people tend not to rely on external sources for opinions they can form from everyday experience. Also, to the extent that ordinary people derive their own views from other people’s opinions, politicians are not the most trusted source. But I do think, through the sheer prominence of the statements of leading politicians, they may affect things at the margins. If nothing else, they can raise the salience of particular matters.

Given events over which Australian politicians have no control, the role of Islam in the West is unavoidably a big issue, and it is fanciful to think that politicians can or should avoid it. And on the whole – the only real exception I can think of is that of some NSW politicians during the rape trials that had a Lebanese Muslim element – Australian politicians have behaved in a responsible manner. They have tried to cool things down, not heat them up.

Fraser’s ‘let’s pretend nothing is wrong’ stance would almost certainly be counter-productive. Communities need to be able to discuss, and where necessary enforce, the social norms that allow them to work peacefully. That may well cause some angst among those on the receiving end of criticism, but if we weren’t able to cause some angst very little social progress would ever have occurred. We would still have the peasant tribal morality that afflicts many Arab countries today.

5 thoughts on “Should politicians discuss Islam?

  1. But politicians don’t just highlight matters that reinforce the value of our social norms in a neutral way – they are not a group of Enlightenment philosophers – and they pick the time, term and tone of any call to arms for democratic values. I agree Fraser is wrong if he is implying noone should say anything at all, but he is entitled to claim they should be more neutral in regard to treating and talking about matters of religion and culture which other people have strong views about. I also agree politicians may not be that influential when they talk – but they set the scene in many other ways than talk.

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  2. I think we all know that the animosity between these two men is what is really driving Fraser’s remarks. It is kind of funny to see all these people that loathed Fraser (and vise-versa) 25 years ago being all great chums now. Politics and envy of the other man will do funny things to people.

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  3. I’m with this guy – let’s see some evidence of listening and thinking. Anything MPs have to say will be published, that’s why some people want to become (or want to have been) MPs. If it is possible to talk about Islam other than a) a threat or b) on its own terms, as its adherents would have it, then go ahead. But that, however, would require a bit of thought.

    Would Fraser have said what he did if Keating or Costello were PM? Probably. In a different form perhaps, but probably so.

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